John Walsh: Tales of the City

'Unwritten and unread books areall-too-eloquent testimonies to our lack of energy or imagination'
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The Independent Online

We seem to be in an extended season of literary confessions. Everyone is banging on about a playful French literature professor called Pierre Bayard, and reviewers are making little jokes about how easy it is to review his book, How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, without reading it.

In its pages, Bayard confesses to never having finished Joyce's Ulysses or Musil's The Man Without Qualities; admits to knowing nothing about Aristotle's Rhetoric, despite being able to discuss it with airy nonchalance; and offers tips about discussing unread works ("Avoid precise details. Put aside rational thought. Let your subconscience express your personal relationship with the work"). But he is not as dumb, or as dumbed-down, as he pretends. He's an expert on the link between literature and psychoanalysis, and his aim (he says) is to stop people feeling guilty about their failure to read books.

He knows that some people approach culture with the alacrity of a child approaching an unclimbable wall, and wants to pat them on the head. "We intellectuals," he says, "who are avid readers, know there are many ways of reading a book. You can skim it, you can start and not finish it, you can look at the index. You learn to live with a book."

How to Talk... is a huge bestseller in France, and will reassure embarrassed culture vultures who've been guiltily inspecting the "Books of the Year" in the press, and realising they never got round to devouring Mister Pip or What Was Lost or Hermione Lee's 800-page biography of Edith Wharton, and now it's too bloody late because the 2008 crop of must-reads is heading towards them like an unstoppable train.

I speak from experience, since I have all three works at my bedside, plus a dozen more in my yet-to-read pile, including a subsection of Muslim/Arab-related titles, such as The Yacoubian Building, The Islamist, Imperial Life in the Emerald City...There they sit, in a silent, smug conspiracy, confronting me while I'm lacing my shoes every morning, giving little snorts of derision and muttering: "You still haven't read us. Or even opened us. Aren't we interesting enough? Too busy with your gripping social life to acquaint yourself with the state of modern Cairo, the education of a jihadist, or the conduct of American soldiers in the Green Zone of Iraq? Lordy, what a lightweight you must be."

Of course, I could always bluff my way through conversations about these books and the others ("That Edith Wharton what a goer, eh?") as if that were a substitute for reading them. I've perpetrated some lit-crit porky pies in the past, when I've faked a response to a book everyone else seemed to have read; but it's guilt-inducing and can be embarrassing as hell. Once, at a launch, Jonathan Coe, having read my airy (though brief and allusive) remarks about his novel What a Carve Up! in a paperback round-up, asked me straight if I'd actually read it, and I was too mortified to lie; I then had to read it straight away; and found it was a) brilliant, and b) not what I'd assumed it to be.

It's better to admit your non-acquaintance with a work and suffer the consequences. When I told Stephen Fry I'd never read Anna Karenina, he explained, in his kindly way, that there were surely some books everyone should have read... Whereupon I mounted my highest horse and demanded, "OK, have you read, as I have and you obviously should have, Ulysses and the Beckett Trilogy and Moby Dick and Tristram Shandy and Tom Jones and..." until I sounded like the worst kind of student geek.

It's only just over a year since Nick Hornby, in The Complete Polysyllabic Spree, charted the distance between the books he thought he should enjoy and the books he actually enjoyed; admitted to never having read David Copperfield, and whinged about how literary biographies were just too long. Like Bayard's attitudes, his essays brought a bracing (if slightly philistine) whiff of realism to our attitudes to reading, our connection to the life of other's minds. And now comes George Steiner's My Unwritten Books, published in a couple of weeks's time.

Steiner, Professor of Poetry at Harvard and the man for whom Cambridge University virtually endowed Churchill College, has decided to confess his own lack of engagement with writing, not reading, books. In seven chapters, he tells us about the spectral foetuses of his imagination that never got born.

One, it seems, would have been a study of Joseph Needham, the polytalented 20th-century experimental scientist, linguist and historian of Chinese civilisation, whom Steiner compares to Voltaire and Goethe, and about whom he writes: "His footnotes are a summa of the history of the mind." Steiner never wrote the book because he once caught out the great man in a propaganda lie. But I think we can detect a small "Whew!" of relief that Steiner didn't have to wrestle with such a vast subject, such a gifted and productive man.

Despite the professor's elegiac philosophising ("A book unwritten is more than a void. It accompanies the work one has done like an active shadow, both ironic and sorrowful. It is one of the lives we could have lived, one of the journeys we did not take"), unwritten books are all-too-eloquent testimonies to our lack of energy or imagination, failure of nerve or hopelessness of plot. Not that we won't enjoy talking about them, when we've finished talking about the books we haven't read. Why, I could go on and on about my nearly written masterpieces: my saucy Victorian bodice-ripper, Coldharbour Lane; my hilarious satire on tourism set on an island in the Med, Serbollini Nights, my brief but fascinating life of the Irish songwriter Percy French; and my New Orleans-based psychological chiller, The Drug Museum... Why, I could write a whole book about them.

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