Is a collection of charming essays on the books he has recently read or reread. As James puts it, “If you don’t know the exact moment when the lights will go out, you might as well read until they do.” He writes wittily and very personally about reinvigorating the love he has for old favorites, but not without the occasional caveat, and about the discovery of works of great beauty that he had missed, particularly those of Olivia Manning, whom James judges a “magisterial writer.”
I had entered my nearest big box bookstore hoping to find Clive James’ ‘Poetry Notebook.’ Instead there were several little hard-back copies of ‘Latest Readings’, a book I had never heard of. Tellingly, there was no price anywhere on the book, a sure sign in the world of books that it is very expensive. And it turned out that indeed it was. But I was sold the moment I laid eyes on it. What if I came back a week later and they were all sold out? And they in fact were, by the way.
James writes in such a conversational tone that the reader feels welcomed like a close friend, invited into James’ home for a chat, or perhaps accompanying him on an afternoons browse at Hugh’s bookstall. He writes about both fiction and non-fiction, the serious and the silly of each, and mixes in a generous helping of personal anecdote.
He chose to frame the book, more or less, with two entries about Hemingway. He even declares Hemingway a “giant”. I found this rather surprising, given that James does not seem to like much of Hemingway’s work, and agrees with Dwight MacDonald’s disparaging review and preposterous relegation of Hemingway to the ‘midcult’. Hemingway had a huge influence on literary style, his work changed the entire nature of English language writing. He was a deserving winner of the Nobel Prize in 1954. As for Hemingway’s death, unlike in the case of James’ illness, when the infirmity became severe Hemingway could no longer write. It was the two plane crashes which ultimately killed Hemingway, and yes the drinking was also a factor. But without the severe injuries of the two crashes, the decline might have been less severe and Hemingway may have continued writing, and that might have saved him from suicide. As it was, he was faced with an irreversible decline, unable to travel, to hunt and fish, to write. While he was still capable of acting he made his choice. Yes he should have handled the circumstances better, but it was his choice to make.
My favorite part of this collection is the mix of personal anecdote with the book talk. Whether writing of bookshelves or of a nice browse at Hugh’s bookstall, these touches turn ‘Latest Readings’ into a bookworm’s delight, a sort of new volume of memoir rendered through bookish ponderings. These latest readings cannot be last readings, since James is certain to have read much more even by the time this volume was printed. We can hope that he has been taking notes and that a second volume will soon be on its way to bookstores worldwide.