The month in books

From the history of the Royal Mail to existentialist Tom and Jerry, Fatema Ahmed selects November’s highlights
October 19, 2011

Until I started university, I would read every book (of fiction, anyway) twice. It meant that you could race through a work the first time for plot, whilst being a more leisurely, attentive reader the second time round. I stopped doing this when I read that Virginia Woolf did the same thing (perhaps I didn’t want anyone to think that I was being a copycat).

The American academic Patricia Meyer Spacks has written a whole book about what it means to read a book more than once. On Rereading (Harvard University Press, £19.95) is an absorbing, detailed account of books she has reread over the years.

Spacks is a professional rereader, and of the 18th-century novel in particular, but she’s self-aware enough to say that “Rereading may correct reading; it may also correct previous rereading. Yet it doesn’t guarantee insight.” She ultimately comes out for recreational reading being a higher-order activity than the kind she gets paid for: “I suspect it is more open-minded than its professional equivalent.”

Among other highlights, Spacks is particularly good on Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, explaining why it is a low, unpleasant book, and why, like most of its first-time readers, she was too busy laughing to notice this the first time round. If there is one disappointment with On Rereading, however, it is that Spacks overlooks the short story in favour of the novel.

Steven Millhauser is an American short-story writer whose work has regularly appeared in magazines like the New Yorker and Harper’s. His dedication to shorter forms (he also writes novellas) means that he’s relatively unknown compared to novelists of the same calibre. Despite winning a Pulitzer prize he’s probably best-known for a very good story, “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” about a magician in the later years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was turned into a terrible 2006 film, The Illusionist. A massive volume of his selected short stories from over three decades, We Others (Corsair, £20), confirms that he’s been consistently interested in “the indestructible realm of mystery and dream” and Mitteleuropean weirdness. In practice this means that his stories are often fairytale-like in structure and setting. “The Knife Thrower,” for instance, begins: “When we learned that Hensch, the knife thrower, was stopping at our town for a single performance at eight o’clock on Saturday night, we hesitated, wondering what we felt.” Millhauser’s stories are characterised by this mixture of specificity (times, and days of the week) and the vague—where exactly are we? And who, exactly, is speaking? Another story, “Cat n’ Mouse,” begins as an account of a cat chasing a mouse, before turning into something much stranger: condemned to perform their chase routine forever, it’s Tom and Jerry scripted by Sartre.

The Argentinian writer Iosi Havilio’s first novel, Open Door, (And Other Stories, £10) is also unafraid of weirdness. The novel’s narrator is a veterinary assistant who leaves Buenos Aires to look for her lover in Open Door, which is both the name of a town and a psychiatric hospital. It’s an impressively controlled story where, as a reader, you have to cling on to the plot by following the sentences as closely as possible: the sentences are deliberately unshowy so that plot twists can unfold in the quietest ways. To avoid giving away the plot and to dispel any notions of dullness, the critic Oscar Guardiola-Rivera’s afterword may be helpful here: “There is a lot of sex and violence in Open Door, but it is never gratuitous.”

Away from the world of fiction, November’s selection of books also includes Duncan Campbell-Smith’s Masters of the Post: The Authorized History of the Royal Mail (Allen Lane, £30). Campbell-Smith offers a fascinating God’s-eye-view of the Royal Mail and postal services in Britain, beginning with the letter-writing Paston family in the 15th century and ending with the current debate about privatisation. The book is at its most accessible in the accounts of figures like Rowland Hill, the 19th-century social reformer whose campaign for a comprehensive postal service went hand-in-hand with progressive views on educational reform. As an authorised history (complete with a foreword by the chairman of the Royal Mail Group) it sometimes seems as if Campbell-Smith is making points that the Royal Mail has either given up making or doesn’t want to make itself in public, chiefly that privatisation may free it from being pushed round by politicians, but that it may also lead to the end of Hill’s vision of a nationwide, uniformly priced system.

Campbell-Smith’s book is timely and admirably well-researched, but in the end this 800-page whopper is a work of reference, rather than a book to read (and reread) in full.