Book - Why Read: Selected Writings 2001–2021

Tony Cross read Why Read: Selected Writings 2001–2021 by Will Self ...

Before I begin this review – if it is a review in the strictest sense of the word – I should explain that I have found Will Self rather terrifying. He always seemed to be a person carved from marble sent out to disdain and judge us all. I have, until now, for these reasons avoided reading anything he ever wrote. His apparent personality made me think they would be deliberate challenges to a reader’s patience and vocabulary.

What I’d heard about this collection it made me want to dip in and test the Will Self waters. And I have to admit I was partly wrong. He certainly doesn’t test ones patience. He does, however, test ones vocabulary. In Harry Pearson’s excellent ‘The Far Corner: A Mazy Dribble Through North East Football’ one of north east region’s speakers are described as being ‘fond of multisyllabic words, precisely used.’* That description could be applied to Will Self.

This is explained in one of the essays when he explains that as a young reader he would refuse to look up words he didn’t understand and that any book worth its salt would allow you to understand what was meant by its context. He is probably right, but I did find myself looking up a number of words as I read this. Some of which I was convinced I knew, but such is Will Self’s hold on me that I was filled with self-doubt.

The writings in this collection fall into broad categories: on reading/writing in the post-digital age; on particular writers or books and on place, whether that be country or building. I found something of interest in all of these and they made me question a number of assumptions I had made. They echo and reflect similar arguments. The fundamental one being that since the advent of a ‘bi-directional digital medium’ – by which he means the Worldwide Web and screen reading - our relationship to books and to reading has been fundamentally changed. Self doesn’t seem to feel that this is a bad or a good thing. It’s just something that is going to happen, but that this change will also change our world dramatically. This collection is almost a full stop on a literary epoch. The end of Gutenberg times.

This is all tightly argued, but not in a dull way. Self is funny and – sorry – self-aware enough to rise above what could have been a journey through one man’s bonnet of bees and make you think about his arguments. I’m not sure I agree with all of them, but I wondered whether that was because my life revolves so much around reading – whether digital or analogue – that I’m blind to what is happening in places where books and reading aren’t the core part of your identity as they are for me.

His analysis of contemporary culture, including culture wars, seems pretty spot on to me though. He talks about how social media has established a ‘permanent now’ where nothing is ever really in the past or the future. If you want to imagine the future, to bastardise Orwell, imagine a photograph of someone’s lovely meal posted on Instagram over and over again.

Mention of Orwell – he segues clunkingly – makes this a good time to mention that this collection also contains a number of essays on individual writers or books: Orwell, Conrad (The Secret Agent), Sebald, and William Burroughs. These are probably my favourite parts of the collection and bring interesting insight to all of them and make you want to read their books, which is ironic considering all the other writing in this book about the end of reading.

It is, overall, a collection worth reading. Am I still afraid of Will Self? Maybe just a little bit but this has made me want to go and pick up one of his novels, although which one I don’t know. Perhaps I am a bear of very little brain but it seems to me that despite Self’s protestations about how reading – or a certain type of reading at least – is doomed this book suggests that it isn’t.

* I can’t remember which group and I’m quoting this from memory as I couldn’t find my copy of the book to confirm the quote, but it always stuck in my mind. Perhaps it is time for a re-read.

Follow Tony on Twitter @Lokster71

Why Read: Selected Writings 2001–2021 by Will Self is published by Grove Press UK

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