Translated by David Bellos
Reviewed by Karen Langley
One of the continual debates nowadays amongst readers is the notion of paper versus e-reader. So it’s a delight to come across a (printed) book which addresses the subject from the point of view of a publisher. Dear Reader came out in November, from the ever-reliable Pushkin Press, and author Paul Fournel has an interesting history. From a traditional publishing background (much like the narrator of his book), Fournel is also a writer, poet and cultural ambassador. Fascinatingly (at least for me) he is the President of Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle; which roughly translates as “workshop of potential literature”), a fact I wasn’t aware of before I picked up a copy of this book. The group contains such luminaries as Italo Calvino, Georges Perec and Raymond Queneau, so Fournel starts with quite a pedigree.
Dear Reader is narrated by Robert Dubois, a French old-style publisher. His firm has been taken over by a larger conglomerate, he’s had a money-man visited upon him, and he spends much of his time mediating between his long-term authors and the faceless demons of modern publishing (and he recognises the demands made on authors by readers and publishers!)
“Once an author acquires an audience, everyone wants him to write the same book one more time. Readers, traders, the publisher (especially when he claims the contrary) – barely anyone wants him to do anything else, except the author, who may sometimes be reluctant.”
At the start of the book, he’s presented with an e-reader (a ‘Kandle’ or ‘iClone’, if you will!) Initially sceptical, he begins to explore the use of the electronic device, comparing its properties with that of a ‘real’ book. The firm has taken on a group of interns, young people much more in touch with the modern world of technology, and Robert hits upon the idea of involving them in a plan to take the e-reader market by storm. But he becomes so involved in this that he doesn’t notice that all is not well with his wife Adele, a publicist for another firm. As the story develops there are unexpected pairings off, the interns develop their skills and Robert’s idea is a runaway success; however, there are hints that things in his life are not going as planned. Like many of us with a new toy, the novelty wears off, and Robert ends up having to take refuge in the written word in a way that I don’t think you could with a modern gizmo and all its distractions.
Most reviewers seem to have mentioned the book’s entertaining qualities and light touch. However, tucked inside this modest, unassuming (but beautifully produced!) little volume is something quite subversive, and it packs a real emotional punch at the end. While telling an amusing tale of paper vs. electronics, it makes the reader think really deeply about life and literature, about what books mean to us and why the printed volume is so special.
“When it’s in print, it suddenly becomes something weightier. Printing and binding work wonders for some texts; for other texts, it doesn’t make a huge difference.”
Of course, this being a book produced by a member of Oulipo, there is going to be another level. The organisation are known for their word games, producing texts based on plans or constraints, so it’s no surprise to learn here that “Dear Reader” was written using the form of a sestina. If I’m honest, I didn’t spend ages trying to work out the pattern as I was enjoying following the plot too much – but I do feel that translator David Bellos, known for his work with other Oulipo members like Perec and Queneau, should be applauded for his sterling translation which apparently keeps to the structure dictated by Fournel.
Dubois himself is an engaging narrator; with an obvious love of books, and a somewhat cynical, ironic outlook on life, he’s a character with whom most book-loving readers would identify. Outwardly flippant and unconcerned about the changes going on around him, he in fact has quite profound thoughts about the effect electronics will have on literature and indeed life. After having had his butcher weigh the e-reader, he comments,
“So that’s the final weight of world literature as it sits in René’s fat red fingers. 730 grams. Cervantes, Hugo, Dickens, and Proust make just 730 grams. Want to throw in Perec? 730 grams. Rilke as well? 730 grams.”
Dear Reader is full of references (other authors, the Situationist Movement) and also many insights into all aspects of books. There is a certain irony that a publisher like Pushkin Press, who are helping to revive the book as a beautiful object, should put out this publication ostensibly about the death of the book as we know it.
But with a printed volume you get something you can’t with an e-reader – a sense of the book as a whole, a thing you can weigh in your hand, flick backwards and forward through, a physical entity rather than just electronic text on a device. Somehow, literature seems to have less substance when it’s just pixels on a screen.
“Literature isn’t something pre-existing that you insert into a text, it’s a very complex construction that’s built only with hindsight, and by all.”
If you’re interested in the debate between paper and electronic; if you like books that take you behind the scenes of the publishing world; if you like puzzles; or if you just love an excellently-written and involving story, then Dear Reader is just the book for you – but most definitely in its printed form!
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and loves jigsaws and crosswords.
Paul Fournel, Dear Reader (Pushkin: London, 2014). 9781782270263, 168pp, paperback.