The Reader’s Reader
Latest Readings (Clive James),
Yale University Press
Years ago, Clive James was a very entertaining journalist and TV personality in the UK. I’m not sure how far his writings or TV shows penetrated the USA, but in on this side of the pond he was a major, much-loved star. In 2010 he was diagnosed with terminal leukemia. Despite the shock, he decided to fill his time with reading and re-reading. Still entertaining, and in a series of cogent, brief essays, James reports back to us from these experiences and shares his insights with inimitable charm. As ever, he is decidedly witty, at times hilariously funny, and always clear in his understanding and recommendations. His Latest Readings is also a great place to pick up tips for your own reading, reactions and interpretations.
Along the way, James also takes you with him on the journey of his illness so far. For example:
“Among the disadvantages of COPD, which used to be called emphysema, is a susceptibility to chest infections. Despite one’s daily intake of antibiotics, different bacteria keep arriving from all directions, eager to squat. One day I was checking in at the hospital for a routine clinic, and my temperature was deemed to be too high for me to go home. I spent ten days in the pulmonary ward, while the fever turned into pneumonia. … But meanwhile the problem of boredom loomed. I staved it off by re-reading Lord Jim, a copy of which, along with the usual epics about swords and dragons, was on the library cart which a very sweet and obviously fulfilled senior female volunteer was wheeling around the wards. … I remembered it as a boring book. I suppose I had a plan to stave off one kind of boredom with another, as a kind of inoculation. On the strength of this long-delayed second reading, the book struck me as no more exciting than it had once seemed, but as a lot more interesting. I had long known Conrad to be a great writer: on the strength of Under Western Eyes alone, he would have to be ranked high among those English writers – well, Polish writers resident in England – who, dealing with eastern Europe, analyzed the struggle between the imbecility of autocracy and the imbecility of revolution. But on the strength of my earlier memories, I didn’t see Lord Jim as part of that international historical picture. Now, reading a few pages at a time as I lay fitfully on a sweat-soaked sheet while my fever refused to break, I could see that I had been laughably wrong about Conrad’s most famous book for the whole of my reading life. An international historical picture is exactly what it exemplifies.”
Okay, analyse that! Note: the humour; the wry tone; the bits of autobiography; the luring you into thinking seriously about Conrad; the implication of the fun to be had; the irony; the lack of self pity; the straight stating of the facts; the conversational authorial tone. The whole book is at this level; and the whole book is a total delight made poignant by knowing the Clive James has a terminal illness and that he’s sharing some of his intellectual interests with you. His taste is eclectic; his choices of book sometimes surprising (Sir David Fraser’s biography of Alanbrooke? David Halberstam’s The Powers That Be? his taste for reading about American politics?) but he covers a considerable number of classic authors as well.
Like his old TV criticism, the essays feel personal, somewhat demotic, and very direct. The cumulative effect of this book is to make you want to follow Clive James’s reading list and to admire and share his joy of living. His intellect and insights are remarkably appealing.
The book is simply excellent; there isn’t a dud essay in it, not an essay that doesn’t make you want to read the volume he’s talking about for yourself;not an essay that isn’t informative as well as enthusiastic. Recently, James commented that he almost had to apologize to his readers for continuing to survive beyond the original expiration date. Well, I can only hope that he survives a lot longer for all the right reasons and also so that he can produce at least ten more sequels! You could do a lot worse than forming a book club to read all the books that he covers in this charming tome.