Where I’m Reading From by Tim Parks

Where I'm Reading FromYou may be getting tired of me reviewing books about books – well, there are more to come, and I can’t get enough of them! Recommendations always heartily welcomed. I can’t remember where I first heard of Where I’m Reading From (2014) by Tim Parks, but I have an inkling that it might have been in the ‘You May Also Be Interested In’ section on Amazon. I do know how I got it – it was a birthday present from my friends Sarah and Paul, along with Michael Dirda’s Browsings which I’ll also be writing about soon.

Tim Parks (a name I did not know before, once I realised that I’d been getting him mixed up with Tim Pears) is a British novelist, translator, and professor who lives in Milan. As such, he is well placed to write about all manner of literary topics, from the nuances of copyright to the different ways to translate isolated sentences from D.H. Lawrence. His pieces, which previously all appeared in the New York Review of Books, are certainly engaging and thought-provoking. They are also maddeningly repetitive.

The same points come up over and over and over again – that writers outside of English aim for an international style rather than one linked to their own particular contexts; that translators have to choose between content and tone; that academic criticism is too engaged with the text and not with the author’s life. This last suggests Park hasn’t read any English Literature academic writing for about forty years, but the other two would be extremely interesting points if they didn’t each come up a dozen times. And it did begin to feel, at one point, as though D.H. Lawrence were the only novelist Parks had ever read. True, these articles/essays came out at intervals over a four year period, but he could still have gone in for a bit more variety. Michael Dirda did; that’s all I’m sayin’.

BUT I should add that, those recurrences forgiven, Where I’m Reading From is fascinating and offers much food for thought. Even acknowledging how much repetition is in the book (and now, it seems, in my blog post about it), the topics covered are many and various, and often unusually interesting. To pick one, ‘Why Readers Disagree’:

Enthusiasm or disappointment may be confirmed or attenuated, but only exceptionally reversed [by criticism]. We say: James Wood/Colm Toibin/Michiko Kakutani admires the book and has given convincing reasons for doing so, but I still feel it is the worst kind of crowd-pleaser.

Let me offer a possible explanation that has been developing in my mind for a decade and more. It’s a central tenet of systemic psychology that each personality develops in the force field of a community of origin, usually a family, seeking his or her own position in a pre-existing group, or ‘system’, most likely made up of mother, father, brothers and sisters, then aunts, uncles, grandparents, and so on. The leading Italian psychologist, Valeria Ugazio further suggests that this family ‘system’ also has ‘semantic content’; that is, as conversations in the family establish criteria for praise and criticism of family members and non-members, one particular theme or issue will dominate.

These might be bravery vs cowardice, moral vs immoral, success vs failure etc. – and these are, he argues, reflected in the qualities we look for in novels or characters. I.e. we may judge books on entirely different scales from one another. At one point Parks makes what he considers an exhaustive list, which is bizarrely brief, but it’s a very intriguing notion nonetheless.

I could either write thousands of words about the different angles and authors considered or end here – and I think it will have to be the latter. Parks doesn’t write with the eager enthusiasm of the avid reader, but rather the mildly detached intellect of the professional man of books – yet those of us who are avid readers first and foremost will find much to interest. This he certainly did – most so in articles on translation, where he resisted quoting examples that only the polylingual would understand, for which I am grateful. Perhaps one does not warm to Parks as a friendly voice (and his treatment of his parents in these articles does little to enamour me, I will confess) but he is not setting out to be a chatty companion so much as a muser. As that, he is very admirable. But he is not Dirda. More on him anon…


5 thoughts on “Where I’m Reading From by Tim Parks

  • January 7, 2016 at 8:54 am

    Too concerned with text and not enough with the author’s life? I would say just about the opposite… Ah, well, fashions come and go! Sounds like a book that would have been more interesting if summarised or reduced to one essay.

  • January 7, 2016 at 9:59 am

    Ha – interesting, he wouldn’t like my Death of the Author based work, then, would he. Which is DEEPLY UNFASHIONABLE NOW. How odd. I have read a few things by him, the NYRB connection does put me off because it makes me think about the London Review of Books which is so difficult to read. I reckon enough people round here will have been given this that it will surface in the charity shops, however, so will keep an eye out!

  • January 7, 2016 at 7:33 pm

    I reviewed this book for Shiny!… I enjoyed much of it, but especially the last section on translation. There was a great bit about translating English for the American market I remember. He can be a bit detached though – which also comes across in his novels.

  • January 8, 2016 at 2:07 am

    I don’t think I will ever get tired of reading blog posts about books about books…so carry on! I do look forward to hearing what you think of Dirda. I have both his Classics for Pleasure and Book by Book. I haven’t actually read either yet, but I have browsed through them and from the little I did read, I was quite charmed!


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