My reaction to reading the blurb on the back of books – things like: “hauntingly affectless” or “a crystal of icy brilliance” is beginning to draw from that seething bottomless pit in my brain commonly referred to as the amygdala. You know – that slow burning tumult of emotion that, if emergency measures are not taken, will, you fear, erupt in spectacular social embarrassment and consequent loss of face. I think it’s the same feeling that makes me walk out of a shop the minute a sales assistant tells me her/his name before assuring me that if there is Anything they can help me with, I’ve only got to ask. I’m not one for giving rein to the sort of outbursts my amgydala would gleefully have me perform. I usually fight the urge, or perhaps deflect is a better word, or placate, even better. I placate the urge – satisfy its demand for expression with a curt, ‘no thanks’, before the speaker has completed the sentence, thereby registering in no uncertain terms, I tell myself, my feelings about this offensive attempt to pass off a sales pitch for an act of human kindness.
And recently, I’ve found myself doing the equivalent to the ‘curt retort’ in reaction to a book blurb’s attempts to pass off sales talk for how the book will change my life – by putting the offending book down. I’ve read countless books that promise all kinds of superlative states of being: promises of being mesmerized, confronted by dark elegiac beauty, boundless riches, through to claims of how I’m going to be shattered, transfixed, transported by the utterly beguiling or the crackling or sinewy, muscular prose. Images, I am assured, will strike me like lightning, strip me bare, fill me with joy, startle, fascinate, overwhelm or perhaps just touch me (profoundly) with their simple power.
The hyperbole is beginning to grate; the promised-land-is-nigh-if –you-buy-this-book rhetoric is beginning to grate. Books are a good thing and I enjoy reading, they can offer insights, engage you in a hitherto unknown world, but there are some blurbs that perpetuate a kind of pseudo, secular enlightenment myth and exploit that myth to sell more books… that in consuming them the reader will arrive at some sort of literary ‘nirvana’. Well, no, actually. You might find some escape, diversion, and for the attentive reader, insight and new understanding. ‘A perpetual discovery,’ Woolf once said talking about life. ‘Not the thing itself, but the perpetual discovery.’ Well, that works nicely for what books offer: pin prick moments of light, but never the whole thing, ‘the thing itself’ – you’re not going to fly to heaven on the back of a book. Perhaps the sales blurb given to hyperbole should read: ‘the contents of this book may expand your consciousness for a while and possible leave a residue which may or may not colour your outlook on the world.’ I don’t think that would grate. I’d probably buy it.