Editor in chief of The Happy Reader Seb Emina, describes the publication as “the first general interest magazine for the avid reader”. It has gained a varied and faithful following and each issue of the quarterly consistently sells out each time its published. The Happy Reader grew out of a conversation between Penguin Books and Fantastic Man founders Jop van Bennekom and Gert Jonkers about how their way of making magazines could be applied to classic literature. Seb joined the title at the beginning in 2014, and has since taken this simple but complicated magazine and made it into a literary publication like no other.
The eighth issue launched this month so it only seemed fair to see what books Seb thinks are worthy of putting on his shelves. A more bookish affair than usual, this week’s bookshelf is a rich reading list to get your teeth into. From the familiar tomes of Virginia Woolf and Douglas Adams, to more obscure books about tea, Seb takes us on a wonderfully personal journey of his reading habits.
Kakuzo Okakura: The Book of Tea
We’ve just published the eighth issue of The Happy Reader, for which the Book of the Season is Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!. For the second issue, which came out in early 2015, the Book of the Season was The Book of Tea. I still recommend it often. It’s a short book of seven chapters and, yes, it’s about tea. But it’s also about flowers, interior design, the relationship between east and west, the peace-promoting beauty of everyday rituals, and the importance of keeping these old rituals alive despite the alluring-but-flattening forces of modernity.
That last theme keeps turning up in the books we feature. It’s there in Émile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames, about the rise of Parisian department stores, the way they decimated Paris’s smaller shops, and it’s there in O Pioneers!, about Swedish farmers on the Nebraskan frontier. This isn’t a deliberate choice we’ve made, but an unavoidable backdrop to literature from the 19th and 20th Centuries.
Douglas Adams: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
As a child, I sometimes had the opportunity to look through a telescope. When I did, it was always a huge disappointment. Then I read Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and found it to be much more what I was after, the universe as I wanted it to be: not an empty expanse but a hilarious, absurd place populated with alien communities called things like “the Jatravartid people of Viltvodle Six”.
Marcus Coates: A Practical Guide to Unconscious Reasoning
The work of British artist Marcus Coates is capable of coming across as very funny and incredibly serious at the same time. This book is a collection of what you could call workouts for the imagination. By improving access to “the creative capacity of the unconscious” Coates says they’re aimed not only at helping with creativity itself, but also with rational decision-making.
Whether or not there’s anything to all that, I’ve enjoyed trying them out from time to time. How can you not enjoy a task that begins with the line “Imagine an apple…” and soon beseeches you: “Don’t put limits on the apple”? One of the toughest challenges is getting over the self-conscious terror of the more full-body activities, the ones that instruct you, for example, to pretend to be a bat. Or the silent, mindful, no-phone attention required to, for example, sit down, close your eyes and imagine a road, for 20 minutes.
Jorge Luis Borges: Labyrinths
Not long after finishing university, I had a job entering data into nurses’ contracts in a hospital in south east London. I’d read Labyrinths during my lunch hour, at the long-since-closed Tulip Cafe in East Dulwich. Ever since, Borges has reminded me of the taste of scampi and chips.
Nobody else composed stories like The Zahir (about an object that causes whoever holds it to become obsessed to the point that the obsession supplants their sense of reality) or The Lottery in Babylon (the one about the lottery that has a loser as well as a winner). Each is written in an authoritative and hallucinatory style that works a bit like a hand that physically reaches out of the page and drags you by the collar into the world of the book.
Virginia Woolf: To the Lighthouse
For this summer’s Book of the Season, we chose Virginia Woolf’s day-in-the-life novel Mrs Dalloway. Michael Cunningham contributed an article about the first time he read it, how he did so at school to impress a girl, and how it changed his life forever not because of the girl, but because it was the first great work of literature he’d been exposed to.
The piece inspired me to get round to reading Woolf’s later novel To the Lighthouse, which Cunningham describes as “a masterpiece of another order entirely”, and which centres on an unfulfilled visit to a lighthouse near the Isle of Skye but is really about, well, everything. It took a while to take it all in: the mind’s radio needs time to tune into Woolf’s use of the English language, but soon enough, I saw how right Cunningham was.
Georges Perec: Species of Spaces and Other Pieces
I read this collection of Perec’s non-fiction soon after I moved to Paris in 2013. I think it will always be associated with that time for me; the crease marks on the cover were picked up while trying to work out how the hell to get around on the Metro. I love Perec’s notion of the “infra-ordinary”, the deep significance of small everyday actions and locations.
The title work, from 1973, considers, in his deceptively simple and perceptive way, different kinds (or species) of space, each bigger in scale than the last, from a page, to a bed, to a bedroom, until we have reached… the world. His titles often give the illusion of straightforwardness: other essays here include Notes Concerning the Objects that are on my Work-table and The Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books. He made me look at the world (and my bedroom, my bed, my work-table, etc) in a completely new way.
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