Where I’m Reading From by Tim Parks

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Reviewed by Annabel

Many of us who are booklovers enjoy nothing more than reading a book about books. I’m familiar with Tim Parks through his novels, many of which I’ve read. Some I loved, others less so, but all are written with an evident commitment that makes a Tim Parks novel always worth the effort, even if it ends up being not quite your thing. When I found out that he had been writing a regular column for the New Yorker magazine for some time about ‘the changing world of books’ and that a collection of his essays was being published, I thought that it would be fascinating to read – and so it proved to be.

Where I’m Reading From contains 37 of these pieces from the past four years, and the essays have been grouped into four sections: The World Around the Book, The Book in the World, The Writer’s World and Writing Across Worlds – essentially literature, reading, writing and translation.  Parks is an ideal guide, being prolific as a novelist, columnist, critic and translator. A Brit, he lives in Italy and lectures on translation at the University of Milan.

My one fear on starting to read this collection was that the references and critical discussion might be a little highbrow for me. I need not have worried, for despite these essays having been crafted with rigorous attention to detail and not in the least lowbrow, I recognized most of the works and authors quoted therein (even if I hadn’t read them).

Parks is not afraid to be provocative in these essays – and any reader will find areas where they will disagree with him, but still enjoy reading his point of view.  One such for me in Part One was on the subject of e-books. In his summary, he writes:

The e-book, by eliminating all variations in the appearance and weight of the material object we hold in our hand and by discouraging everything by our focus on where we are in the sequence of words … would seem to bring us closer than the paper book to the essence of the literary experience. … It is as if one had been freed from everything extraneous and distracting that surrounds the text to focus on the pleasure of the words themselves. In this sense the passage from paper to e-book is not unlike the moment when we passed from illustrated children’s books to the adult version of the page that is only text. This is a medium for grown-ups.

Well put, but I beg to disagree. That, or I must still be a big kid!

There is much to ponder on though. Talking about the literary canon as being a set of texts representative of one’s nation, and where the big international authors might now sit in it he says,

Pamuk, for example, may offer a strong sense of place, but it is one increasingly addressed to those outside Turkey, rather than to the Turkish themselves.


Parks can also make us laugh. In the essay ‘Stupid Questions’ he recounts his experiences of talking at literary festivals. How do you pitch a talk when most of the audience haven’t read your latest book, some will have read something else you’ve written, and others barely know who you are?

With his translator’s hat on Parks has great stories to tell about this art, and I found this last quarter of the book the most fascinating. The need for translators (and their editors) to immerse themselves in the culture they’re translating else you can end up with some real clangers:

…the first Italian translation of Nineteen Eighty-Four has the clocks striking one, not thirteen, its translator apparently unaware of how interesting a clock striking thirteen would be.

He also tells of his experiences converting his own book, about the Italian character as discovered by travelling around Italy by train, for the American market.  Train carriages have to become coaches, coaches have to become buses and so on, and you daren’t mention the words ‘house style’.  He tackles the reverse of this too – saying how he’s not seen an Italian translation of The Great Gatsby that  adequately conveys Fitzgerald’s words and concepts such as ‘unrestfully’ and ‘get rich together’. He says,  ‘In translation, stripped of its style, Gatsby really doesn’t seem a very remarkable performance.’

Along the way in this enjoyable book, we discover which authors Tim Parks himself revers – and modernist author Henry Green probably comes top of his list, with Barbara Pym not far behind. I shall read Parks’ novels with fresh eyes now – having finally had encounters with both Green and Pym.

Where I’m Reading From proved to be a fascinating collection; entertaining and erudite without being elitist. It particularly gave me a new appreciation for the art of translation, a subject which, as more novels from around the world are available in English, becomes more and more important. I’d recommend this anthology to anyone who would enjoy a thought-provoking book about books.

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Tim Parks, Where I’m Reading From (Harvill Secker, London, Nov 2014) ISBN: 978-1846559037, hardback, 244 pages.

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