When non-fiction books die - that is, when they are proved wrong, superseded, rendered irrelevant - the overwhelming majority just disappear into the oblivion of second-hand books and one copy in the British Library. But a few get a strange new life. They may not survive as scholarship, but they survive by being read for a different reason: as literature.
Not many people would deny that Sigmund Freud's reputation as a scientist now stands very low and shows few signs of recovery. And yet, a new English translation of Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams by Joyce Crick has just been published (by Oxford University Press).
There is a significant comparison here with Francis Wheen's recent biography of Karl Marx, which argued that Das Kapital should now be read not as a work of economic analysis, but as a gripping Victorian novel. Reviewing the Freud in this week's Times Literary Supplement, Lesley Chamberlain saw the book as "a Decameron-like framework for tales of secret suffering in high bourgeois Vienna" and compared his inventive use of language and metaphor with the Joyce of Finnegan's Wake: "This is why we read The Interpretation; nothing to do with psychoanalysis."
Are we less interested in dreams than we used to be? I was about to write that I found dreams in works of literature boring to read, but then I remembered the constant, unfailingly inventive use of dreams by Shakespeare; and then I thought of Dante's Divine Comedy, The Pilgrim's Progress, Alice in Wonderland, Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" and so on and on, and abandoned the theory. Perhaps this great literature was the problem. Freud was always too much the artist and too little the scientist. Theories such as the Oedipus complex owed more to his very cultivated literary background than to what we would recognise as scientific research. Maybe dreams themselves are a literary form and should be judged by literary criteria: some of them feature symbols and metaphors, but they can also be well or poorly constructed, interesting or tedious.
I have my own opinion about what is the most boring book in the world. I've never read it - indeed, it's never been published - but I'm still sure of it. I have heard that, when Prince Charles wakes up each morning, he has a notebook by his bed in which he writes down what he has dreamt. By now, it must be on a Gibbonian scale. I have my own nightmare. I'm on Desert Island Discs and Sue Lawley says: "And now for your book. I'm afraid there's no choice any more. It is Prince Charles's dream book. Updated every day."
He's a strange man, isn't he? Last week, he went on a three-day retreat with the monks of Mount Athos. Like so much about Prince Charles, it sounded good until you heard the details. He had about ten packing cases with him. They contained books, clothes, his special pillow, lots of food (he doesn't like Greek food, which he finds too "oily"), his painting materials, the bulky apparatus of his satellite phone and, it is to be feared, his dream diary. At the end of three days of ascetic monasticism, he was taken by speedboat to the ocean-going yacht of a Greek shipping millionaire. Did it ever occur to him during his meditation that a point was being missed, somewhere?
On the rare occasions when I recall my own dreams, they scare me not because of their obscenity, but because of their dullness. Psychological examination has determined that my id is even more constrained than my superego. In the last dream I can remember, I found myself in the army. I wasn't fighting or anything like that. I was just in some sort of national service barracks. God knows why.
It may well be because my lamentable indiscipline as a writer constantly makes me feel that I could do with a spell in the army. The one inexplicable detail is that the sergeant of my platoon was Peter Purves, the presenter of Blue Peter who worked alongside John Noakes and Valerie Singleton. Dante fell asleep in a dark wood and met Virgil who took him on a tour of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. I fell asleep in a stupor and met a forgotten children's TV presenter. I don't know whether I should be scared or just sad.
Incidentally, if there are any psychologists out there who can understand my dream and can explain to me just why it should be Peter Purves, then please don't get in touch. I'm sure I'm better off not knowing.