Pen in Hand: Reading, Re-reading and Other Mysteries by Tim Parks

Books about books are obviously a huge favourite of we bookish bloggers (although I suspect I don’t have as many on my shelves as some do….!) Yet they come in all shapes, sizes and formats; and the contents and focus can vary so much, taking in everything to a person’s history of their reading life to more erudite analyses of why we read, that it could be argued that they really don’t constitute a genre of their own. Tim Park’s new collection of essays is a good case in point: the subtitle hints that there might be something a little more in depth than usual and that turned out to be the case.

Parks is known as a novelist, essayist and translator, and it’s in this latter guise that I’ve encountered him in the past; he’s been responsible for translating some of the works of my beloved Italo Calvino, but I’ve not read any of his fiction or non-fiction works. So when Will from the lovely Alma Books kindly offered a review copy of “Pen in Hand” I was intrigued and keen to give Parks a look. “Pen…” is a very dippable work, so I’ve been spending time with it over several weeks; and a very stimulating read it is too!

The pieces in the book have appeared online in the New York Review of Books Daily and the New York Times; having them collected in one volume makes perfect sense because each essay can be read separately, but there is a continuity between them and the cumulative effect is mentally exhilarating. Parks has divided his writings up into four sections, titled “How Could You Like That Book?”, “Reading and Writing”, “Malpractice” and “Gained and Lost in Translation”. Within the book’s pages is contained wide-ranging discussions of everything from visualising when reading through Dylan’s Nobel to whether too many books are being produced.This latter particularly resonated, as I’ve long wondered about the effect of modern publishing techniques; it’s so easy nowadays to produce a book in a word-processing program and press a button – voila, latest attempt at a bestseller. My late dad was a typesetter by trade, setting metal type by hand for many, many years until computers took over (and he retrained). If a book was going to be set by hand, it had to be considered worthwhile putting into print; I’d go along with the argument that a *lot* of stuff that appears nowadays isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.

But I digress. Parks produces a wonderful essay on another modern blight, the constant distractions which beset us, called “Reading: The Struggle”; there is a thoughtful discussion of autofiction which I found particularly helpful when reading an excellent example of that kind of book recently; and he expressed concern about our current tendency to novelise our novelists, stating “We should read our great authors, not mythologize them.” He’s a drily witty writer, dropping in all sorts ot sentences which raise a chuckle while making a point: for example, “My mother used to warn me that God saw everything I did and even thought, so that one of the reliefs of losing faith was the recovery of a little privacy.”

An extensive section of essays on translation make up the final part of the book, and these were particularly timely and fascinating. Several cover the translation of Primo Levi’s writings, specifically in the Collected Works (three ginormous volumes I lugged back from a trip to London a while back). Parks is critical of some of the renderings (being a translator from Italian himself, of course) and gives examples with which it’s hard to argue (although his renderings are perhaps a little more literal than the versions he critiques). Translation is a difficult art, I guess, and Parks has the advantage of having lived in Italy for many years so that as well as being linguistically suited to translate, he also has the cultural background. However, despite his misgivings, I hope the power of Levi’s words will still come through to me in English as I make my way through the massive volumes.

“Pen in Hand” is certainly no light read, and that’s a good thing in my view. The essays are stimulating, sometimes controversial, entertaining and each set me thinking about any number of bookish and literature-related subjects. There were some real “Yes!” moments when he nailed some thought I’d been struggling to pin down, and although I didn’t always agree with Parks’ views, reading them was fascinating. To combine the scholarly and the entertaining in a way that’s always readable is a real achievement and if you want to read some invigorating and enjoyable essays on reading and its perils, I can’t recommend this book highly enough!

Review copy kindly supplied by Alma Books, for which many thanks.

Simon at Stuck in a Book has also reviewed the book, and you can read his thoughts here.