There are a few authors writing in English today who are capable of producing sentences - and sometimes whole paragraphs - of such elegant, lyrical perfection that I feel the need to read them again and again, finally reading them aloud to hear how they sound. For me, that's what distinguishes a genuine writer from a mere teller of stories, and I have found that no contemporary writer can produce in me that curious amalgam of envy and awe as often as Howard Jacobson.
This book is the second selection of columns written for The Independent and, as that newspaper has now (please forgive the pun; I can't resist it) folded, it will be the last. Even though I had read many of the pieces before, as many potential purchasers of the book will have done, reading them again is a delight: Jacobson has never written anything that isn't worth reading at least twice.
What I like about Jacobson, apart from the constant beauty and precision of his prose, is his absolute refusal to even entertain the concept of "dumbing down" (I'm as sure as I can be that he loathes the very expression, as I do), his defence of the proposition that few arguments are as "black and white" as they are often portrayed and that many questions cannot be answered with a simple "yes" or "no", and his belief that any opinion held or expressed must - if it's an opinion worth having - be constantly refined and questioned and be able to be defended against a contrary view.
He argues for thought; for subtlety; for nuance; for irony. A losing battle, perhaps, given the fact that the internet has reduced so much to a simple "like" or "dislike", "thumbs up" or "thumbs down": but a battle worth fighting, and it's arguable that no-one fights it more passionately or more eloquently.
I'm a big fan of Howard Jacobson but there is no point saying how clever he is--he already knows that and tells us at every opportunity so I will confine this, when I get round to it, to carping about one annoying foible that he repeats time and time again, in nearly every piece. I've read all his stuff, except for the one about Shakespeare. I don't exactly not like Shakespeare but I do find his shows go on too long. Also I'm not as clever as Howard J and actually work so I don't have the time to fiddle with words all day long, though that would be fun. There's no question that Howard is brainy--he went to Stand Grammar School, where, if I remember correctly, he will have worn a centre cross on his cap. Just imagine how unbearable he would be if he went to MGS! When I say I have read all his stuff, and for that matter seen him on TV, heard many talks and all the rest, I have not in fact read this material before because I couldn't bring myself to read the Independent while Robert Fisk was on the job. I do wonder how the two of them got on. Did Fisk spit out his hateful half-baked ant-Zionist venom at every opportunity and Jacobson retaliate with his cerebral counter and then go off together for a nice cup of tea? Anyway, here's the irritating foible I told you I would get round to. He has this habit, which is only excusable if it is meant ironically (which I don't think it can be because then you would just do it once) of addressing the reader as....reader. He does it all the damn time but why? I know I'm the reader, don't I? Is it some post-modern scam to break down the barrier between writer and reader, whatever I mean by that? (I can't see F R Leavis going big on that). Or maybe to personalise the reading experience, whatever I mean by that! No, if he was writing to me, which is personal, he wouldn't introduce my name into the middle of a sentence so why the impersonal address as....reader... in the middle of an otherwise perfectly intelligible sentence. I might excuse it in the case of a 12 year old addressing her private diary but it doesn't work here. As far as I recall, it doesn't appear in any of his novels. Maybe he thought Independent readers would like it?Anyway, I managed to devise a way of blocking out the offending word and avoiding the problem. Other than that, 5 stars.