From one of the most unusual and distinctive writers working today, dubbed “the most daring and delightful novelist of his generation” by the Guardian, Will Self’s Why Read is a cornucopia of thoughtful and brilliantly witty essays on writing and literature.
Self takes us with him: from the foibles of his typewriter repairman to the irradiated exclusion zone of Chernobyl, to the Australian outback, and to literary forms past and future. With his characteristic intellectual brio, Self aims his inimitable eye at titans of literature like Woolf, Kafka, Orwell, and Conrad. He writes movingly on W.G. Sebald’s childhood in Germany and provocatively describes the elevation of William S. Burroughs’s Junky from shocking pulp novel to beloved cult classic. Self also expands on his regular column in Literary Hub to ask readers, how, what, and ultimately why we should read in an ever-changing world. Whether he is writing on the rise of the bookshelf as an item of furniture in the nineteenth century or on the impossibility of Googling his own name in a world lived online, Self’s trademark intoxicating prose and mordant, energetic humor infuse every piece.
A book that examines how the human stream of consciousness flows into and out of literature, Why Read will satisfy both old and new readers of this icon of contemporary literature.
Praise for Why Read:
“Whether he’s writing stylistically innovative fiction or expanding the boundaries of what nonfiction can do, Will Self has established himself as a singular and influential writer over the last few decades. The new collection Why Read offers readers highlights from 20 years of his work, with Self covering subjects ranging from George Orwell to Chernobyl. It’s a fine introduction to a major literary voice.”—Tobias Carroll, InsideHook
“Sharp, trenchant essays from an enfant terrible of modern letters . . . Plenty to ponder in this energetic, opinionated collection.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Idiosyncratic . . . Taken together, the candid musings are a fine mix of practicality and nostalgia. Self’s fans will relish having these wide-ranging reflections in one place.”—Publishers Weekly
Praise for Will Self:
“Will Self may not be the last modernist at work but at the moment he’s the most fascinating of the tradition’s torch bearers.”—New York
“Self is the most daring and delightful novelist of his generation, a writer whose formidable intellect is mercilessly targeted on the limits of the cerebral as a means of understanding. Yes, he makes you think, but he also insists that you feel.”—Guardian
“Mr. Self often enough writes with such vividness it’s as if he is the first person to see anything at all.”—New York Times
“Self writes in a high-modernist, hallucinatory, stream-of-consciousness style, leaping between sentences, time periods, and perspectives . . . The reward is a strange, vivid book.”—New Yorker
“Self’s prose demands real attention, but is never less than sharp, biting and incisive. Prepare to be eaten whole.”—Independent
“Like the work of the great high modernists from the 1920s, like Joyce, Woolf and Eliot, there is a kind of chaotic beauty in Self’s unrestricted writing . . . You’ll be simultaneously entertained, mesmerized, intellectually stimulated, baffled—and laugh your ass off.”—NPR
“Will Self’s Phone will be one of the most significant literary works of our century . . . Over and above the intellectual sprezzatura of the work, there is, at its heart, an emotional core, a profound sense of grief.”—New Statesman
“Self has indeed been a goat among the sheep of contemporary English fiction, a puckish trickster self-consciously at odds with its middle-class politeness . . . Writers, too, as Self so wonderfully proves, can awaken the half-dead and reanimate that which has been sunk in oblivion.”—New York Review of Books
Excerpted from Why Read © 2023 by Will Self. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.
The future St Augustine’s account of his mentor Bishop Ambrose’s reading habits, written during the fourth century of the Christian era, still stands as the first definitive account of anyone doing this: ‘When he read his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.’ Augustine’s astonishment is so palpable – while other references to such a practice prior to this are so scant – we can only infer that reading was indeed principally undertaken aloud. Certainly, with literacy uncommon in the Roman world, there were fewer readers than those desirous of knowing texts; while, with the rise of a religion in which God’s revelation took a written form, this sacred imperative joined these more mundane motivations. Suffice it to say, it isn’t until the tenth century that we gain a general sense of reading becoming a solitary pursuit rather than a collective endeavour.
So why do it? Why bury your head in a book? Because let’s face it, the experience of solitary reading is qualitatively different from being read to aloud in a group – the former entails a deeper absorption in the text, and a more direct engagement with the mind shaping its language: immersive private reading leads one into a virtual reality, while being told a story with others keeps you in a social one. The analogy might be on the one hand with the individual liberty of conscience implicit in the Protestant confession, and on the other with collectively uttered Catholic credo. However, I suspect if you’ve even got this far you’re a reader anyway – and have now further self-selected by showing an interest not just in the text, but also – if you like – in the meta-text: what lies beyond the text that shapes our apprehension of it. In which case, you almost certainly know why you yourself read: it’s self-evidently to do with your enjoyment, experienced as the free play of your imagination, the stimulation of your intellect, and the engagement of your sympathy. But as to why it should be reading specifically that enables this – and what other values we project onto this ability – these are different questions, the answers to which may provide us with some insight into the vexed further one: whither reading?
In Understanding Media (1964), that revelatory and prophetic work of cultural philosophy, Marshall McLuhan speaks of the form of human consciousness engendered by the practice of solitary reading as ‘the Gutenberg mind’, and calls – implicitly – for a recognition of its potential limits. Indeed, to follow his most celebrated maxim is to recognise that the message of the codex, as a medium, is that acquiring knowledge and its understanding are under- takings separated from the social realm, whether by the bone of our skulls or the boards of our book covers.
In the current era the dispute between those who view the technological assemblage of the internet and the web as some sort of panacea for our ills, and those who worry it might herald the end of everything from independent thought (whatever that might be), to literacy itself, has a slightly muted feel. I suspect the reason for this is also to be found in Understanding Media: as McLuhan pointed out, the supplanting of one medium by another can take a long time – and just as the practice of copying manuscripts by hand continued for centuries after the invention of printing, so solitary reading – conceived of importantly as an individual and private absorption in a unitary text of some length – persists, and will continue to endure long after the vast majority of copy being ingested is in the form of tiny digitised gobbets.
2020 was an exceptional year, and the evidence is certainly not conclusive, but nonetheless the pandemic almost certainly resulted in renewed interest in long-form prose and the reading of it. There’s a nice sort of asynchrony here, with the reviving of the Gutenberg mind being occasioned by the sort of plague with which he would’ve been all too familiar. But when we ask why should we read? The answer surely cannot be that it’s the substrate best suited for cultivating a certain type of human persona – one that sees itself as unitary, maintaining identity through space and time, and capable of accounting for itself in a linear fashion conformable to external correlates – a persona, in other words, like a book. Yet just as the pandemic has got some of us scuttling back within its covers, so the longer- term decline in what we might call purposive reading has been inversely – arguably perversely – correlated with what the philosopher Galen Strawson terms ‘strong narrativity’: that belief not only in the book-like human persona, but in a categorical imperative to convey its contents to others.
The shibboleth ‘everyone has a book in them’ has mutated into the rather more hectoring: ‘everyone has a tale to tell, and they must be able to recount it in order to be accorded full moral status.’ It might be churlish of me – an autodidact, who believes the true writer to be necessarily so – to observe that this ‘philosophy’ has itself developed in lockstep with creative writing programmes, but there it is: having paid cash-on-the-nail to become proficient tale-tellers, creative-writing alumni and their instructors alike (many of whom are themselves also alumni), move to enact a closure that cannot – given the underlying eco- nomic metric – be anything but for the most part ethical. From this righteousness proceeds the proposition: I read (and am read), therefore I am, and I am good.
But shorn of a progressive worldview based on Enlightenment values that equate technological with moral advance, and figure human being itself as a meta-narrative whereby the West writes itself into supremacy, it’s impossible to argue for mandatory reading: ‘To get up in the morning, in the fullness of youth, and open a book! Now, that’s what I call vicious’ is Nietzsche’s admonition in Ecce Homo – and it’s one I’m fond of retailing to my own students, withal that I’d like them to read a great deal more than they do. Why? Because, yes, I too have never seen anything lovelier than a tree, while some of the unloveliest things I’ve ever witnessed have been metaphors, arboreal and floral. Moreover, if the bi-directional digital medium is rendering us illiterate, it’s as much because we can no longer read a map – which necessitates basic orientation – as a text. Put bluntly, we’re becoming strangers in a strange land, moving dazedly through it, our faces wan in the up-light from our screens, as we all follow the little- blue-dot-that’s-us. Under such circumstances, nostalgia for our Gutenberg minds, while understandable, is a bit like nostalgia for hand-tooled leather satchels: a move to accessorise rather than civilise.