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the Complete Review
the complete review - autobiographical

Reading & Writing

V.S. Naipaul

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To purchase Reading & Writing

Title: Reading & Writing
Author: V.S. Naipaul
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 1999
Length: 64 pages
Availability: Reading & Writing - US
Reading & Writing - UK
Reading & Writing - Canada
Comment je suis devenu écrivain - France
Das Lesen und das Schreiben - Deutschland
  • A Personal Account
  • Includes:
    • Reading and Writing
    • The Writer in India
  • "This essay was written for the Charles Douglas-Home Memorial Trust"
  • These pieces were first published in The New York Review of Books (though this is not mentioned anywhere in the book): Reading and Writing in the issue of 18 February 1999, The Writer in India in the issue of 4 March 1999.
  • First published in book-form in 2000
  • Now also available in Literary Occasions (2003)

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Our Assessment:

A- : very nice small personal account

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Hindustan Times . 30/5/2000 Indrajit Hazra
The LA Times . 16/4/2000 S. Salter Reynolds
The New Republic . 29/5/2000 Caryl Phillips
The NY Times Book Rev. A 10/9/2000 Laura Ciolkowski
The Observer A 16/4/2000 Robert McCrum

  Review Consensus:

  Generally positive -- though most don't have much to say about it.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Reading & Writing is essentially a guided tour (at about Rs 7 a page, an expensive one) of a writer’s memory, with some delightful digressions about what it means to be a novelist and, more importantly, what it means to want to be one." - Indrajit Hazra, The Hindustan Times

  • "From Finding the Center to Reading and Writing: A Personal Account, the story remains the same: in a journey unique to myself, I left my worthless home, with its small people, and I sailed against the tides of chance and history looking for a better place -- for the center -- where I suffered greatly and made myself into a great writer." - Caryl Phillips, The New Republic

  • "He elegantly expresses hard-earned wisdom about literature and culture, the political stakes of history and the relationship between the writer and the world." - Laura Ciolkowski, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Reading & Writing is a typical Naipaul performance: as sharp and lucid as a spear of glass, nostalgic, contrary and wonderfully haughty." - Robert McCrum, The Observer

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Originally published, in two parts, in The New York Review of Books, this "personal account" is an engaging sliver of autobiography. Naipaul does not offer a broad picture of his past and his influences; instead, this is a brief sketch, addressing only certain aspects of his writing-life. But it is expertly done: it is a pleasure to read, and it does offer considerable insight into Naipaul as writer.
       Naipaul tells of deciding to become a writer at a young age -- but acknowledges that for most of his youth his ambition "was a kind of sham". He didn't write (having little occasion, need, or desire to do so), and he didn't read much either. It is a disarming admission, not what one expects from someone who became such a prolific author. But his certainty about his destiny -- his ability (and his need) to continue to think of himself as a writer, even when there were no indications he would (or even could) become one -- is also striking.
       There is little detail, about the individual books and the circumstances of their creation, but what he does reveal is fascinating. So of his first travel book: "I didn't know how to travel for a book", he explains.
       Convincing too -- and a main point of the book -- is his a-literary background and its consequences. He approached writing without the weight (or the help) of literary tradition. He did not read much, and when he began to read more he also approached and understood literature as an outsider. Similarly, he argues (in the second part, The Writer in India) that he is uncertain of the usefulness of, for example, the novel-form in a culture such as that of India:

But where, as in India, the past has been torn away, and history is unknown or unknowable or denied, I don't know whether the borrowed form of the novel can deliver more than a partial truth, a dim lighted window in a general darkness.
       The novel, he also says, seems to have served its purpose and run its course. He believes that our time "needs another kind of interpretation".
       Not as burdened with a tradition to uphold as are, perhaps, Western authors he looks constantly forward, to novelty and change. He sees them as both necessary and desirable. "What is good forgets whatever models it might have had, and is unexpected", he says -- adding, snidely and welcomely: "Writing of this quality cannot be taught in a writing course."
       He closes the book, almost incidentally, admitting that cinema ("the Hollywood of the 1930s and 1940s") was what exerted the greatest influence on him -- and wondering, in the last sentence of the book, "whether the talent that once went into imaginative literature didn't in this century go into the first fifty years of the glorious cinema." It is a provocative -- and unfair -- ending, calling into question the value of a wealth of literature. He comes to the conclusion in a roundabout manner, barely mentioning any of the authors and works that might be invoked as counter-examples of this notion, putting only half the argument on the table. It is a statement that demands more attention than he gives it -- and this casual broaching of larger issues is one of the few disappointments of his essay.

       Naipaul is a craftsman -- and clever, too. He expresses himself easily and clearly (though his skill also allows him to manipulate the reader, as he perhaps too readily does). This small book is worth reading for a number of reasons, but among them is just to appreciate his facility with expression.
       Reading & Writing is a valuable, revealing little book -- making one wish that Naipaul would devote himself to writing a full-fledged intellectual autobiography. Recommended.

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Reading & Writing: Reviews: V.S.Naipaul: Other books by V.S.Naipaul under review: Books about V.S. Naipaul under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was born in Trinidad in 1932. He attended University College, Oxford. In 2001 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

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© 2002-2009 the complete review

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