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Tuesday 11 August 2020

Changing Places


Collectors enjoy great freedom. Drift into collecting teapots and it’s up to you whether to focus on a country or period, or instead go after little teapots short and stout. Readers are equally free to structure their reading; there is a field of possibilities limited only by our imaginations. If someone told me that this year they were reading books by authors surname Z that would be intelligible and intriguing. I would guess that a reader could learn a lot that way. Likewise, if someone said: This year, it’s writers in translation. From Chinese. And an obvious policy: Going halves: alternating books by women with books by men. Such principles could work well but not perfectly - you might end up reading all of Zola for want of anything else and a small voice in my head reminds me that there is a Marxist tradition which marks down Zola as a superficial naturalist, inferior to a robust realist like Balzac.

A powerful structuring principle would ensure that you read mostly good books and at the same time familiarised yourself with many real times and places, with varied ideas, and a wealth of imaginary worlds. What’s not to like?  But does any such principle exist? Well, I certainly wouldn’t trust a university reading list. Might I trust a friend?

Imagine a friend in another country who also enjoys reading. And suppose that at the end of the year you sent each other a list of all the books you had read that year. And suppose that you made a Resolution to read in the coming year the books which your friend had just read - exception made for those already familiar to you.

This is a more demanding challenge than the habit of taking up occasional reading suggestions or acting on reviewer recommendations. It’s always a big challenge to change places. If your friend reads in another language and you can’t read it, there’s immediately a problem with books not available in translation. Fine, that will reduce your commitment to something less daunting.

Paris is a couple of hours away from London but the reading world of a French friend in Paris is going to be very different from that of an English friend in London. It’s not a new intellectual situation; Voltaire pointed it out:

 A Frenchman who arrives in London, will find philosophy, like everything else, very much changed there. He had left the world a plenum, and he now finds it a vacuum. At Paris the universe is seen composed of vortices of subtile matter; but nothing like it is seen in London. In France, it is the pressure of the moon that causes the tides; but in England it is the sea that gravitates towards the moon…

Voltaire’s Lettres Philosophiques were published in English in 1733 and in French the following year; the London edition a best-seller, the Paris edition suppressed. That typical outcome reversed in the twentieth century when Paris became the place to publish books banned in English-speaking countries.

Who knows what it might be like to change reading places now? Just for a year. Or a lockdown.

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