Friday, July 07, 2006

Middle-class philistinism, part 384

Sarah Crown of the Guardian writes about the choices in the Summer reading lists of various authors.
For me, one of the annual delights of the summer reading lists is the spectacle of the great and good of the books world indulging in an unseemly bout of literary one-upmanship, with the battle on to come up with more and still more worthily abstruse submissions.
She then provides an example:
For a truly breathtaking example of how the game should be played ... look no further than this year's list from Alain de Botton, who hits it out of the park in the very first sentence with the claim that he is "looking forward to reading Gabriel Josipovici's new collection of essays The Singer on the Shore". Essays: tick. Little-known (but highly respected) author: tick. Foreign (Josipovici was born in Nice): tick.
(Mark has already highlighted the factual elision here.) Despite her cynicism, Crown excludes crime writer and Newsnight Review regular Ian Rankin from contempt because he chooses novels by Jilly Cooper and Elmore Leonard:
At last: holiday reading recommendations that bear some resemblance to what will actually be lying beside our sunloungers this summer.
It doesn't bear any resemblance to what I've been reading this summer. But then again, I'm not as obsessed with fashion as Sarah Crown. I read what I need to read; that is, what gives me pleasure (but what is pleasure? Maybe that's the key question here). But even if she's right, why is Rankin's choice excluded? In the comments to her blog, Toby Lewis asks Isn't Rankin being equally pretentious claiming to be one of the people...? Well, who's to say? We make our mind's up reading these things. However, I didn't need it to tell me that Rankin is pretentious (and a boring writer according my crime novel-reading friend).

It amazes me that people who claim to love books assume that we're all secretly reading or secretly wishing to read trash. Immediately above Mr Lewis' comment is one from Serraphin: I'll take no shame in admitting I'm a big SF fan he announces. Who's ever said it's shameful FFS? There is some great SF fiction. I never read anyone saying the opposite. Where are these highbrow snobs? Please, let me read them!

I come from a working class background and reading Proust over the summer 1987 gave me immense pleasure AND gave me new horizons. I can't forget it, unlike many hyped novels of the time. At that time, when I first started reading, I took no interest in what middle-class snobs thought I should be reading or what I secretly wished to read. I read what appealed to me. That's why I sat for hours on my own reading Josipovici's essays; not because I thought it was cool. I read them because they spoke about what was most important to me. Alain de Botton is probably looking forward to reading them because he feels the same way. A single essay can say more about the joy of fiction than a year's supply of Guardian Reviews. Take a look at his essay on Borges from the latest collection, which Mountain 7 rightly calls "fabulous". (Make that a decade's supply).

Other writers feel the same way: Gabriel Josipovici is a deeply perceptive critic, always rewarding with a wide range of reference. The Singer on the Shore is a beautifully written and enjoyable book. But perhaps Sarah Crown believes Muriel Spark read the book on her deathbed merely to show off too?


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