A brief, witty look at the coming of the e-book

A review of Dear Reader explains how its author, Paul Fournel, has tried to future-proof his creation against the ravages of readers

29 November 2014

9:00 AM

29 November 2014

9:00 AM

Dear Reader Paul Fournel

Pushkin Press, pp.168, £10, ISBN: 9781782270263

Paul Fournel is a novelist, former publisher and French cultural attaché in London, and the provisionally definitive secretary and president of the select literary collective known as Oulipo, whose fellows have included Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec and Italo Calvino. Members of Oulipo remain members after their deaths. In this respect, it is the French literary equivalent of the Hotel California, a comparison I suspect its followers would neither welcome nor necessarily understand. But playful and defiant obscurantism is all part of Oulipo’s raison d’être.

Dear Reader is set in the world of publishing and tells the tale of a middle-aged editor, Robert Dubois, struggling to adapt to the rise of the e-book; the surname is no accident. The book is brief, witty, intellectual and wonderfully quotable.

It also adheres faithfully to the Oulipian doctrine of ‘creative constraint’. The most celebrated example of this is Perec’s La Disparition (1969), composed entirely without using the letter e and heroically translated into English by Gilbert Adair in the 1990s as A Void. In the case of Dear Reader — original title La liseuse — British readers have had to wait just two years for the translator David Bellos to deliver a close reimagining of Fournel’s work. In the Afterword, the author discloses the constraint under which Dear Reader was written.

It struck me that the subject implied a reflection on the future of reading. It is probable that one of the possible forms of reading in the near future will be interactive: readers will enter into the body of the text and adapt it to their taste … That is why I decided to give my book (probably one of the last of its kind) a fixed form based on its character count, so that anyone entering it to change a single letter will destroy the entire project.

In other words, Fournel has tried to future-proof this book against the ravages of readers, be they electronic or human.

To this end, Dear Reader is shaped like a sestina, ‘a poetic form invented in the 12th century by the troubadour Arnaut Daniel’ and ‘the entire composition makes a poem of 180,000 signs (including spaces)’. The extent to which this endeavour is a successful one is moot — or perhaps it’s just too soon to say. However, this should not deter anyone from reading Dear Reader in whatever way they see fit. When the book was published in France it was widely acclaimed as a satire; but while it is frequently very funny, anyone with experience of editorial meetings, author lunches, sales conferences or Waterstones’s MD James Daunt (who makes a cameo appearance on page 123) will soon realise satire is pretty thin on the ground. In reality, Dear Reader is largely factually accurate. It is the most truthful account of literary ennui I have ever read.

Here is Dubois’ definition of the job of the editor:

Find a famous writer who doesn’t cost too much, who’s been sold in advance, is talented and nice, loyal, productive, timely, who drinks only a little, is modest, amusing, handsome, attentive to personal hygiene and who never drops below 300,000 copies.

Not much satire there. Yet in another way Dear Reader represents the triumph of hope over experience. For however jaded Dubois, or perhaps Paul Fournel himself, may have become by the irksome business of producing and selling books, his belief in them is fundamental and his appetite for reading remains insatiable. Dear Reader is a clear-eyed and unsentimental love
letter to the form. Whether read as a sestina, a satire or a eulogy, it is a quietly remarkable little book.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £9 Tel: 08430 600033. Andy Miller is the author of The Year of Reading Dangerously.

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Show comments
  • Duncan Hunter

    May I quote an extract from Tim Park’s NYRB blog in which he bemoans the literati’s less than generous welcome to the e-book phenomenon?
    “The e-book, by eliminating all variations in the appearance and weight of the material object we hold in our hand and by discouraging anything but our focus on where we are in the sequence of words (the page once read disappears, the page to come has yet to appear) would seem to bring us closer than the paper book to the essence of the literary experience. Certainly it offers a more austere, direct engagement with the words appearing before us and disappearing behind us than the traditional paper book offers, giving no fetishistic gratification as we cover our walls with famous names. It is as if one had been freed from everything extraneous and distracting surrounding the text to focus on the pleasure of the words themselves. In this sense the passage from paper to e-book is not unlike the moment when we passed from illustrated children’s books to the adult version of the page that is only text. This is a medium for grown-ups.”
    And, I would add, you can read all 4000-plus pages of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu on a Kindle the size of a slim paperback [if I don’t know what maître queux or raidillon means, just a tap on the the words gives me an instant dictionary definition] or any other of the 83 books I now take to bed at night!

  • trace9

    The link below to The Trouble With Bristol evokes only ‘page not found’ – twice. A satire on an elegy – or just the usual Intermerde..