Pen In Hand: Reading, Re-reading And Other Mysteries

By Tim Parks

Alma Books, £14.99

Francis Bacon was mostly right. Some books are meant to be woofed like fast food and then forgotten. Some are designed to be nibbled round the edges and set aside for later. And, though it smacks a little of literary snobbery, “only a few should be chewed and digested thoroughly”. What Bacon doesn’t tell us is anything about the class of books, and this might extend to all books, which demand to be re-read.

There’s a contradiction in our cultural habits. We think nothing of watching a DVD over and over. Spy Game and The Hunt For Red October get an airing in our house at least once every few weeks. I’ve got friends who think nothing of listening to Blue or Blood on the Tracks pretty much daily, but find the idea of re-reading a book quite strange. “Oh, no, I’ve read that”, they say with finality, as if the job were done and ticked for good.

I am an obsessive re-reader and now I have Tim Parks, author of this active and thought-provoking collection of writing about reading, to back me up. I can say with honesty that every book I’ve ever reviewed for the Herald, including this one, has been read twice, sometimes with a final, pickier run-through before writing. The first reading seems almost a physical thing, a matter of turning pages and swivelling the eyes. It’s the second reading when the text seems to come to the fore, and this is maybe where the books meant to be tasted and the books that can be chewed and digested shuffle into separate lobbies, or onto the keeper shelf rather than the chuck-out box.

An old and wise tutor told me that modernist literature can’t be read. It can only be re-read. He meant specifically Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, whose opening chapters are near-gibberish until you return to them informed of their context, but it’s a fair general point as well. All literature, all writing, demands to be re-read in the same way that we wouldn’t choose to look at a great painting, or even a pleasant one, just once and move along. (Except, of course, that is exactly how most of us tackle a big municipal gallery; they reckon an average of five seconds spent before each canvas) As Parks, a novelist, essayisy and translator acknowledges, an obsession with re-reading can smack of conservatism or nostalgia, or the ultra-classicist view that everything has been done already in the Iliad and doesn’t need to be done ever again. Some of us don’t read contemporary fiction, or listen to contemporary jazz or pop, because it all seems to have been done before. And yet, as Virginia Woolf recognised, part of the challenge of reading and reviewing contemporary writing is that you have no reputation or critical consensus on which to hang your judgement.

My only complaint about Pen In Hand is that it didn’t come along when I was still trying, with a rising note of desperation in my voice, to teach literature to classes of students preparing for an SQA English exam. They found reading a stretch, let alone re-reading. They evinced fear and self-loathing if presented with a text they simply didn’t like: “I know it’s important, but I just don’t enjoy it. I’m just no good at this.” They seemed to feel that there was a disconnect between reading for pleasure and reading to pass an exam. And they entirely failed to see that sometimes the practice of literary criticism does actually mean pointing out that the author didn’t quite get it right here and there.

Yeah, criticism sometimes means criticism. Parks’ advice is the same as mine. Read actively and with a pen in your hand. Don’t let a poet get away with a windy metaphor if you really don’t feel it works. Make marks on your books (though not on library books or borrowed books). Write in the margins. Substitute words you think work better. Do whatever you can to get rid of the notion that reading is a passive occupation. In his history of reading, Alberto Manguel tells a famous story, a sort of epoch in the history of reading, about the moment when St Augustine was startled to see Ambrose of Milan poring over a codex, but with his lips entirely still. This was the moment when the necessary equation between reading and reading aloud came to an end, but it didn’t mark an end to active reading.

I have a rule with my son, who is homeschooled, that if he really, really doesn’t “get” a book by chapter five, he’s allowed to set it aside. Parks admits there are critically admired authors he simply doesn’t get either, but makes an effort, in order to see what others might be enjoying or admiring. “Karl Ove Knaussgard is the great new thing, I am told. I pick up Knaussgard. I read a hundred pages or so and put it down. I cannot understand the attraction.” That we should do this seems perfectly normal and obvious. That we – this is some ill-defined educated we – should feel guilty about it, less so.

Parks is very good on what he describes as “Reading Upward” – the whole book is divided into short (re-)readable chapterlings on topics like this – which is the notion that as a reader you graduate in easy stages from some mild gateway drug to the real stuff. Routinely asked whether they read at home, my students all, encouragingly, said yes. Asked what they read delivered a near-unanimous admission that it didn’t go beyond Harry Potter and Fifty Shades Of Grey, but that they were, like postulants, desperate to get on to some “better stuff”. I’ve heard myself say to my son, and smiled to read Parks repeat it, that I don’t care what he reads as long as he does read. It’s a bare-faced lie, of course. We’ve outlawed Assassins’ Creed but allowed American Gods, even after blushing together through the TV version pilot.

Like Parks, I hanker after the days when small British publishers (Peter Owen, Collins Harvill) brought in a rich harvest of literature in translation. These days, foreign writing almost invariably means Scandi noir. And yet, there is a question about our appreciation of literature from and about other cultures. Do we read to learn more about The Way We Live Now, the Trollopean project; or do we read to explore worlds and periods that we will never encounter first-hand, which is what takes us down the road to science fiction and fantasy, the transgressive and utopian/dystopian? Parks, who has explored different modes in his own fiction, makes no final declaration on this. His interest is to make you thoughtful in and about your reading. The proprietor of The Haunted Bookshop, Christopher Morley’s delightful 1919 novella, says that there are only 30,000 books worth reading in the world, and about 5,000 of those in English. Convert to present days values, do an honest actuarial summing up of your probable longevity, and how much of the good stuff will you get to before you die?

We need to be more thoughtful, maybe more selective. And braver. I share Parks’ resistance (important word, this) to Elena Ferrante. Can’t read her. But I have caught myself murmuring appreciatively when her name comes up. Perhaps we should all be more like George Steiner, the master of a particular kind of put down. He once said that the first fifty pages of Norman Mailer’s Egyptian epic Ancient Evenings contained some of the finest writing in English of the last century, but that he was reliably informed the rest of it was unreadable. Go, George! We need more of this. Full disclosure. Honesty. Courage. Resistance. And, always, re-reading.