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Holiday Book Bonanza ’09:
Simon Winchester

It has become a holiday tradition on the OUPblog to ask our favorite people about their favorite books.  This year we asked authors to participate (OUP authors and non-OUP authors).  For the next two weeks we will be posting their responses which reflect a wide variety of tastes and interests, in fiction, non-fiction and children’s books.  Check back daily for new books to add to your 2010 reading lists.  If that isn’t enough to keep you busy next year check out all the great books we have discovered during past holiday seasons: 2006, 2007, 2008 (US), and 2008 (UK).

Today, to kick off our holiday book bonanza is author Simon Winchester.  Winchester studied geology at Oxford and has written for Condé Nast Traveler, Smithsonian, and National Geographic. He is the author of A Crack in the Edge of the World, The Man Who Loved China, The Meaning of Everything, Krakatoa, The Map That Changed the World, The Professor and the Madman, The Fracture Zone, Outposts, Korea, among many other titles. He lives in New York and on a small farm in the Berkshires’.

I am a printer, a weekend amateur, and for good rollicking fun I spend a great deal of time setting type by hand. It is a contemplative calling that, among other things, offers very visible proof of many eternal verities about our language – one of the most obvious being what we all know to be true, but rarely think about: that the letter ‘e’ is by far the most common in the making of our words.

There it sits in the job-case – a great box of little lead ‘e’s, front and center, far outstripping in number and volume any of the other twenty-five letters, and placed in the case just so, because your hand will reach into that particular box time and time again as you set your copy in the composing stick.

It is difficult to think of writing without such a symbol to hand (though that last sentence happens not to sport a single ‘e’). It can be an amusing diversion of time – and a good way of falling asleep, if you can’t – to try to recast famous lines from literature without the use of the famous fifth letter. Try “To be, or not to be…” which should go something like “Living, or not living…” after which things get tricky. But if such a feat is difficult, consider the near-impossibility of writing an entire novel in such manner.

Georges Perec, a brilliant, crazily inventive jokester of a writer – French, Jewish and prematurely dead (in 1982, just before his 46th birthday) – managed to do it, writing a fully-functioning, respectably long (300 pages) and truly quite readable French novel titled La Disparition, which told its wonderfully complex tale without ever once employing an e. Sometimes I like to think that a Scotsman named Gilbert Adair was about as clever as Perec, since in 1994 he managed to translate this same book into English, also without the commonly employed letter. A Void, as it was titled, contains in consequence no he or she, no mother or father, no sex or love, no fear or hope – and yet manages to have all these, and always in other forms.

Yet despite my admiration for the (still living) Mr. Adair, Georges Perec remains my undiminishable hero. Not, as it happens, for La Disparition; not for writing Les Revenentes, a shorter book that used as vowels only the letter ‘e’ and none other, is very much more concerned with sex and love, and has proved, so far as I know, untranslatable. Nor is he my hero because of his membership of Oulipo, that strange sixties omnium-gatherum of French-speaking writers and mathematicians who tried to push the boundaries of writing – creating wild and novel-length palindromes, books made without verbs, and lippogrammatic works, so called because they were always lacking in something, usually something that was in normal circumstances quite critical.

No – Georges Perec is my absolute literary hero because of one giant, magical, marvelous, sprawling, irredeemably clever and unforgettable book published just before he died, translated into English by another genius-figure named David Bellos (and who also wrote Perec’s biography) and which came out in Britain and America under the title Life A User’s Manual. This majestic monster of a book remains, year after year, now decade after decade, my single favourite book – the Everest which I constantly aspire to climb, the model of literary accomplishment which lies before me on each occasion that I write one of my own books, and which goads me to hope that in time I might achieve such mad and magical excellence.

To try to describe Perec’s book in the space I have here would be quite impossible: it would be like trying to nail down the one other work of similar mind-altering delight – the short story Tlon, Uqbar and Orbis Tertius, by Jorge Luis Borges, and which is absolutely not as difficult as its title suggests – that also captivates everyone who chances upon it. So, absent a description of the plot and characters – I will say only, begin with Mr. Bartlebooth, and his fanatical love for jigsaw puzzles – allow me to offer one morsel of simple advice: Trust me, if you will, fork over twenty-three dollars in ready money for the new edition of Life A User’s Manual which the Boston publisher David Godine has lately uttered for sale, and prepare to have your reading life joyously altered, in one week or less or your money back, guaranteed. (This last, I jest.) But seriously: take the plunge. And Georges Perec will become your hero too – or you are simply not the readers that I like to think you are.

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Recent Comments

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Rebecca, Cassie. Cassie said: Great start! RT @oupblog: Simon Winchester kicks off our holiday book bonanza with LIFE A USER'S MANUAL: http://bit.ly/5eekwL #favoritebooks [...]

  2. Sarah

    I <3 Simon Winchester

  3. Rupert

    Les Revenentes was translated by Ian Monk as ‘The Exeter Text’, but opinions vary as to its quality, and to whether there was any point translating it at all. The fact that it is widely out of print may suggest an answer.
    Nevertheless, Life A Users Manual is, without doubt, a high-water mark for Western literature. Good call.

  4. [...] Simon Winchester on Georges Perec. Via OUP blog. [...]

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