Where I'm Reading From: The Changing World of Books by Tim Parks - book review: Talented if flawed investigation of why reading matters

 

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The Independent Culture

If I had to name two of the most irritating trends in contemporary publishing I'd probably jump on: 1) the recent proliferation of books with titles taken from Raymond Carver story collections and 2) the deluge of self-congratulatory books about the act of reading itself. My initial reaction to Tim Parks' Where I'm Reading From was therefore a predictable Will You Please Be Quiet?

It didn't help that the opening essays address over-familiar questions such as "why finish books?" and the use of ebooks. Nor that within the first 10 pages he gives poor old Jonathan Franzen the kind of tongue-lashing every other less-successful novelist has been giving him for the past five years.

I was further disappointed by the glaring omissions, such as the lack of evidence provided for the contention that when printed books arrived "there were some who believed that serious readers would always prefer serious books to be copied by hand?" Who were these "some"? We aren't told. I was also unimpressed when in the space of his very first paragraph, Parks reduced the "everything" in his bold opening statement – "it is time to rethink everything" – from a global concern to a series of questions about himself, who worries: "Will I still write if they don't pay me?"

And yet, that primacy of Tim Parks also explains why you should persevere with Where I'm Reading From. Even when he is lobbing down cliché, he is incapable of writing a hackneyed sentence. That awful title and frontloading of poor stuff about e-readers belies some fine essays. On the whole, his thoughts on the production and consumption of literature are clever, enlightening and provocative – in the best sense of the word.

Among his other accomplishments, Parks teaches translation at a university in Milan and this book is worth the cover price just for his insight on the difficulty of rendering in Italian writers such as Virginia Woolf and DH Lawrence, and what those challenges tell us about the authors' original intentions. There are numerous other superb close readings.

Where I'm Reading From is also bursting with infectious enthusiasm. I challenge you to finish this book and resist the urge to go out and buy something by Peter Stamm. Parks has the ability to make other writers seem not just enriching but exciting as well.

The net result is an excellent collection. It isn't so much a book about reading as a serious philosophical investigation of What We Talk About When We Talk About Books. Not that I'd want to lumber this talented, writer with such an emptily modish title.

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