Review: Monsieur Proust’s Library – Anka Muhlstein

fullpage.doMonsieur Proust’s Library by Anka Muhlstein takes us on a literary pathway through Marcel Proust’s great work, À la Recherche de Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time). This slim volume (141 pages) is a printed in blue ink on high quality paper, with attractive illustrations at the beginning of each chapter.

I can’t say that I have finished reading Proust’s seven volume work despite its having been on my shelves for ten years or so.  I have made several attempts but have only read three of the books so far and I am beginning to wonder if I will ever complete the set.

It is not that La Recherche isn’t fascinating but that reading it slows you down so much that it takes weeks to read it properly; Proust keeps bringing you to a halt, sentence by sentence, so much is there to think about on each page.  As Anka Muhlstein says, Proust “is the master of long sentences with a grammatical foundation so refined that they accommodate themselves miraculously to all the meanderings of his thoughts”.  What a job for a translator!

Despite the difficulty I have in reading the book, I would not like to be without it – the books sit there on the shelf both as a rebuke and an invitation, the ultimate reading challenge.  But would reading it be enough?  Proust’s work is so loaded with literary and artistic references you’d almost need to read an annotated version to understand fully what was going on in it.

I can only admire people like Anka Muhlstein who have not only read the book but have made it their own by absorbing it so much into their system that they can write books as clever as this one, making an in-depth analysis of the text so they can guide others through “Remembrance” and help them to understand it.

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Review: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die – Peter Boxall

Christmas Gifts for Readers no. 1. (a short series)

Over the next month or so I’m going to write a few articles on books which if I’d not already got them I would be delighted to  receive on Christmas Day.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die is a controversial volume among book-lovers.  Let me say at the start that as a book lover, I really value this book – apart from its rich content with its high production values, it is a thing of beauty in itself and will not be a book to be placed on a shelf and forgotten about.

Some people hate it with a vengeance – one woman on Goodreads wrote a review full of expletives as she considered the thought that someone should tell her what she must read.  Others disagree with the selection of the 1001 books, while others accuse it of just being a collection of synopses of the sort you find on the back cover of a paper-back.  One reviewer on described it as “a cynical exercise in marketing to the culturally insecure”.

On the other hand, many reviews are glowing – for example, so many people think that the list of 1001 books is valuable that they have formed a group on GoodReads with over 11,000 members, many of whom have signed up to read all 1001 books – and why not? – its as good a list as any and at least has more rational thought behind it than just randomly picking books with attractive covers, or books you read reviews of in the newspapers.

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Review: Such Stuff as Dreams – Keith Oatley

The Stuff of DreamsKeith Oatley is a novelist and professor of cognitive psychology at the Univeristy of Toronto.  He has some remakable things to say about the act of reading.  His book, Such Stuff as Dreams suggests that when we read, our brains interpret social interactions in a work of fiction as the real thing – as far as our brains are concerned we experience real human contact and are as affected by the experience as though we were actually present with the characters in the novel.

Oatley has been quoted in the magazine Scientific American Mind (article Fiction Hones Social Skills) as saying, Reading “can hone your social brain, so that when you put your book  down you may be better prepared for camaraderie, collaboration, even love.”

Most readers know how deeply they can be affected by the books they read.  What they didn’t know before is that when they get involved with a fictional character, they tend to follow their actions as though they were participating in them and develop a deep empathy with their motives and feelings.  Oatley suggests that reading is a form of mind-training – a course in how humans behave and react to each other.  Readers tend to have better social skills because they are better aquainted with the way other people think and they are more familiar with the huge variety of human behaviour than non-readers.

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Review: The Possessed – Elif Batuman

The e PossessedElif Batuman’s book of essays, The Possessed, loosely based on the joys of reading classic Russian literature, turns out to be a bit of a hodge-podge of travel-writing, literary criticism and a personal reading history, enlivened by a butterfly mind that flutters from one subject to another without really landing for too long on any particular theme.

This gives the book a distinct lack of unity – sure, some of it is clever, but at other times, this reader at least thought, yes, but this isn’t really why I came here.  The book is subtitled “Adventures with Russian Books and the People who Read Them”, and in a loose way, I suppose that’s fair enough, but I expected more unity of purpose, with more material written specifically for this book rather than a a collection of previously published lectures and articles (although occasionally enhanced for this volume).

I’ve no problem with bringing together collections of previously published material, but I do think the publishers should make this clear on the cover because in this case, I could find quite a bit of the book online and find out whether it was something I wanted to read.  As it is, the book is very selective in its appraisal of Russian books and the people who read them and hardly serves the purpose of its subtitle at all.

I wanted more of what it says on the tin – a book about reading Russian literature, something more comprehensive, with a bit of planning behind it. I got instead large chunks about Batuman’s intellectual and academic development including tortuous stories of how she ended up learning the Uzbek language, or how she moved from one course to another while at college – or even tales about her various boyfriends (an uninspiring bunch to say the least!).  Dare I say, that some of it seemed remarkably self-congratulatory – a sort of “look how clever I am”, but maybe that’s my English perceptions getting in the way – American reviewers seem not to have picked up on this at all.

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Don Quixote – windmills for the mind

Stu, of Winstonsdad’s Blog has a copy of Edith Grossman’s highly-regarded translation of Don Quixote and is proposing a “readalong” starting in late summer this year (2010). The idea is to read the book together and publish blog posts about the experience.

I bought this book pretty much when it came out in 2004 and its sat on my shelves every since.  I’ve dipped into it but never made much progress, so I’m going to join in the readalong which Stu suggests will be about 92 pages a week over ten weeks.

If anyone reading this would like to take part then go across to Stu’s site and sign up by leaving a comment.  You don’t have to be reading the same translation of course – it might be interesting to compare different readings anyway.

Harold Bloom wrote about Edith Grossman’s translation in The Guardian,

Though there have been many valuable English translations of Don Quixote, I would commend Edith Grossman’s new version for the extraordinarily high quality of her prose. The spiritual atmosphere of a Spain already in steep decline can be felt throughout, thanks to the heightened quality of her diction.

Grossman might be called the Glenn Gould of translators, because she, too, articulates every note. Reading her amazing mode of finding equivalents in English for Cervantes’s darkening vision is an entrance into a further understanding of why this great book contains within itself all the novels that have followed in its sublime wake.

Readers are sad losers

A short report in The Guardian on Saturday on a survey conducted by the National Reading Campaign tells us that lower income, non-professional families see readers as losers and loners, people who “don’t know how to live . . . an alien and  unexciting tribe they seldom meet”.

I think I kind of guessed that already: that uncomprehending look from a distant relative or acquaintance when you begin to talk about a book you read, the sense that by even mentioning that you read a book you irrevocably distance yourself from them.

The article goes on to say that “reading was seen as isolating, while communal activities such as DVDs or Wii games were valued more”.  These people apparently suffer overwhelming anxiety if they enter a bookshop, and the world of books is seen as “intimidating and unwelcoming”.

I find people who don’t read at all a bit of an alien species.  What do they do on a train journey? – well, I know the answer to that: they just stare out of the window looking bored or fiddle around with their phones texting friends.  So lacking in inner resources they are dependent on social interaction or gadgets to carry them through life’s dull periods.  They never encounter the thoughts and stories of other people and miss out on the inherited myths of people around the world.  This is a sort of poverty, but I seriously doubt that the recommendations of the report will go far to fix the problem:

  • better book jacket design
  • books available in less elitist environments
  • book of the film to be sold in cinemas
  • recent books to be made available on the Nintendo DS
  • books to be available from vending machines

Anyone who sees all the brightly covered books in a supermarket will feel that the publishing industry has already done it best to make their products attractive.  The vending machine idea is a bit crazy – you need to touch and feel a book, to flick through it, to look at the interior design and typeface in order to feel inspired to an impulse purchase.  The Nintendo DS idea – well, many of the classics are already available in that format but its hard to believe anyone could get very far with them on such a limited screen size.

I can’t help but think back to the Mechanics Institutes of the 19th century.  Wikipedia tells us that  “small tradesmen and workers could not afford subscription libraries, so for their benefit, benevolent groups and individuals created “mechanics’ institutes” that contained inspirational and vocational reading matter, for a small rental fee. Later popular non-fiction and fiction books were added to these collections. The first known library of this type was the Birmingham Artisans’ Library, formed in 1823″.

In those days, reading was seen as the way to “better yourself”, to climb up out of poverty and to make material improvements to the life of you and your family.  We live in a different place these days, and having started to write on this theme, I’m going to close now otherwise a few thousand words will follow on what has gone wrong and how to fix it.

Review: Hitler’s Private Library – Timothy W Ryback

I am always interested in the way reading affects people, and also in the psychology of the German people in the build-up to the Second World War.  Timothy Ryback has studied the remnants of Hitler’s private library, some 1200 books, which occupy shelf-space in the rare book division of the Library of Congress in Washington.  In his new book,  Hitler’s Private Library:  The Books That Shaped His Life, Ryback describes the original collection of 16,000 books, and how as the sub-title suggests, they “shaped his life”.

I am used to hearing how books educate, inform and enlighten and it was a surprise to read that the wholly unenlightened Adolf Hitler was “possessed by a voracious appetite for reading”.  From his earliest years after returning from the First World War battle-front in France, Hitler scoured the book-stalls of Munich to fill two book cases in his rented rooms.  He read “intently, even fiercely”, usually late into the night, and Ryback records an occasion when Eva Braun interrupted a reading session and was “dispatched with a tirade that sent her hurtling red-faced down the hallway”.

Associates  recalled, “I can never remember Adolf without books”, and “books were his world”, with reading being a “deadly serious business”.

A list exists of Hitler’s borrowings from a right-wing lending library in Munich and shows that between 1919 and 1921, he borrowed over a hundred entries ranging from early church history to first-hand accounts of the Russian revolution. The list includes an large number anti-Semitic texts such as “The International Jew – The Worlds Foremost Problem”, “Luther and the Jews” and many others.

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