Instead of a Book

by Diana Athill

Letters to a Friend

Instead of a Book

I love reading books of letters. The veteran author Diana Athill's letters to her friend the American poet Edward Field were never going to hold quite the same fascination for me as the Correspondence of Charles Darwin, or Philip Larkin's non-PC rantings to his mates, but Instead of a Book is still an entertaining read.

Of particular interest to this Sebald groupie was Athill's gushing review of his final novel, Austerlitz, which she describes as a masterpiece. I also jotted down the following quotes from the introduction and letters, nodding in vigorous agreement as I did so:

  • I am a bad reader of poetry. When it is complex, greatly condensed and obscure I don't like it because I believe that the purpose of language is communication. If something which has to be expressed can only be put on paper to the satisfaction of the expresser in what amounts to code, I am prepared to take other people's word for it that it is beautiful but I don't want to read it. [She then spoils the quote a bit by introducing a ‘however’, which I omit.]
  • I wonder—has anyone else [except Field in his latest letter to Athill] ever said ‘writing poetry, of course, is far more fun that reading it’? A statement of crystalline obviousness, and exhilaratingness because mostly people pretend it isn't true.
  • [Prophetic words on editor Ian Jack leaving Granta] It won't be the same once he's gone.
  • [On having ‘foolishly accepted’ to help judge the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction] there are many kinds of non-fiction, and how do you decide between a very good biography and a very good piece of popular science? It will be like those ridiculous things at the end of big dog shows when they make the Best of Show award, choosing between a Pomeranian on the one hand and a Pit Bull on the other.

A good read.

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