Tim Parks
Where I’m Reading From
New York Review of Books
ISBN: 978-1-59017-884-3

Reviewer: Nathan Leslie

          “It’s time to rethink everything.” Such is the opening line in veteran Tim Parks’s new book of short essays, Where I’m Reading From: The Changing World of Books. Tim Parks is the author of nine previous books of nonfiction and seventeen books of fiction (the majority of the essays in this book originally appeared on the website for the New York Review of Books), yet he is unafraid to ask the deep questions. Contrarian to the core, Parks is on a mission within this particular book to skewer the holiest of literary holies: fancy awards and sacrosanct literary values, beware. The title of this collection may seem innocuous, but it belies the beast within.

          Parks divides his book into four distinct parts: “The World Around the Book,” “The Book in the World,” “The Writer’s World,” and “Writing Across Worlds.” The first three sections are most riveting and compelling, while the fourth section is more narrowly focused on translation and language and a bit more stodgy. Even though Parks makes a number of grand, far-reaching statements, this is also when he is at his best. A typical Parks gambit is to ask a simple question, then piggy back upon it, asking additional questions; in other words, he utilizes the Socratic Method well, exploding dynamite in the safety zone of received opinions. Some of the titles in the first fifty pages of Where I’m Reading From include, for instance:

“Why Finish Books?”
“Do We Need Stories?”
“What’s Wrong with the Nobel?”
“Does Money Make us Write Better?”

          This gives you the idea; these pieces are polemical and divisive. And within these essays Parks wields his rhetorical-question device like a chainsaw. This is a book bursting with vitality. Parks is after not only the establishment but the unquestioned assumptions of readers. He particularly likes to invoke the oft-ignored issue of audience, and as a result the experience of reading these essays is revelatory and eye-opening. In reading this collection of essays I kept thinking, Wow, he just went there, didn’t he? Yes, he did.

          One of the key essays for my money is “Writing to Win,” wherein Parks asks the question: What gives writers value in society? Why is the perception of writers what it is? His argument is that the literary sphere is a grand competition, pitting writers against other writers—but indirectly and with excessive surface niceties. “What matters is winning, sales, celebrity, world domination,” Parks writes. “Yet this must never be acknowledged as the principal value.” He defends the value of stories as the way we understand the world, but also asks, “Why do people have such a high regard for authors, even when they don’t read?” Far from anti-intellectual, Parks treasures literature, but he makes a distinction between the authors and books he adores and the authors and books he feels we are taught we should adore but shouldn’t really.

          The fact that Parks is writing from a Eurocentric position—Parks has lived in Italy for the past few decades—adds freshness to the insights within Where I’m Reading From. To wit: many, if not most, American poets and fiction writers believe in the importance of the MFA and the sanctity of conferences such as the AWP. Parks dismisses this as so much careerism and warns against the Americanization of literature in general. In “Does Money Make Us Write Better,” Parks claims that “Almost the worst thing that can happen to writers at least if it’s the work we’re thinking about, is to receive immediately, all the money and recognition they want.” Likewise, in “The Writer’s Job,” Parks bemoans the academization of literature: “In the 20th Century people stopped reading novels and poems and started studying them.” Moreover, Parks claims that the task of writers now is the constant promotion of their work—joining the industrial promotional machine.

          Parks also investigates some of the philosophical assumptions of literature, for instance the need for universality. “Art that Stays Home” is one of the best essays in this collection, wherein Parks asks: “What if the quality of some fine works of art lies exactly in their relationship with the local and the contemporary?” Lesson: write in the here and now. In “Stupid Questions,” Parks takes the contrarian position of defending basic autobiographical questions at literary readings. “Why are writers so determined to focus exclusively on their novels, as if there were no continuity between writing and life?” Lesson: don’t be so coy.

          This is, of course, not a flawless book. The last section of Where I’m Reading From is a bit less intriguing, in that it investigates narrower issues pertaining to translation. Also, though Parks’s rhetorical questions probe, they also slip into the realm of stylistic tic at times. One could argue that Parks asks too many unanswered questions and that his pieces are often too sweeping. If you are looking for a complete study of the topics Parks raises, this is not the book for you. The intent here seems to be to provoke further analysis. Still, Parks is shrewd in the way he exposes the conventions of the literary community and details the various fetishes we sometimes unknowingly embrace. In addition, the examples Parks uses are astute and compelling throughout. For instance, in “To Tell and Not to Tell,” an essay which details the consequences of the literary life upon loved ones, he mentions the fact that Dostoevsky wrote Notes from the Underground at a time when his wife was very ill and coming off an affair—okay for Dostoevsky, not okay for John Edwards in 2008. Where I’m Reading From is one of my favorite books of 2015, an essential read for those who love the written word and fret about its future.

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