~ Posted by Jasper Rees, January 24th 2013
What are quest books if not the literary arm of the self-help industry? The latest addition to an ever-growing genre is "Play It Again", in which amateur pianist and Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger (right) tasks himself with conquering Chopin's fiendish Ballade in G minor. Rusbridger is an unusual visitor to these waters, having already enjoyed quite enough success in another field. Indeed much of the book, structured as a journal, finds him grappling with Julian Assange over WikiLeaks and News International over phone hacking.
As the author of two of them, I have my own theories about what makes a quest book work. Does "Play It Again" tick all six of the genre's boxes?
1. Know the market A quest book needs a captive readership. Neither amateur pianists nor media historians will find this stuff anywhere else. If Rusbridger's book seems a publishing gamble it's because there's no guaranteed overlap between the two.
2. Say it with the subtitle The title can play on words, but the reader needs to know what really lurks on the inside. Rusbridger's "An Amateur Against the Impossible" was probably foisted on him by his publisher, but it ups the stakes succinctly.
3. Quest first, book second A quest which exists only for the purposes of meeting a publishing contract will be found out for what it is: bogus. Rusbridger's fire is properly ignited by the Ballade, so there is a genuine journey to chronicle.
4. Inspire The reader needs to take away something personal, useful and above all inspirational from the quest. Rusbridger marches piecemeal towards his distant goal on 20 minutes a day. At bottom his is a how-to guide to better time management. Its higher purpose is to reveal the creative riches to be mined in those 20 minutes.
5. Avoid narcissism A quest book must attempt the unusual party trick: to take the structure of the me-myself memoir but not force the reader into prolonged inspection of the author's navel. Rusbridger's pianistic odyssey, during which he meets most of the great soloists, is far more than just about him. In fact he could have bared his soul more.
6. Write it like a thriller If the reader doesn't care what happens next, the book is sunk. The quest needs jeopardy, which music easily supplies in the shape of a climactic performance. "Play It Again" accelerates into a page-turner. If his smallish audience might have been a shade more intimidating, the vertical challenge of the Ballade does the business.
Jasper Rees is the author of "I Found My Horn: One Man's Struggle with the Orchestra's Most Difficult Instrument", published in the US as "A Devil to Play", and "Bred of Heaven: One Man's Quest to Reclaim His Welsh Roots"
See also: Can the Guardian survive? Tim de Lisle follows its trials and tribulations and talks to its editor, Alan Rusbridger