Prime Edition

Where I’m Reading From

Tim Parks

Harvill Secker

Pages: 244 Rs. 599

Parks dreams of a brave new world without canons

Tim Parks, in his new collection of essays, provides some counter-intuitive solutions to dilemmas that must surely trouble the conscientious modern-day bookworm, writes Vineet Gill.

Vineet Gill  10th Jan 2015

Tim Parks

riters may expend much thought and energy upholding the virtues of reading, but a critic does so with an avuncular sense of discretion, shielding us at all costs from the harmful influence of bad books. Philip Larkin would have been closer to truth had he qualified the pithy conclusion of his poem A Study of Reading Habits — "Books are a load of crap" — by saying that most books are a load of crap. Indeed, what Ezra Pound was trying to convey in ABC Of Reading is precisely this: that we need not "bother about" most books we read as long as we are prepared to cede ground, with due reverence, to the classics. "A classic is a classic," Pound wrote, "not because it conforms to certain structural rules (...) It is a classic because of a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness."

Pound's book on reading itself remains a classic in the genre; anyone looking to get the most out of English poetry would be well advised to go through it at least once. But reading it in this day and age, one finds the book's evangelical tone, and the writer's unshakeable faith in absolutist constructs like the "classic" or the "canon", somewhat lacking in freshness. Tim Parks' new collection of essays, Where I'm Reading From, makes for one of the finest works of literary criticism to have come out in the recent past, mainly because it advances an entirely fresh way of looking at things.

"It's time to rethink everything. Everything." Parks' book opens with these unremarkable words, leaving you to wonder if you've accidentally picked up a primer on how the internet is changing the world. But it soon becomes clear that the words mean exactly what they say. Everything here is reviewed, rethought: all the gospel truths and shibboleths about literature that we, as literary types, hold so dear.

"Do we need stories?" This is the question posed in the title of the very first essay (most of the pieces in this collection start with similar statements of enquiry followed by the writer's attempts to arrive at an answer). We realise that here too we're dealing with the "ABC of reading", but what matters is not the answer to the queries that Parks suggests (in response to the question above: no, we don't need stories). You may well disagree with all that the writer has to say in Where I'm Reading From, though Parks, anyhow, is interested in the dialectical approach, which begins at the point of disagreement with oneself. What's interesting rather is the way we are given a clear view, reflected on the page, of the writer's thought process as he grapples with his own ideas about reading, writing and translating texts — ideas that are challenged in their entirety, even the long-held ones.

Parks comes up with a strange and convincing argument that if more readers refused to finish books, it would prove salubrious for literature in general. By not finishing a book, Parks writes, “you are actually doing the writer a favour, exonerating him or her from the near-impossible task of getting out of the plot gracefully".

A fair instance of this can be found in a piece entitled Why Finish Stories?. Parks comes up with a strange and convincing argument that if more readers refused to finish books, it would prove salubrious for literature in general. By not finishing a book, Parks writes, "you are actually doing the writer a favour, exonerating him or her from the near-impossible task of getting out of the plot gracefully". And besides, it's the "pattern of the weave" and not "its solution" that makes a work of art look great. Parks' contribution to the whole debate surrounding e-books — the supposed threat they pose to literature — is similarly and delightfully counterintuitive: "The literary experience lies not in any one moment of perception, or any physical contact with a material object (...) but in the movement of the mind through a sequence of words from beginning to end."

book about reading is of necessity a book about writing. And Parks is very interested in exploring the ways in which the reader-consumer has come to determine what gets written in a globalised literary marketplace. Where I'm Reading From is suffused with this anxiety caused in no small part by "The Dull New Global Novel", as another piece in the book is entitled. With some exceptions, the global novel can be characterised by a plainness of style (so avidly purveyed by the creative-writing circuit), and easy communicability, which makes translating it simpler. But for something gained — an international readership — there's something lost — a text's immediacy. In this internationalist mode of writing, Parks tells us, "there is no appeal to anything writer and reader know and share in the here and now". And so, writing for a global audience, "Shakespeare would have eased off the puns". Parks mentions the case of the vastly underrated British novelist Henry Green, whose intricately composed masterpieces are seldom read now, as the Franzens and Murakamis of the world overshadow the literary stage. "Green's work never travelled well," Parks writes.

A champion of the "local" in the literary arts, Parks nevertheless finishes this collection with a hilarious inversion of this idea. He talks about his 2006 novel, Cleaver, whose central character is a British journalist who abandons his life in England and retires to the "Alpine emptiness" of the South Tyrol in Italy. Now this essay, My Novel, Their Culture, is about Parks watching a movie adaptation of Cleaver, made by a German filmmaker in German. In the film, the protagonist is a German, rather than a British, journalist, who retires to the Austrian (and German-speaking) part of the Tyrol instead of the Italian part. So what's essentially an international narrative of the original novel is contextualised within a German setting, and thereby made more local in the film adaptation. But Parks, for all his enthusiasm for art that is locally connected, ends up disliking the movie: "My potentially global work has been made local. Well, haven't I frequently written in admiration of the artist happy to engage with his local community and ignore the global? Indeed I have. But this local is not my local."

Ezra Pound once drew a helpful distinction between a "reader reading a story" and the "artist analysing the method". It hardly requires mentioning that Parks falls in the latter category. But to use the scholarly epithet of "analysis" for Where I'm Reading From would be to deny this book its deserved place on our shelves — not among the purebred critics and scholars, but next to The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf, next to ABC of Reading by Ezra Pound.

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