Alex Massie

The Greatest Non-Reader of Them All

Text settings

As a coda to yesterday's posts on Not Reading Books, it was remiss of me not to quote the man who may make a decent claim to being the greatest newspaper columnist of the 20th century. I refer, of course, to Myles na Gopaleen ("Myles of the Ponies") better known to posterity by one of his other pseudonyms, Flann O'Brien.  Here's his solution to the reading problem:


YES, this question of book-handling. The other day I had a word to say about the necessity for the professional book-handler, a person who will maul the books of illiterate, but wealthy, upstarts so that the books will look as if they have been read and re-read by their owners. How many uses of mauling would there be? Without giving the matter much thought, I should say four. Supposing an experienced handler is asked to quote for the handling of one shelf of books four feet in length. He owuld quote thus under four heads:-

'Popular Handling - Each volume to be well and truly handled, four leaves in each to be dog-eared, and a tram ticket, cloak-room docket or other comparable article inserted in each as a forgotten book-mark. Say, £1 7s 6d. Five per cent discount for civil servants.'

'Premier Handling - Each volume to be thoroughly handled, eight leaves in each to be dog-eared, a suitable passage in not less than 25 volumes to be underlined in red pencil, and a leaflet in French on the works of Victor Hugo to be inserted as a forgotten book-mark in each. Say, £2 17s 6d. Five per cent discount for literary university students, civil servants and lady social workers.'


The great thing about this graduated scale is that no person need appear ignorant or unlettered merely because he or she is poor. Not every vulgar person, remember, is wealthy, although I could name...

But no matter. Let us get on to the more expensive grades of handling. The next is well worth the extra money.

'De Luxe Handling - Each volume to be mauled savagely, the spines of the smaller volumes to be damaged in a manner that will give the impression that they have been carried around in pockets, a passage in each volume to be underlined in red pencil with an exclamation or interrogation mark inserted in the margin opposite, an old Gate Theatre programme to be inserted in each volume as a forgotten bookmark (3 per cent discount if old Abbey programmes are accepted), not less than 30 volumes to be treated with old coffee, tea, porter or whiskey stains, and not less than five volumes to be inscribed with forged signatures of the authors. Five per cent discount for bank managers, county surveyors and the heads of business houses employing not less than 35 hands. Dog-ears extra and inserted according to instructions, twopence  per half dozen per volume. Quotations for alternative  old Paris theatre programmes on demand. This service available for a limited time only, nett, £7 18s 3d.'...

...IT WILL BE remembered (how, in Heaven's name, could it be forgotten) that I was discoursing on Friday last on the subject of book-handling, my new service, which enables ignorant people who want to be suspected of reading books to have their books handled and mauled in a manner that will give the impression that thier owner is very devoted to them. I described three grades of handling and promised to explain what you get under Class Four - the Superb Handling, or the Traitement Superbe, as we lads who spent our honeymoon in Paris prefer to call it. It is the dearest of them all, of course, but far cheaper than dirt when you consider the amount of prestige you will gain in the eyes of your ridiculous frie

But, my friends, to find out the details of the Traitement Superbe, I'm afraid you'll just have to buy the bleedin' book yourself. Up to you, of course, as to whether or not you read it or not, but I'd recommend doing so, if only to wonder with appropriate awe at the ingenuity and fecundity of a man who produced a daily column for The Irish Times for 26 years (1940-1966).  Collectively these columns amount to one of the greatest journalistic achievements of the 20th century.

[If you want more, Allen Barra wrote a nice appreciation of O'Brien for Salon a couple of years ago.]

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articleBook Reviewsirelandnewspapers