World Book Night this year falls on 23 April, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. My coming-of-age novel The Rotters’ Club is one of the books being given away by volunteers, as part of the Reading Agency’s drive to reach the 36% of the population who don’t currently read for pleasure. It’s an opportunity to evangelise about the joys of reading – something many writers have done before now, of course. But not all books on the subject of books are uncomplicated celebrations ...
The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes
Anxieties about the dangers of reading fiction kicked in almost as soon as the printed book was invented, and the grandfather of the European novel is primarily – in its early chapters at least – a tragicomic caveat against the dangers of surrendering too readily to other writers’ fantasies.
The Battel of the Books by Jonathan Swift
Published as an appendage to A Tale of a Tub in 1705, the complete title is A Full and True Account of the Battel Fought Last Friday, Between the Antient and Modern Books in St James’s Library. Here Swift gives voice to contemporary anxieties about the shallowness and pretension of modern learning compared to the great achievements of classical civilisation. Being (like most great satirists) a conservative, even reactionary thinker, he comes down firmly on the side of the latter.
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
Catherine Morland is in some ways the heir to Don Quixote, her head filled with gothic mysteries and romances which flower into dangerous life when she finds herself visiting the abbey of the title. In this early work of Austen’s we find a smaller, more realistic satire on the perils of reading too literally: Cervantes’ broad brushstrokes are beginning to give way to modern psychological plausibility.
The Best of Myles by Myles na Gopaleen
The dangers of reading too much, and believing too much of what you read, are counterbalanced by the social shame of not reading at all. This selection of Myles’s Irish Times columns contains many brilliant reflections on literature, but none finer than his invention of the Book-Handling service, which allows wealthy philistines to own a library of books which appear to have been thoroughly read. My favourite category is Premier Handling: “Each volume to be thoroughly handled, eight leaves in each to be dog-eared, a suitable passage in not less than 25 volumes to be underlined in red pencil, and a leaflet in French on the forgotten works of Victor Hugo to be inserted as a forgotten book-mark in each.”
The Pledge by Friedrich Dürrenmatt
Sometimes a book can be in a dialogue with other books, or even with a whole genre of books. This late 1950s masterpiece by Dürrenmatt has the subtitle “Requiem for the Crime Novel”. It concerns a retired detective called Matthäi whose obsession with cracking an unsolved case – the one he accepted on his last day in the job – has driven him to alcoholism and near-insanity. Patiently explaining it to a writer of detective ficiton over a late-night drink, Matthäi performs a devastating destruction of the tidy logic and wrapped-up conclusions of conventional crime writing.
Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal
Hrabal is well known, but he ought to be better known. His books are funny, sensual, humane, experimental and yet always a sheer pleasure to read. This novella contains the reflections of an old man who for 35 years has been employed by the Czech authorities to compact forbidden books into waste paper. He has rescued many of them from the compressing machines and now they weigh down the shelves above his bed at night, constantly threatening to collapse and crush him. It’s a profound but delightful meditation on censorship, and the book’s potential for liberating subversiveness.
A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel
Manguel was a friend of Jorge Luis Borges – I believe he read aloud to him towards the end of his life – and this book partakes fully of the Borgesian spirit. That is to say, it’s a phenomenally ambitious history of our relationship with the written word, carried off with great lightness of touch and stuffed with all sorts of oddball facts which will overturn your most cherished historical assumptions abut reading.
Recently a whole new sub-genre of books has sprung up, taking as its subject the author’s year of reading. This, I think, was one of the first. Scouring her bookshelves for a missing EM Forster, Susan Hill was suddenly struck by how many books she owned but had never read, and embarked on a quest to put this right. The resulting account is chatty, discursive, personal: few recent books have treated the subject of reading itself in a tone of such contagious celebration.Howard’s End Is on the Landing by Susan Hill
I Murdered My Library by Linda Grant
Grant’s essay – only available, appropriately enough, in a digital edition – is a thornier and more unsettling text than Susan Hill’s. Grant describes how moving house made her fall out of love with her shelves full of physical books, “stubborn in their massiveness and heaviness and inconvenience”. She embarks upon a brutal process of elimination, which both liberates and horrifies her. “The sight of the bare shelves shames me,” she writes in the chilling final paragraph. “What have I done?”
The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller
Another in the “year of reading” genre, with the subtitle “How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life”. A bit hyperbolic, perhaps, but there is great conviction in Miller’s account of how his random, wide-ranging programme of reading yanked him out of a domestic rut and brought back his zest for living. What do his choices have in common? The same factor, he says, that unites the selection made in The Books in My Life, a much earlier memoir by his namesake, Henry Miller: “They were alive and they spoke to me!”