Among the ranks of the literate of the world, there are two types of people: those who read books, and those who don't. Never mind Serbs and Croats, dog people and cat people or people who hate mobile telephones and those who glue their Nokia to their ears, this is a truly broad gulf, rarely bridged, potentially dangerous.
Take my father. As if to prove that nurture, not nature, determines many of our key attributes, he and I are on opposite sides of this Iron Curtain of incomprehension. Not only does the dear man not read regularly, he has an appalling habit that turns my stomach just to describe it. When this otherwise sane, loving and generous human being picks up a work of fiction, he turns immediately to the last few pages and reads them. "I want to see how it's going to end," he explains as if it's the most normal thing in the world. "If I don't like the ending, I don't read the book." Then he has this infuriating habit of winking at you, or smiling smugly as if he's conveyed some nugget of wisdom that might just free you from that damaging habit of reading all those books.
I've long since learned not to spit, splutter or swear at him. He is my father after all and must be treated with all due respect. Besides, I love the guy. He has no other horrible flaws. But he illustrates for me-and has done since I first started recognising letters on a written page-the way that reading can divide society. I read therefore I am. It is inconceivable to be anywhere, with anyone, doing anything, and not have books sitting nearby-if only to read at the end of a long day before slipping into a few hours' sleep. I can't count the number of times I've read the worst, trashiest, most desultory airport fiction or worse, just because I'd finished my good books, or left them somewhere behind enemy lines. It doesn't matter. The only thing worse than having to read Jeffrey Archer or Jackie Collins, is not having anything to read.
So it is with heavy heart that I confess something and then whinge about it-the columnist's stock-in-trade. I hate literary festivals, literary rows and literary gossip. It is a pointless waste of time and ink and grey cells in the brain. I don't care about a writer's personality or past life or penchant for snail salad or odd sexual practices. It doesn't matter. I read his or her books. I do not assess their life and times and pass moral judgement. Nor do I give a damn what a particular writer thinks about an issue of the day, even if-like Arundhati Roy-I agree with them.
Fiction writers should stick to fiction, poets to poetry. It's how I feel, even as I toy with novel writing in the growing knowledge that it may not be for me.
Thus the literary world's equivalent of a firestorm that raged in India recently over Sir Vidia Naipaul's outbursts at a recent government-sponsored literary festival are of no interest whatsoever. In fact I care so little that I'm writing about the matter this week. Er, yes, well I never promised utter consistency at all times. India's chatterati-which dearly loves a row that combines concerns about identity, their country's place in the world and guilt about speaking fluent English-leapt with glee on the Naipaul matter. "A grumpy old man," "full of malice" "crotchety and nasty" were the comments that best sum up the reaction of the nattering classes in Delhi.
And having briefly met Sir Vidia, I can confirm a certain truth in those observations. He is a bit of an intellectual thug, and as far as I am concerned, that's his business. Some of his writing-for me-is imbued with rigour, clarity and brilliance; a lot of it is the frustrated ranting of an exile who doesn't like much about his origins. NO matter. I read him with eagerness and joy, even if I don't like what he writes, even if I know he can seem a grumpy old git sometimes, even if I find his views on Islam suspiciously narrow. He is VS Naipaul, he writes books. I read them. That's the extent of our relationship.
In this content driven age of the Web and constant television, we spend far too much time on invented dramas and trivial rows. We look for anger, angst and insight in the behaviour of public personalities, even intensely private folk like authors. While just over our shoulders, on the groaning shelves of our libraries, lie everything we need to ponder the intense mystery of life, love, hate and joy.
Unless you insist on turning straight to that last chapter. Then there's no hope for you. Sorry Dad.