From Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov.

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour).

The “brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness” brings to mind Mark Twain’s observation:

“I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

This attitude explains why atheists are so sanguine at the prospect of the absence of an afterlife. Not surprisingly, Richard Dawkins picks up this theme in “The God Delusion”:

“Being dead will be no different from being unborn – I shall be just as I was in the time of William the Conqueror or the dinosaurs or the trilobites. There is nothing to fear in that.”

Reading Nabokov requires time and attention, but it’s usually time well spent.  It is a thing of wonder that he was capable of writing such remarkable prose in a language that was not his native one.  The opening paragraph of Speak, Memory, Nabokov’s memoir of his early life,  continues:

I know, however, of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first-time at home-made movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged—the same house, the same people—and then realized that he did not exist there at all and nobody mourned his absence. He caught a glimpse of his mother waving from an upstairs window, and that unfamiliar gesture disturbed him, as if it were some mysterious farewell. But what particularly frightened him was the sight of a brand-new baby-carriage standing there on the porch, with the smug, encroaching air of a coffin; even that was empty, as if in the reverse course of events, his very bones had disintegrated.

Although the memoir has perhaps too much detail on the various (and generally aristocratic) members of Nabokov’s family tree, and also a surfeit of reminiscences of particular butterfly-netting experiences, it contains much else that is a real pleasure to read.

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From the Little Things That Annoy Me department.

Is it just me, or are book reviewers increasingly using their allotted space as an opportunity to show off their own erudition, style and sense of humour, and failing in their basic duty of telling us whether the reviewed work is actually worth spending our precious time reading?

Maybe it was always thus, and I notice it more now that I am in “intimations of mortality” territory, and have become acutely conscious that I don’t want to waste any remaining hours or days on badly written books.   Maybe the reviewer is a friend of the writer and so is wary of giving a stinker the bad review it deserves.  Maybe certain critics are victims of cultural relativism and instinctively avoid any suggestion that a given work is superior to another.  Whatever the reason, it’s just not good enough, you hear?!

Another bad habit of book reviewers is to go into excessive detail about what the book actually contains, and to argue at tedious length for/against the author’s view of the world.  As I get older, what matters more is how well the book is written, not what it’s about.   I would read anything by certain writers: Christopher Hitchens, David Foster Wallace, Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike, Paul Theroux, Martin Amis (well, almost anything), Robert Hughes, Clive James, Simon Gray, Francis Wheen, Alan Bennett, Gore Vidal.

The non-fiction work of the last-mentioned (Vidal) proves the following point, to me at least: the content may be daft, but a good stylist can be forgiven everything.

So come on, reviewers, stop showing off and stop telling us everything the book is about. Just make sure your review tells us what we most need to know: is the book well written, is it a pleasure to read?