Reading in the bath

From the Times Literary Supplement, Freelance, 12 May 2012

I have in my hands a masterpiece, apparently. The information comes courtesy of Frances Wilson, a snippet of whose Sunday Times review of Edmund de Waal's book The Hare with Amber Eyes is emblazoned on the cover of my paperback edition, which I have finally got round to reading. It's a fair endorsement in some ways, but in one respect it is manifestly false. Ihave in my hands one piece of a masterpiece. The other piece is floating southwards in a nonchalant manner. I am, you see, reading de Waal's book in the bath, and the glue holding it together can no longer cope with the steam.

The reader will of course realize that unless I am also just now brandishing some kind of writing device together with my loofer and the outer portions of de Waal's book, my use of the present tense constitutes a breach of its official licence. It is true, the bath in question occurred some days ago. My choice of tense is in stylistic homage to de Waal, whose memoir sticks so doggedly to the present tense that it often encompasses two or even three periods in time simultaneously. Many writers reach for the historical present when seeking to quicken the pulse of their readers. See, here, this geographically and historically remote event is happening here, now, right before your eyes. Is it not extraordinary? Do you not feel its force? On the whole, my answer to these questions tends to be no.

Still, I am grateful because the disintegration of de Waal's book over the course of five admittedly rather hot baths allowed me to strike the final item off my list of reasons for not acquiring an e-reader, which was that they couldn't be read in the bath. They can, you just don't want to drop them. Once upon a time, this was the merest objection on a long list. I saw little in favour of buying one. The names given them, whether generic or branded, provided a powerful additional disincentive.

But I hadn't accounted for the volume of opinion pieces in newspapers about the evils of e-books and their sneaking corruption of the autonomy of the activity of reading and its associated virtues. When otherwise quite sensible authors marshal cliché-sodden arguments against some new development, the suspicion naturally arises that what is harmful is less the development itself than the inflationary growth in fatuous newspaper comment.

I am also by nature something of a contrarian. Had I been around when Socrates was railing against the evils of a new-fangled technology called writing, I would have been first in the queue at the papyrus shop.

It's a nice irony that the book which pushed me over the edge is one which is at its most eloquent when discussing the tactile qualities of beloved objects. Its principal subject is the author's collection of Japanese netsuke and their unexpected intersection with flashpoints in cultural and political history. Netsuke are pocket-sized figurines, usually carved in ivory or boxwood, which were originally intended as toggles for hanging purses or pouches from a kimono. They were never intended to be "great art", but they exemplify magnificently the traditional Japanese virtue that if something is worth making, it's worth making beautifully. De Waal is at his best describing the kind of silent companionship such objects offer, anchored in the unassuming integrity of their craftsmanship and their silent, constant testimony to the lives lived around them.

People ascribe a similar quality to books. Not just any books, but the books we've lived with and loved, a relationship traced in an amassing of creases and assorted marginalia. The physical effect our reading has on them is a nice corollary to the effect it has on our sense of self. They change as we change. Naturally, this is only true of the volumes one actually reads. Unread books, although similar in constancy, shine with a much more discomfiting aura, like neglected friends encountered guiltily on the street.

For years I've been running into Don Quixote like this, in the form of a Penguin Classic which, despite its close print, runs to a thousand or so pages. Its yellow-capped, gleaming black spine would issue occasional taunts as I passed by, casting aspersions on my readerly chivalry. It's pathetic really, but I always found it too awkward to read in bed, or in the bath, and too heavy to take on journeys. Somehow I never gained enough momentum to get past the labyrinthine ironies of the preface. Nonetheless, I recently downloaded a free electronic copy of the book. Several baths and journeys later, at least according to the screensaver on my rather natty device, I am now 78 per cent of the way through it.

Socrates' suspicions of writing were twofold. He thought the permanence of written discourse would prevent people from committing the substance of an argument to memory. He has more than amply been proved right, not least by the fact that I hastily downloaded a free copy of the Phaedrus simply to check this point. His second suspicion interests me more, however. This was that the physical separation between speaker and listener, entailed by the art of writing, would relieve the former of the responsibility to answer the latter's questions. Writing presents itself as finished - as perfected - rather than as part of a dialogue with an outcome yet to be agreed. The simple fact of its permanence brings with it an illusion of truth.

A central feature of our appreciation of the literary as well as all other arts is our sense of everything's being in just the right place, of each word and phrase having been weighed and balanced and favoured over every possible alternative. When it comes to books, this is amplified by beautiful production, which feeds into the quality of being wholly and completely intended. But all this can also get in the way of the simple process of understanding and reflecting upon what someone else has written. The grand perfection of the book elevates its author to a position of unassailable power, often unwarranted, which in turn induces a sense of powerlessness and humility in the reader.

In the case of electronic books, while the texts are identical to their printed equivalents, this imbalance of power is perceptibly weakened. There is something about the informality of the e-book, with its arbitrary pagination and punctuation mishaps, and the way the "print" literally erases itself to make way for the next page, which allows the reader to consider alternatives, and to approach the text less as something set in stone than as a conversation in progress. Reading becomes less aesthetic, more utilitarian.

The first thing I bought for my e-reader was The Hare with Amber Eyes. If it really is a masterpiece, it must be worth paying for twice. In this edition, de Waal's near-continuous use of the historical present seemed less irritating. I also realized that the author's inherited collection of netsuke was probably least touched during the period when their artistic and monetary value was most apparent - at the height of the fashionable Japonism which brought them to Europe to be collected rather than used. Certainly, we tend to be at our most precious around the things we consider precious rather than simply dear. Evidently this is as true of reading as it is of anything else.

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