Ruth Scurr

June 15, 2007

A pioneering fellow offers new light on the critic's role to a judge reading the Booker Prize long list.

Because I am one of the five judges for this year's Man Booker Prize, I am reading more fiction than normal. There are about 120 novels submitted or called in for consideration for the prize. Since March, I have read half. I need to have finished the remaining 60 before our long-listing meeting at the beginning of August, which means that from now on, it's a novel a day - like vitamins.

I have not, so far, done much of the reading in my office. Until this week, when undergraduate exams began, there was too much else going on here: revision supervisions, timed essays to mark, panic-stricken students to calm and so on. Also, I feel guilty if I read a novel at my desk. Despite the great quantity with which I am now faced, I still associate novels with pleasure and relaxation, not work.

But since some of my 60 unread books are more than 800 pages long, and now that the one-a-day regime has begun, I am going to have to overcome my scruples and read at least some in the office. Fortunately, since Christmas this has been a room in a house called Finella that my college, Gonville and Caius, owns. In the late 1920s, Mansfield Forbes, who helped establish Cambridge's English faculty, rented a Victorian villa on the Backs from Caius, and with the help of the architect Raymond McGrath turned it into Finella. Architecture students still visit to admire the innovative use of glass, copper-clad doors and aluminium walls.

Finella's playful interior, the English faculty and his fondly remembered teaching are Forbes's legacies. But from a research assessment exercise point of view, he was calamitous. I. A. Richards wrote that Forbes made many people realise "what the greater saints were like". But greater or lesser, the crucial point is, Forbes did not publish. Instead, he shaped the English tripos. "No one saw, as he did, its unique invitations and hazards, or feared more realistically what it might become," Richards remarked, even without foreknowledge of assessment exercises to come.

Because I am reading for the Booker Prize in Forbes's house, I have looked up accounts of his teaching and lectures to see what he thought the critic's role was. Since he never published a book based on his lectures, student notes have been used to reconstruct some of their content. There are obvious problems of inaccuracy and misunderstanding, but even so, student notes, used carefully, are better than nothing.

One component of Forbes's critical method was a warning against "a pathological celerity in reading". He made four recommendations: read the originals and stay with the best critics; read slowly; aloud; tolerantly.

Taking these in order, I will certainly read the originals, and pay particular attention when they are reviewed by critics I trust and admire.

Given the length of the submission list, it is only natural for friends and journalists to wonder whether or not Booker judges really read all the books. I am prone to feeling guilty and would have trouble with my conscience if I didn't give each of the novels a chance.

Read slowly. Well, normally I do - very slowly - which is why I find myself at the beginning of June with only 60 books read and as many to go. I am sure our chair, Howard Davies, in addition to running the London School of Economics, has read a great many more than I have. I am going to have to speed up but will read the first 100 pages of all the novels at my habitual sauntering pace.

Read aloud. That's impractical at this stage. But once we get down to a shortlist of six, I think it is an excellent idea. Some books stand it, others don't. I know from bedtime stories for my daughters. My heart sinks when they ask for The Faraway Tree , and skips for The Chronicles of Narnia .

Had they been on the shortlist, C. S. Lewis would have had my vote over Enid Blyton.

Finally, read tolerantly. Forbes advised: "When fired with the urge to disparage, one should display a catholic curiosity and an impartial judgment admitting no haphazard inference." He invoked Blake's doctrine of forgiveness, and quoted Whitman's By Blue Ontario's Shore : "He judges not as a judge judges, but as the sunlight falling around a helpless thing."

Here in Forbes's house of glass, that is a beautiful line to remember.

I have long asked myself what it is I think I'm doing when I review a book, or decide, in the context of a prize list, in favour of one and against another. Illuminating is Forbes's answer: the best I have found.

Ruth Scurr is affiliated lecturer in the politics department, Cambridge University, and fellow of and director of studies at Gonville and Caius College.

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