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Does Talking About Books Make Us More Cosmopolitan?

John Vink/Magnum Photos
Paris, 1989

What is the deeper purpose, if any, of our disagreements and discussions about books? Why not just accept that I, say, like J.M. Coetzee’s novels and you don’t, or you like Salman Rushdie’s and I don’t. De gustibus non est disputandum. After all, we do not argue with a friend who doesn’t like Brussels sprouts, or who prefers tea to coffee, or gin to whiskey. So what is at stake in the argument about books? And do the stakes change in a period of globalization and growing readership of international literature?

Maybe it will help to go back to basics and recall exactly what a book is. Or even what it isn’t. Is this, for example, a book that we could ever disagree about?

Detail from a page of the Voynich Manuscript, early fifteenth century

There are marks on a page, one of the 240 vellum pages of the so-called Voynich Manuscript, which has been carbon-dated to the early fifteenth century and is presumed to come from Italy. It seems that the marks are letters and that they are arranged in words—all our experience of similar objects invites us to believe so—but no one, since the manuscript’s appearance on the antique book market in 1912, has worked out what language this might be or what the words mean. No one has read it. So is it a book?

We don’t know. Marks on pages are not enough to constitute a book. It could well be a hoax, or something else altogether. Certainly, the Voynich Manuscript is not functioning as a book. For that, it would need a reader. For example, looking at this…

नारायणंनमस्कृत्यनरंचैवनरॊत्तमम
देवींसरस्वतींचैवततॊजयमउदीरयेत
लॊमहर्षणपुत्रउग्रश्रवाःसूतःपौराणिकॊनैमिषारण्येशौनकस्य
कुलपतेरदवादशवार्षिकेसत्रे
समासीनानअभ्यगच्छदबरह्मर्षीनसंशितव्रतान
विनयावनतॊभूत्वाकदाचितसूतनन्दनः
तमआश्रममअनुप्राप्तंनैमिषारण्यवासिनः
चित्राःशरॊतुंकथासतत्रपरिवव्रुसतपस्विनः
अभिवाद्यमुनींसतांसतुसर्वानएवकृताञ्जलिः
अपृच्छतसतपॊवृद्धिंसद्भिशचैवाभिनन्दितः
अथतेषूपविष्टेषुसर्वेष्वएवतपस्विषु
निर्दिष्टमआसनंभेजेविनयाललॊमहर्षणिः
सुखासीनंततसतंतुविश्रान्तमउपलक्ष्यच
अथापृच्छदऋषिसतत्रकशचितपरस्तावयनकथाः
कृतआगम्यतेसौतेकवचायंविहृतसतवया
कालःकमलपत्राक्षशंसैततपृच्छतॊमम

You will very likely respond much as you do with the Voynich Manuscript, but from the moment I tell you this is the first page of the Mahabharata in Sanskrit, you are reassured that it is a page from a book that people have read, and indeed translated into many other languages. Then if you saw this…

nārāyaṇaṃnamaskṛtya naraṃcaiva narottamam
devīṃsarasvatīṃcaiva tato jayam udīrayet
lomaharṣaṇaputra ugraśravāḥsūtaḥpaurāṇiko naimiṣāraṇye
śaunakasya kulapater dvādaśavārṣike satre
samāsīnān abhyagacchad brahmarṣīn saṃśitavratān
vinayāvanato bhūtvā kadā cit sūtanandanaḥ
tam āśramam anuprāptaṃnaimiṣāraṇyavāsinaḥ
citrāḥśrotuṃkathās tatra parivavrus tapasvinaḥ
abhivādya munīṃs tāṃs tu sarvān eva kṛtāñjaliḥ
apṛcchat sa tapovṛddhiṃsadbhiś caivābhinanditaḥ
atha teṣūpaviṣṭeṣu sarveṣv eva tapasviṣu
nirdiṣṭam āsanaṃbheje vinayāl lomaharṣaṇiḥ
sukhāsīnaṃtatas taṃtu viśrāntam upalakṣya ca
athāpṛcchad ṛṣis tatra kaś cit prastāvayan kathāḥ
kṛta āgamyate saute kva cāyaṃvihṛtas tvayā
kālaḥkamalapatrākṣa śaṃsaitat pṛcchato mama

… and I told you it was the same page, now transcribed in a Latin alphabet, you might feel that you could distinguish, perhaps even pronounce, certain words and that, with a lot of work, you might one day be able to read it yourself. But you would not expect that your experience, if you did so, would be the same as that of someone who learned Sanskrit as a child in Madhya Pradesh. Nor would it be like reading the work in an English translation.

To exist as a book, then, the pages with their letters and spaces need a reader. We may think of books as unchanging material objects, but they only, as it were, happen when read; they have no absolute identity. And the nature of that reading—an experience extended over many hours, then mulled over for many more, for the book does not cease to happen the moment we turn the last page—will depend, to a large degree, on who the reader is.

There will be issues of competence. How well do I know this language? How well do I know the territory described and the issues discussed, the tradition the book is written in? Am I sufficiently aware of allusions to historical events, customs, other books, and so on? In this regard, we might all agree that if we put some effort into improving our knowledge, our reading would change. I can struggle through The Canterbury Tales in the original, but if I dedicated myself to a study of the English of the period, the book would be transformed. I can read Trainspotting, just about, but perhaps a course in Scottish slang is required to really get Irvine Welsh’s novel. And so on.

Often, when we argue about books, it’s as well to ask ourselves if there isn’t an issue of competence that divides us. Time and again, I’ve realized I’d better shut my mouth when someone points out something of which I was simply ignorant, something that shifts the whole picture. As an Englishman living in Italy, discussing Italian literature with Italians, this is perhaps inevitable. In this regard, arguing about books can have the function, however mortifying, of reminding you that for a book to happen more fully and satisfyingly, you will have to change.

But there will be other questions, too, or areas where “competence” shades into something less easily defined. Does a book set in Amsterdam require that I know Amsterdam, or a story about chronic pain require that I have some experience of that unhappy condition? Surely not. Perhaps the whole point of the book was to bring Amsterdam, or the reality of chronic pain, to someone who doesn’t know it. Yet, if I do know the territory, the book shifts. Certainly, if I’m more familiar with Amsterdam than the author is, my reading may be less satisfying to me than the reading of someone who must take the city as described.

If I know about Thomas Hardy’s troubled relationship with his wife, is my reading of Jude the Obscure better or worse, or simply different from that of someone who doesn’t even know Thomas Hardy was married? And what about Hardy’s wife’s reading? Was Emma Gifford right to loathe the novel and consider it absolutely false?

Personal experience—of war, of sexual betrayal, of a religious childhood—may radically alter our response to this or that book. In none of these cases could we argue that my view could be “corrected” by improving this or that competence.

Then there are the different expectations we bring to our reading. “You are taking all this too seriously,” a dinner guest protests when I complain about the superficiality and opportunism of a certain “literary thriller.” “I read for entertainment,” he says, “it’s a great story.” And I have no answer to this. I can appeal to a tradition that would have books offer an honest analysis of the world they describe. But what if my guest doesn’t care?

The book exists relative to everything we bring to it and seek from it. “There is no one in this novel to root for,” a Goodreads reviewer complains of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. “You just end up wishing all the characters would hold hands and jump off a bridge.”

Suddenly, we are bound to appreciate the fact that to have the same experience of a book as someone else, to agree entirely and feel exactly the same way about it, we would have to be that someone. Books are such complex objects, many aspects of life appear in them, arranged in this or that way, filtered through this or that tradition; by bringing our own unique experience and requirements to them, which is the only way in which they can function as books, all kinds of thoughts, memories, and sentiments are set in motion. To argue consequently about whether a book was good or not, or how good, or what it was claiming, denying, denouncing, or commending—to seek, in short, against the odds, to pin it down—is actually to argue about who we are, to define our differences. We know each other through these discussions.

In this regard, nothing is more illuminating, when reading reviews of one’s own novels, than the comments of those who “missed” (as I would see it) the point, who experienced something quite different from what I expected or intended. Reading them, I savor how far apart we are. I learn something. And nothing is more revealing, when thinking about the great authors of the past, than to read the comments of those who opposed, disliked, and condemned their writing: “Jude the Obscene,” one reviewer responded to Hardy’s novel; “a shameful nightmare,” wrote another.

Of course, it might be argued that any disagreement will have the same function of revealing ourselves to one another, whether about the MeToo movement or health insurance, Trump’s wall or global warming. But our disagreements about such matters are complicated by personal interest and, again, by the fact that we come to the argument armed or misled by quite different information from different sources.

With a novel, on the other hand, our liking or otherwise is disinterested—we gain nothing from it, lose nothing from it. What’s more, we know that however different the experience each of us brings to it, however long, involved, and multifaceted the story a novel tells, the text itself remains closed between two covers. Everyone sees the same signs on the page. It is hard to think of another object at once so complex, so fixed, and so easily available through which we can explore our differences.

The special function of “international literature” in times of globalization should be clearer now. In discussing, and disagreeing over, contemporary books circulating simultaneously in many countries, we seek to establish our positions in relation to one another in a larger world—as, say, Americans, Russians, French, or Chinese—and, in so doing, to move toward some kind of international community.

Such is the ideal. But now, of course, the signs on the page are not the same. Translation has transformed them. We may believe we are arguing about the same text when, in fact, it is subtly different in all kinds of ways. And we come to the events described in these books—in Seoul or San Francisco or Shanghai—with such different knowledge, prejudices, and expectations that it may well not be possible even to disagree in any useful way, the way Americans might disagree passionately about the portrayal of America in Franzen’s work, or of Israelis about Grossman’s Israel. Then, in what language do we discuss these things? Is English always to be the lingua franca that determines what can be said, handing an advantage to the native speaker?

The risk is that writers seeking to be part of the international debate about books, and thereby perhaps realizing lucrative sales of their work, will focus on tropes that are internationally recognized—the detective novel, say, or the story of political struggle—exoticizing and caricaturing a local reality for the benefit of those who can’t be expected to know it. We will thus find ourselves debating the banal or bewildered by the authentic. I recall a discussion on the jury of an international prize in which it was felt that the work of the great Indian writer U.R. Ananthamurthy would simply be too strange for an Anglo-Saxon audience. Which tells us volumes about what we mean by “international prize”: foreign writers who make sense to us.


An earlier version of this essay implied, wrongly, that Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting was set in Glasgow; it is set in Edinburgh. The article has been updated.