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2009-06, 361, 362, Book Reviews, Colin Steele

Book Review: How to Really Talk About Books You Haven’t Read

How to Really Talk About Books You Haven’t Read.

By Henry Hitchings. (John Murray). 262pp. $35

Reading Matters.

By Margaret Willes. (Yale University Press). 295pp. $64.95

Oscar’s Books.

By Thomas Wright. (Chatto and Windus). 370pp. $45



Hitchings,Willes and Wright provide fascinating insights into books, readers and even non-readers from the sixteenth century to the present day. Henry Hitchings in How to Really Talk About Books You Haven’t Read says that “People who write about books are all known to fake it”. Oscar Wilde, whose books and reading are analysed in Thomas Wright’s Oscar’s Books, famously once said “I never read a book I must review; it prejudices you so”. Margaret Willes in Reading Matters, whose title is meant to be interpreted in two ways, provides sparkling vignettes of “how people bought and acquired books over the past five hundred years”.

Cribs to books and their content have proliferated following the success of Pierre Bayard’s How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. Hitchings, who adds the word “really’ ‘to Bayard’s title, feels there is a need for his book, as Bayard was “gallic to the core”. Hitchings’ book is essentially a bibliophilic handbag to the classics, full of disparate and unexpected information. Hitchings ranges over authors such as Shakespeare, Dostoevsky and Dickens, concluding with more recent writers such as Philip Roth and Stephen Hawking. His chapter “Who matters now” provides cogent overviews and few would disagree with his ranking of Pamuk, Bolano, Kundera and Saramargo in his top ten non-English speaking novelists.

Hitchings buries his enthusiastic support for reading and his literary expertise within a deliberately irreverent framework of topics such as “Can Proust Change Your Life?”, “So where’s the sting in Jane Austen?” and “How to Flummox a Janeite”. There are many quotations, such as Dorothy Parker’s famous definition of horticulture: “you can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think”.

Hitchings cites the Duke of York’s comment in Shakespeare’s Henry VI that Henry’s “bookish rule” has “pulled fair England down”. However, Margaret Willes’ Reading Matters reveals how books “pulled” people up. Willes’ series of case studies provides a framework for an analysis of book buying and reading habits over the centuries. The opening chapter on the books of Bess of Hardwick and the Cavendish family provides a springboard for comments on the neglected topic of women as collectors.

Willes includes obvious book collectors, such as Pepys, Jefferson and Soane, but also unexpected choices such as Charles Winn, representing the nineteenth century, and Denis and Edna Healey the twentieth. These chapters are perhaps less successful as their collector links have to support too many topics, such as the rise of newspapers, subscription libraries and the paperback revolution while the impact of the lnternet and the influence of Amazon are barely cited.

Willes’ book is, nonetheless, a source of much enlightenment and a reminder that in the publishing world, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Willes includes a photograph of Allen Lane with his 1930s ‘Penguincubator’, a slot-machine which dispensed Penguin paperbacks at six pence a time. Now we have the Espresso POD machines slowly emerging in bookshops and libraries which are similarly set to revolutionise the distribution and sale of books.

In Oscar’s Books, Thomas Wright aims at an “entirely new kind of literary biography”, that is, an author’s life told “exclusively through the books that he had read”. Wright argues that books were the greatest single influence on Wilde (1854-1900). Wilde spent his early years in a Dublin book-filled house and owned and read a copy of Voltaire’s L’Histoire de Charles XII by the age of eleven.

After Trinity College, Dublin, Wilde went up to Magdalen College, Oxford where he encountered Walter Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance, “which has had such a strange influence over my life”. Wilde’s book-buying was wide-ranging, including Greek and Latin classics, a large collection of French novels, Victorian middle-brow fiction and books on India and Japan.

Wilde copiously annotated his books, so their marginalia are important in his response to a text. Wright notes “his works are saturated with allusions from his vast and miscellaneous reading: they form a little library of exquisite echoes”. Wilde often used bookish allusions to refer to people, for example when he described someone as “dowdy as a badly bound hymn-book”.

Not that Wilde always treated books well. Wright has tracked down many of Wilde’s books. Apart from numerous annotations and often broken spines, Wilde’s copy of W H Mallock’ s The New Republic, now at Magdalen College, has jam stains, while others had wine stains. Wright reflects, Wilde “‘gorged himself on books and food simultaneously”.

In 1895 after Wilde was found guilty of ‘gross indecency’, his bankruptcy sale led to the destruction of the library. Wright notes that the meagre £130 the books fetched was “roughly the same as Wilde’s weekly expenditure on food, drink cabs and hotel rooms”. Wilde described the loss of his library as “the one of all my material losses the most distressing to me”.

When in prison at Pentonville he was only allowed a Bible, a prayer book and a hymnal, but later he was allowed to have his beloved Pater’s The Renaissance, along with Flaubert’s novels and books by Cardinal Newman. when in Reading Gaol, he said that he read Dante every day in prison and that Dante had saved his reason. After his discharge, however, he was not allowed to take the books with him, “going out into the world without a single book”.

Oscar’s Books provides a fascinating new approach to Wilde’s life from his early childhood to near death when he lost the power of speech. For Wilde to be lost for words must have been the ultimate punishment. As a sad postscript, the Oscar Wilde Bookstore in Greenwich Village, which is believed to be the oldest GLBT bookstore in the US, will close at the end of March.

Colin Steele.



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