So long as you are prepared to admit it, ignorance is an opportunity rather than a weakness.
— Ann Morgan, 31 December 2019
Why this book and why now?
Why do any of us read anything? I have been meaning to read the Arabian Nights, or The Thousand and One Nights, for many years. Whenever I tell anyone that I have an interest in non-linear fiction, they usually mention the nested, story-within-a-story structure for which the tales are famous. In response, I have always said that I would get around to reading the collection “at some point.”
During such conversations, I also tend to mention that one of my favourite authors, Jorge Luis Borges, was obsessed with The Thousand and One Nights. That fact alone is enough reason for me to read the stories, if only to understand Borges’ work and sensibilities a little better. So it has been on my ‘to read’ list for a while.
In the past year, a few other things have happened to turn my vague intention into a firm resolution. Last year I read two books in quick succession that were proudly influenced by The Arabian Nights and which heavily feature jinn (or djinn, or genies). The first of these was Alif the Unseen (2012) by G. Willow Wilson. I was given the book because the central character is a renegade activist for free speech and digital privacy in an Emirati dictatorship, which was very relevant to my work for the free speech charity English PEN. The book itself is a clever cyber-fantasy-thriller in which a mysterious long lost book provides the key to a philosophical mystery. There are jinn galore in the novel, and when I read it I had the sense that my experience would have been enhanced by a better understanding of Middle-Eastern literature and lore, especially as it relates to fantasy, magic, and genies.
While Alif the Unseen left me with a lingering awareness of a gap in my reading, The Djinn Falls In Love (2017) drew attention to the same deficiency with a bellow. It is an acclaimed anthology of genie stories edited by my friends Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin, and its international roster includes Neil Gaiman, Nnedi Okorafor and Kamila Shamsie. On their own terms, the stories are fantastic (both in the sense that they are brilliant and in the sense that they are fantasy). But most of them allude to, draw on or subvert the The Arabian Nights traditions in ways that I don’t think I fully appreciated. Once I have read The Arabian Nights I plan to read that collection again.
A final, personal prompt to read The Arabian Nights came from my former colleague Jo Glanville, who enthusiastically recommended the relatively new Malcolm Lyons translation to me. A few years ago, Jo produced a series about the stories for BBC Radio 4. The presenter was the novelist and Arabist Robert Irwin, who wrote the three introductions to Lyons’ three volume translation.
I have mentioned Borges, Wilson and The Djinn Falls In Love, and I know that The Arabian Nights has profoundly influenced many other writers, such as A. S. Byatt and Salman Rushdie. But it must not be said that I decided to read these volumes only because of their influence on other literature. Not at all. For me, The Arabian Nights is an end in itself. I want to get a feel for its style and structure, in the hope of learning a thing or two about storytelling. I want a sense of the tropes and archetypes. I want to see where it is dated and where it is still relevant. I want them to influence me.
And of course, I seek to be entertained. That is my first, simple aim, and I hope anyone reading along with me finds similar enjoyment too. As the COVID19 virus will be keeping us in isolation for a while, I hope this project will be a welcome distraction.
I have chosen the ‘recap’ format because I have been keeping a blog for fifteen years, and so am very comfortable writing in the incremental style of recaps. It means I can fit the writing around the rest of my life, and guarantees that I will actually be able to finish the project. Weekly recapping is quite forgiving—The host can experiment with ideas, and make corrections to earlier mistakes as they proceed.
I also like the format. Recaps are usually written for seasonal TV shows in various genres. They are unapologetic in their enthusiasm for popular culture and there is always a sense that the recapper is an ally of the audience. I appreciate it might seem weird to live-blog classic literature, when so many generations of readers have already experienced the stories, and when ‘spoilers’ are widely available online… but I would like to try it nonetheless. A book that has one thousand and one ready-made mini-chapters seems like the sort of artwork for which the recap format might work.
Finally, and crucially, the recap is a style that encourages people to add what I miss. I suspect that there will be grand artistic or historical allusions I fail to spot. I may not be aware of all the modern literary and pop-culture properties that draw on The Arabian Nights, that a better-read writer would know about. A recap is a conversation, and the comments are open.
OK, so how will this work?
I’ll tell you something right now: the title of this project is a massive lie, because there are certainly not going to be a thousand and one recaps. Even at a rate of one per day I don’t plan on doing this for two-and-three-quarter years.
Instead, I am going to read and recap a bunch of stories at a time. I figure that I will try to tackle about one hundred pages per post, but I will expand or contract that quota depending on whether there is a natural cut-off point in the stories. At the end of each recap I will set out what I will be reading in the following days, so anyone who wants to read along with me can do so.
This project is intended to be a close reading of the text, which also means it will be a slow reading of the text. One hundred pages per week is an easy ask for the avid reader, who may wish to jump on ahead or read other books alongside this one. But this approach will give me the time to write-up a fair response to the stories, while still doing other things with my days.