Pen In Hand- Tim Parks (Alma Books 2019) – A Books About Books Review



Tim Parks’ latest non-fiction work is very much a companion piece to “Where I’m Reading From” which I read and reviewed last year. Subtitled “Reading, re-reading and other mysteries” it is a collection of articles written either for the New York Review Of Books or the New York Times between 2014 and 2017.

 These articles are linked by a Foreword in which Parks encourages us, in a bid to make us more active readers to always have a pen in hand whilst reading and not to be afraid to annotate and highlight the book and note down our thoughts on what we are reading whilst things are still fresh.  Needless to say, my overwhelming desire to finish a book with it looking as pristine as when I started it means that I could not do this with Parks’ work but I certainly can see where he is coming from.  I don’t think I would ever be able to borrow a book from him as he says; “These days, going back to reading the novels and poetry that have been on my shelves since university days, I see three or four layers of comments, perhaps in different coloured pens.”

What he is getting here is a rich resource on his observations upon the work and how  they might have changed over time.  For those of you like me who would find writing on a book difficult,  the E-Book, where markings can be erased and altered so easily may be the answer.  I do often highlight when reading on my Kindle but do not always go back to those highlights and never provide the running commentary on the text which Parks deems so beneficial.

 Elsewhere he covers a lot of fascinating ground on how to read and what it is to be a reader.  He admits that the same sources do tend to come up as examples and that is probably only to be expected – Primo Levi, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Elena Ferrante are amongst those who come under scrutiny and an author I found my interest piqued by – Karl Ove Knausgaard, who has to date passed me by and who in the articles evolves from someone who Parks feels everybody seems to be reading to one who is assumed to be a best-seller by those in the business but whose sales outside his Norwegian homeland do not reflect this.  I found myself considering taking out his “Death In The Family” from the library as a result of Parks’ focus, but then decided to leave it until another time. 

Parks does have a very Euro-centric view having lived much of his adult life in Italy and working as a translator and as in “Where I’m Coming From” I found his views on translated fiction the most fascinating.  In fact, the section on translations which comprises of articles on retranslations of existing translated work, comparing the work of translators on the same text and whether translators should be paid royalties made me wish I had kept up with languages and had been a translator of the written word myself.  A French A-level 30+ years ago would probably not cut it these days- so I think I’ve missed my chance!

 Despite this work being formed from articles I found that it did read well as a whole more cohesively than his 2014 collection.  I found many of Tim Parks’ ideas stimulating and some challenging (but still withheld and temptation to scrawl my objections in the margin as he would have wanted me to do).  What I haven’t done yet, and this is with a shimmer of guilt as I mentioned this last time round is to read any of his novels to see how this feelings about the world of fiction and the needs of the reader has been incorporated into his own work. But I will.



Pen In Hand was published in hardback by Alma Books in May 2019.  I would very much like to thank the publishers for doing their homework and finding out that I had read and enjoyed Tim Parks in the past and sending me a copy of this to review.

Where I’m Reading From – Tim Parks (2014) – A Book About Books Review



Tim Parks is a Booker shortlisted British novelist who has developed a global following.  This has come about from a lengthy career of 16 novels, for his non-fiction work, from journalistic pieces in Italy where he has lived for many years, for his translations from Italian to English and as a contributor and columnist for the New York Review Of Books where these essays first saw the light of day.

His emphasis here is on reading and writing and he posits many thought-provoking ideas on these subjects.  How we behave as readers and how writers behave as writers are both examined.  I couldn’t help but notice that Parks differs from me very early on.  He’s a one for not finishing the books he is reading and I can follow the reasoning behind “if only because the more bad books you finish, the fewer good ones you’ll have time to start”.  I personally find it very difficult to give up on a book, I’m not sure when I would have last done this but it would have been, quite frankly, years ago.  Parks attributes my particular reading behaviour to some throwback to my childhood when finishing a book felt like such an achievement that it was to be celebrated and that I’m still in that mindset many years on.   Okay, maybe that could be the case but I also feel that finishing a book I haven’t enjoyed helps me clarify exactly what I like/don’t like about books.  Maybe, also my Magnus “I’ve started so I’ll finish” Magnusson approach is because of the respect I hold for the achievement of the writer of getting the book to the finished and published stage, whatever the quality.  

But wait a minute! Parks also advocates that it is permissible to give up on a book you are enjoying if you feel that you have reached a natural place to finish, even if it is not the end.  What?  This sounds to me like eating a piece of cake and thinking “I’m really loving this but I’ll think I’ll leave it there and not eat the rest”. That’s not going to happen with me but I suspect Tim Parks would do so.  He’s going to be much slimmer than me too isn’t he?

An area I found interesting was his views on the globalisation of the novel.  As worldwide markets grow authors are writing books without the local colour and themes which might restrict their sales markets.  This is happening both in English speaking markets and also translations where too much region-specific writing and ideas may prove problematic for translators and lessen the author’s chances in selling worldwide.  I know that one of my regular contributors to this blog, Monika, would find Parks’ views on translations interesting as they reflect ideas which she has aired herself on here in the past.  To be honest, I’ve never really given that much thought about the art of translation and I was interested by the author’s viewpoints.  As an aside to this book what Parks mentions is happening in the world of literature is also now prevalent in popular music where streaming has led to a globalised market.  Watching a chart rundown recently it was impossible to tell where artists come from as (and I don’t think it’s my age here) it was all sounding pretty much the same.

I’ve never read any of Tim Parks’ novels but reading this book I feel that I should and it is hard not to be mentally adding works by other authors he references onto the to-be-read list.  I found this an interesting set of insights about reading behaviours and attitudes and just what book writing and publishing will be looking like in the future.


Where I’m Reading From was published by Vintage, an imprint of Penguin Books in 2014

B Is For Book (BBC4 -2016)- A What I’ve Been Watching Review



This one-off programme filmed, animated and directed by Sam Benstead featured a group of children in the Reception and Year 1 classes of Kingsmead Primary in Hackney learning to read over a period of a year.

I was drawn to it because I have always been fascinated as to how we become readers and these very early experiences can often shape our experiences for the rest of our life.  The teaching of reading in this country is also fascinating and the complexities of the English language has tended to mean that different approaches come and go in favour and there isn’t a method that fits everyone equally.  When I was teaching infant children the “ phonic method” was a little bit overshadowed by the “look and say” approach.  There were moves towards learning to read from “real books” using context cues as the main impetus for unknown words.  Since the introduction of the Literacy Hour in Primary classrooms phonics have once again come back in fashion and this was certainly where the emphasis was at Kingsmead Primary.


I learnt to read myself at a slightly confusing time for phonics as in my school for a while a new system was temporarily introduced.  This was known as the Initial Teaching Alphabet (ITA for short) and our classrooms became full of books that were written in another phonetic alphabet which used unfamiliar symbols as diphthongs and joined consonants.  For some reason (probably to do with the lack of confidence of the teachers with this new method, which admittedly did soon fall out of favour) the methods were run side by side and when we went up to the read to the teacher we would read the ITA books in this strange elongated voice, reminiscent of the vowel sounds of Janet Street-Porter.  At time watching this programme I was reminded of this.


Got it?  Now use this to read this?


The children certainly had the phonic sounds hammered into them.  It actually looked quite fast and fun.  Phonics was described in the programme as “a language only children can understand.”  The school’s aim was to get the children reading independently by the time they left the Reception Class and obviously, children being children and developing at differing rates this had differing results.  We met a number of new readers including Sienna who had decided at age four that she didn’t like books and Taijah, a Year 1 girl with extraordinary reading skills who provided a fair amount of the narration for the programme.  It was compulsive viewing to be let back into a world which we, as adults, whose school days are far behind them have largely  forgotten what happened- how we ourselves learned to read.

Once you have children, however, the memory comes back.  The parents of the children were given an important role in the acquisition of skills and this programme showed that where this was thorough and consistent then very good results can be achieved.  The parents of twins, Nicholas and Stephan, found themselves with one child who wanted to read and one who wanted to spend “just some more time under the table to think.”  In a rather telling scene for the disadvantages of phonics and a lot of early readers in general   Stephan went through a book with his teacher predicting the text and claiming that the book was boring.  (He was right).  At a parents’ meeting his mum and dad expressed the concern that phonics did not really work for him, but they continued to persevere and towards the end of the summer term we saw  Stephan again, a changed boy and one who was well on the way to achieving the school’s aim of making him an independent reader by the end of the year.  There was also a lovely family visit to a Waterstones bookshop.


The budding readers were given a sheet of paper which said “My name is X. I am y years old” and it was interesting to see their strategies.  They were having a go at sounding anywhere on the sheet rather than going from the beginning.  This did seem to confuse a number of them as they were doing it in such a disjointed way that it was too much for them to put together.  This have a go at sounding wherever you recognise a sound must be a method taught to them at school.  The results were not always successful but at least they had the confidence to take a crack at it.

Maria’s Portuguese parents were also shown having great determination.  Maria was not reading at all for a chunk of the programme.  A list of days of the week with Dad were reliant on her memory which failed her whenever she came to read Sunday (Monday? Thursday? Tuesday?) but once again as the narration said “When we started this journey words were monsters but now they have become our friends” – and, as we book fans know, that is a life-long friendship.


You might have noticed at the opening of this I credited the film-maker with also animating.  This was mainly some story sequences that were filmed with puppetry and stop-motion animation.  I actually found some of this a little unnerving.  It reminded me of children’s television from when I was young which came from Europe and which often scared the pants off me.  I’m not sure how necessary it was for Sam Benstead’s programme other than being another string to a bow.  I personally found the school based scenes involving enough without it.  Maybe the effect was to give a chill to the adult audience and bring back some childhood recollection of them learning to read.

The programme showed you were going to get children to be readers by immersing them in books both at school and in the home.  The school would provide them with the techniques to get them reading but this needed to be supported by the parents and enriched with stories and the whole world of books.  The twin’s mum found a way of introducing death which they had been facing as a family through a book (“The Journey” by Francesca Sanna) illustrating  another very important purpose of books which will remain with us throughout our lives.


The programme clearly showed the method of getting a child to become a reader.  It did suggest for many it might be initially an uphill struggle but consistency, perseverance and finding the right books would definitely pay dividends.  We all know all this but it was good to see this proved over a year at Kingsmead Primary.



B is for Book was shown on BBC 4 on Tuesday 5th July.  It is currently available on the BBC I-Player catch up service.