Italian Ways by Tim Parks, and a bonus reading list

Italian WaysI bought this book based on a recommendation, and a whim. An early morning breakfast with a friend, followed by a few hours at bookstores, and I conveniently forgot the many, many books on my nightstand and splurged on it; and finished it in a day and a half.

Tim Parks uses Italian railways as a proxy for Italian society as a whole. Through the lens of Trenitalia we get a look into the country’s hostility to competition and the tension between feudal provincialism and a desire to be seen as modern (and European).

The myriad rules of the train system, usually observed in breach but sometimes applied with vehemence, mirror the hypocrisy of society, which bemoans the corruption and inefficiency of public officials while repeatedly re-electing them to office. (Sound familiar?)

This isn’t a travel book, and it’s unlikely to inspire you to pack your bags for Sicily any time soon. But if you’re enthusiastic about Italian culture, it’s a lovely little read.

Having finished the book I went on to read a few other pieces by Tim Parks, mostly from the NYRB where he is a regular contributor; here are few of my favourite pieces, if you’d like to get a little taste of his writing:

1. On how our reading habits have changed.

It was even possible in those days to see reading as a resource to fill time that hung heavy when rain or asphyxiating heat forced one to stay indoors. Now, on the contrary, every moment of serious reading has to be fought for, planned for.

Given the scattered nature of our reading now, he makes a case for why authors need to bludgeon us with sharp, repetitive sentences to capture our attentions, unlike a Dickens or Shakespeare who could afford languorous loops of language.

2. Six chairs in search of an audience.

On immersive, experimental theatre, why it’s so difficult to leave a live performance, and the exhilaration that follows should you be successful in doing so.

3. Why finish books.

Spot on! When I was younger I’d definitely feel a sense of shame if I couldn’t finish a book, a personal failing of some sort. Until a few years ago, there was only one book that I could clearly remember putting aside, unable to carry on. (Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things, a book that I did NOT enjoy.) Since then, however, I’ve come to the realisation that my time is limited. No longer do I have endless summer afternoons to while away on book after book, some good, some bad. Reading is a pleasure carved out of the rest of “life”, a stolen moment here, a sneaked away half-hour there. I just don’t have the time to finish bad books. And sometimes, even good books, once I’ve got past what I think is the juiciest part.

4. E-Books can’t burn

A defence of the Kindle, and the engagement with the written word that it prompts.

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