How are books like a pair of jeans?

by | Aug 28, 2011 | Blog, Improve your writing | 1 comment

Geoff Dyer’s latest column for the New York Times Book Review has encouraged me to come clean about my patterns of reading and book-buying.

Dyer – whom Zadie Smith has called “a national treasure” for his “acute and bad-tempered” prose – confesses that he’s “reluctant to read a book that shows any sign of prior occupancy,” preferring to wear-in a book, preferably a remaindered one, as he would a pair of jeans. His aversion is not to any previously read book, only to those whose pages are already marked with the previous reader’s opinions.

As a regular buyer of second-hand books, whether in person at the venerable Strand Bookstore or through Amazon, I too prefer my used pages unlined. Spending so much time online reading about books, I feel like other people’s opinions are shouting at me from every cached page. An unmarked page of printed text is increasingly peaceful refuge from the storm of opinion.

One of my regular gigs is a column about books for the Courier Mail newspaper. Recently I realized that reading so much about what books have just been published, what’s being published in three or six months, and the relentless stream of opinion about new titles, is having two peculiar effects. One is to make me relatively well informed about what’s out there in the actual and virtual bookstores, quite separate from whether or not I’ve read a single one of them. The other has been to entrench my preference for reading books post-hype, those that are more than five years old.

That is not to say that I don’t read new books. This year I read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad because I fell in love with the chapter that was published as a stand-alone story in The New Yorker last year. I read Adam Ross’s new story collection Ladies and Gentlemen because I interviewed him about his remarkable debut novel, Mr Peanut. I read a handful of musicians by memoirs because I wanted to write an essay about them (published here).

I also read Geoff Dyer’s Otherwise Known as the Human Condition because it collected a large number of his essays of the past 20 years – and because the author was appearing in person at McNally Jackson. Arriving early, I bought my new copy (one of only two brand-new books I’ve bought this year at full price) with the aim of getting him to sign my copy after the dreaded Q&A, but when the time came I couldn’t be bothered waiting in line because my seat, which I had been so proud to find because of the perfect view it afforded of the man himself, ended up being on the opposite side of the room from the signing table, from which the fan queue curled. Standing in those lines, I always feel like a dill anyway. What am I going to say? Hey. Love your work. Still cruising for a tennis partner? (As it happens, I do have the requisite “half-decent backhand.”)

What I particularly liked about Dyer’s column was the way he connected his need for clean and unmarked pages with an “increasing unwillingness to take other people’s readings – their opinions of what they have read – at face value.” He cites the example of trudging through a used copy of Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo simply because a back-cover quote refers to it as the century’s best novel in English. The disappointing read made him

glad we’re no longer living in what must have been a truly wretched century for literature if that was as good as it got. Perhaps the desire to read books before they start trailing clouds of reputed glory is what leads people to become publishers or agents.

“Clouds of reputed glory” is a beautiful phrase, and apposite in the wake of Hurricane Irene, who arrived overnight with little more than a whimper. She was full of hyperbole, but empty of real impact.

There are so many books of which my reading experience doesn’t come anywhere near the expectations I’d been encouraged by others’ opinions to bring to them. In a flash I think of Catch-22, The God of Small Things, Flaubert’s Parrot, Grand Days. Anything by Salman Rushdie. But as Pierre Bourdeau reminds us, taste is a personal and a political business. As readers, how can we ever truly distinguish between what is “purely” our own opinion and what opinions have been thrust upon us? The weight of received opinion often feels like an invisible burden on my reading shoulders.

Please, share your thoughts in the comments -what book or books did you expect to cherish that have disappointed you? New or old, whether you read them last week or in childhood, I’d love to know.

PS If you want to see what Dyer is like in person, watch a few minutes of this reading he gave from his latest novel, the alternately hilarious and moving Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi.

geoff dyer at shoreditch house salon from Jeremy Riggall on Vimeo.

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