COUNTERPROPAGANDA (27 june 2005)
After I finished grammar school more than four decades ago, I hardly read any books for about ten years.
In retrospect, I think this may have had a lot to do with my teacher of English. The way he talked about English literature was a bit like the way some people talk about football: it may excite the converted, but to others (read normal people) it's just boring, if not revolting dribble.
Can you imagine a teacher drooling over names like Shakespeare and Dickens in front of a class of sixteen-year-old boys? I'm not sure what effect this had on my classmates, but it took ten years before I could enjoy any books and could lose my reluctance to become a teacher of English.
I had to think of this discouraging effect when I tried reading The Summing Up by William Somerset Maugham.
The book is not exactly an autobiography, but it sums up a few thoughts that Maugham wanted to commit to paper before his death.
The book reads as if it has been written in a hurry. But it's unclear why this was necessary: it was finished in 1938, twenty-seven years before the writer's death.
In the book, Maugham relates a few facts about his life, why and how he writes and some of his ideas about art and philosophy.
You would expect this to be an interesting book, especially since it was written by a great writer. But Maugham admits he doesn't really care what his readers think about the book. It is, of course, hardly a surprise that an attitude like this did not result in a very readable book.
The writer makes the impression to be quite pleased with himself and his role as an artist. He describes artists as a a breed of people not far removed from the gods.
He gets so excited writing all this that he seems to forget that books are written for readers -- he loses himself in unappetizing prose in which we occasionally read sentences consisting of more than a hundred words.
Finally, you may wonder what this has to do with my former schoolmaster. Well, for more than four months I've been trying to read this book. But in the end, about thirty pages before finishing it, I gave up.
I can imagine Maugham's book is disappointing to readers who expect an interesting book about the technique of writing. You might expect a book like this would encourage beginning readers, but just like my former teacher, it will discourage many readers ever to read a book again.