Sunday, 4 January 2009

Pure Pleasure by John Carey

Yeah I know, eight months and no posts. So much for good intentions. A+ for intention, D- for effect. Anyway, I'll try and be a little better about it this year. So anyway, about this book...

I love John Carey’s attitude towards the arts. He doesn’t hold with the reverence endemic in British attitude towards arts which, he argues, means a lot of people won’t even try to engage with arts seen as highbrow and scary – opera, classical music, theatre, art, sculpture and vast swathes of literature are all seen as museum pieces, to be admired at best rather than enjoyed and engaged with. Carey’s righteously angry with this attitude, propagated by what he sees as a self proclaimed intellectual elite who proclaim the quality of art. Part of this is the cheap listmaking that fills space in cultural magazine – all those all time or end of year 'best ofs' that proclaim to you what the best albums/books etc have been. So when Carey was asked to write a series of articles for the Sunday Times on the best books of the twentieth century he eschewed the usual ‘best of’ lists, or a chance to show off his undoubtedly wide range of reading and intellectual prowess. Instead he came at it from the angle of writing about books which had given him the most pleasure. This book collects those articles.

Aptly for Carey’s crusade to bring literature in particular out of an intellectual ghetto Pure Pleasure impresses by being concise yet rigorous about the books it covers. None of the articles covers more than four pages, yet each one manages to give a flavour of the book and exactly why Carey found them so much of a pleasure. Carey performs the balancing act of using accessible prose yet conveying complex ideas with aplomb, and his obvious enthusiasm means this is far less dry and more engaging than similar works which seek to enshrine classic status for their chosen artworks.
As with all such books, you’re unlikely to agree with all his choices, but here that’s hardly the point. It seeks to make the reader more active in their appreciation of literature, to bring it back to being an enjoyable activity rather than a slog through heavyweight classics. To remove the stigma from those who don’t enjoy sitting through six hundred pages of Victorian prose but may find a shorter, wittier or more recent book far less intimidating. Of course, given his Oxbridge background, Carey’s choices come from literature rather than including the huge selling likes of Stephen King or Catherine Cookson. That’s what he enjoys, that’s the point here.

The only point I found myself wondering about was exactly where this book was aimed – it’s probably not going to create many literary converts, and it’s appearance in an upmarket broadsheet paper (and now as a book by itself) was hardly ever going to lead to a resurgence in popularity for the likes of Auden or S J Perelman. However, if it was aimed at readers who like to read more than the holiday blockbusters it’s perfectly targeted, providing a wide enough range to intrigue almost any possible reader. I can only judge it a success, soon after finishing I’d ordered five books I’d either never heard of or knew by repute, and added a fair few more to my wishlist. Which probably proves that the most effective reviews talk about why they enjoyed the book rather than why it should be admitted.

Thank God it wasn’t any longer and only included one book per author though, otherwise I’d probably be selling the Big Issue by now.

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