Sunday, December 02, 2007


First, there is an excellent review of Terry Glavin's new book, The Lost and Left Behind, in the Observer. It captures it's theme perfectly. I recommend the book highly. (UPDATE: Terry comments on the review here).

Secondly, Rachel Cooke gets depressed by a book called, How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read.

So why is it that, in spite of all these things, I find How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read so depressing? Why does the fact that it has appeared on clever-clever newspaper Christmas books lists even before it is in the shops make me feel weary to my bones? It's not only that you can have too much irony. It's that Bayard's essay (assuming it is not really by Chris Morris, and a giant spoof) is yet another product of a world that commodifies everything, that regards books pretty much as if they were status handbags. It sees reading only as a social indicator, as a way of getting on or looking cool, ignoring the fact that, at bottom, it is a private pleasure to be enjoyed for its own sake.

I wholeheartedly agree, though there is a pang of guilt that will undoubtedly hit many a teacher, especially those like myself who work in subjects like Politics and History. How often we rely on secondary interpretations of classic texts, only to finally get round to reading the originals properly and realise we have got it completely wrong for the past twenty years. There is a part of teaching that relies on received opinion that is often way off-beam. We too have a lifestyle problem, only this time it is integral to earning our living. It involves a need for instant expertise when we should probably remember that wisdom lies in the recognition of the limits of our knowledge.

Cooke gets to the heart of the matter when she writes that,

Fine: dazzle your pals with your (wafer-thin) grasp of why Middlemarch is the greatest English novel. But this is a delight that will last only seconds; reading Middlemarch will give you hours (and perhaps a lifetime) of deep satisfaction.

And this is something to remember. However much you may need to survive in a classroom, the real thrill of reading should never be forgotten. After all, it is how you got there in the first place.

1 comment:

Dr Hiding Pup said...

Ah, I see you've not been in the Old Grey Mare for a while :-) On any given evening, you'll see your colleagues shamelessly parroting opinion out of The Guardian/Times Literary Supplement/London Review of Books/ New York Review of Books, all the time ignoring the fact that everyone else round the table is doing the same.

The first time I realised what was going on (circa March 2001), it was a complete revelation.