The Times, 30 November 2006


About ten years ago, someone gave me a collection of short stories by Jorge Luis Borges, which I left on the shelf for months, always finding something that looked more fun to read first. Jeez, what an idiot. I now use this fact to prove that, at the age of 22, I shouldn’t have been legally permitted to vote, drive, or kiss boys on the mouth. Once I began reading it, of course, it was love. I read everything he’d written in a week, except one book (Dr Brodie’s Report), which I own, but have never opened, because once I’ve read that, I know I’ll never again be able to read anything of his for the first time.

I tell you this tale of post-adolescent, inter-continental hero-worship, because I want you to understand that I genuinely believed, for more than a decade, that I would never read a more disturbing few pages that Borges’ The Gospel According to Mark. It was the only time in my life that I had turned a page, and gasped out loud with horror and shock, and I confidently expected that statement would be true until I died.

It is no longer true. So, you should have a good idea of just how traumatic I must have found this year’s Christmas Books guides. What in hell’s name is going on? Why are almost all books sold at this time of year written by people who despise writing, for people who hate reading? There isn’t a person alive who wants to own Old Shite’s Almanac, by A. Parody (do you get it? Do you?). Even if you are buying a copy as a vicious assault in an attritional war of passive-aggressive gift-giving with a relative by marriage, handing over money for it is morally identical to raping Father Christmas, or at least one of his elves.

Waterstones’ brochure describes The World Of Karl Pilkington thus: ‘A Socrates for the iPod generation, Pilkington’s musings on beetles and toffee are among the drollest things you will read all year.’ I’m sure Pilkington is perfectly charming, and very probably droll too, but I did half a degree in Socrates, and I don’t remember him mentioning toffee once. Was it in Book 4 of the Republic? In the aviary of the Theaetetus? As the hemlock seeped through his body in the Phaedo? Stop talking rubbish, hapless Waterstones employee. You vex me.

And no-one under the age of, say, 50, should have written an autobiography, not even Billie Piper, whom I love with all my heart. If Shayne Ward (no, I don’t know either. Something to do with X-Factor, apparently) had gone to his grave without penning Shayne, then I can’t imagine that the British Library would have an empty shelf, smelling faintly of wormwood. In fact, browsing through the lists, it’s hard not to feel that a well-placed warehouse fire could consume all biographies and memoirs, bar ‘Stuart: A Life Backwards’ and Jessica Mitford’s Letters with no loss to literature at all. I know, burning books is fear-mongering censorship. Unless it’s Victoria Beckham’s That Extra Half An Inch. Then it’s a kindness.