Thomas Sutcliffe: I like a demanding read, but...

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The Independent Online

From time to time, a phrase will emerge from the verbal blizzard of advertising copy and stick to you like a burr. It happened to me the first time I saw a warning that a film contained "scenes of mild peril", a strapline that virtually orders you to think about how mild peril has to become before it doesn't qualify as peril any more - not to mention the archaic glamour of the word "peril" itself, so big in the silent era, so underemployed in recent years.

It's just happened to me again with the phrase "one of those rare books that demands to be read", emblazoned across ads for the paperback edition of Irène Némirovsky's Suite Française. Usually one's eyes slide across such puffs without taking them in, but whenever I see this particular line I can't stop myself thinking about how Suite Française might get its demands met. Would you hear a hiss as you browse the shelves at Borders: "Where do you think you're going? Put the Alexander McCall Smith down right now and get over here." Would Suite Française barricade the doors at Waterstone's and threaten to start throwing out bodies unless everyone hit the floor and began reading fast?

More to the point: is this a way for any book to behave, however good? I don't mind a polite request, but a demand makes me think it might easily turn petulant and diva-ish. In fact, it makes the book sound like Naomi Campbell. You'd put it down to make a cup of tea and it would start shrieking and throwing mobile phones.

On the posters, the phrase is attributed to Helen Dunmore, a good writer who may not be entirely happy to be associated so publicly with such a clunking cliché. It's one of those phrases that turns up when deadlines are close and the mot juste simply won't come. I take it that what she meant was something like: "I demand that you read this book," but that she flinched from the aristocratic imperiousness of such a line. Or that she simply wanted to inject emphasis into her recommendation. That's understandable; Suite Française is a good book about a serious subject, and its air of survivor vulnerability (it could so easily never have made it into print) tends to inspire a fierce protectiveness in its admirers.

Dunmore also makes the point that demanding to be read isn't something that just any old book can do. Suite Française joins an exclusive club, she implies. Which still doesn't quite answer the question of why this book can get away with ordering us around in a way that the latest Sophie Kinsella can't.

Of course, I understand that the remark is just a different way of saying "really, really good, don't miss it". But what's intriguing is that it reverses the usual power relationship between reader and book. Usually the latter is passive and patient, like a rubber-necker on a parade route, while we are royalty, condescending to pause and make small talk. Books can wear novelty T-shirts to attract our attention, but they can't leap the barriers and force us to stop. And, as in audiences with the Queen, there's a sense that books don't speak unless they're spoken too. Readers always initiate the exchange.

What this phrase does, though, is to substitute a different politics of reading - one in which the book has so much clout that it can ignore all the usual protocols. What justifies the demand is usually unstated - but it's either hinted that the book contains information we won't survive without (warnings of ecological catastrophe or social meltdown frequently fall into the category of "demanding to be read") or that it is of such excellence that we can't lay serious claim to cultivation unless we devour it at once.

In either case, the point is that, for once, we are subject to the book rather than the book being subject to us. What you hear, in short, is a cry of insurrection against the tyranny of the consumer's choice, so whimsical and frivolous and arbitrary in its operation. It is a cry of protest, as well, against the remainders stack and the uncracked spine - a writer's cry, I think, not a reader's one.

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