Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Culture, Schmulture – or, what are books for?

A recent semi-discussion on the Waddya[1] thread dealt with the interesting issue of “high-culture” v “chewing-gum for the brain” (thank you BB) books. There are some books that one simply must read, the theory goes, to be anything approaching ‘well-read’ – which also function as indicators of intelligence without requiring any actual thought on the part of the read. It is enough to have read War and Peace, NapoleonKaramazov observes, as it has “become synonymous with intellect”. This reminds me a bit of the exchange in a Fish Called Wanda (now, that’s what I call culture), where Otto protests at Wanda calling him ‘an ape’: “Apes don’t read philosophy!” – “Yes they do, Otto”, Wanda responds, “They just don’t understand it.[2]

This double-assumption – that these magical books must have been read to claim cleverness, and that reading them is in itself sufficient to do so – is a blight on actually enjoying reading. Daisy Goodwin, chair of the Orange 2010 judging panel, recently bemoaned the fact that "There's not been much wit and not much joy, there's a lot of grimness out there. There are a lot of books about Asian sisters. There are a lot of books that start with a rape. Pleasure seems to have become a rather neglected element in publishing." [3] It’s all very well and good for a book to be challenging, or complicated, but the rise of ‘misery-lit’, and the continuing feeling that some books are read mainly to show off rather than to pass a lazy Sunday afternoon on the sofa, make reading seem more like hard work or an exercise in intellectual social climbing, rather than an enjoyable pastime.

Pierre Bayard, talking of his book, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read[4] (which, of course, I haven’t read) refers to David Lodge’s invented game ‘Humiliation’ (which Bayard, possibly deliberately, says appears in Small World, whereas other sources say Changing Places), in which a group of literature professors try to outdo each other by ‘fessing up to ‘classics’ that they have never read. One admits that he’s never read Hamlet, which is first not believed (because an English professor has to have read Hamlet), and then he loses his job (because an English professor has to have read Hamlet). Not many of us are in the position of continuing employment resting on whether or not we have managed to plough through Tolstoy or Rushdie, but certain-social-circle death can result.

I have thousands of books and like to think I am quite well-read, but even the briefest glance at the numerous lists of ‘best ever books’ gives the embarrassing lie to that. The list of Man Booker Prize Winners[5] makes me feel very small, with only one ‘tick’ (Schindler’s Ark, by Thomas Keneally, where I scrabble around for extra literary points by pointing out that I read this before it was Listed and filmed – I’m claiming nothing for having watched half an hour of The English Patient before getting bored and turning over). Time Magazine’s All-Time 100 Novels[6] is better, with 17½ ticks (to explain the ½, Mr Norris Changes Trains, but not Goodbye to Berlin), but two of them were imposed by the rigours of English Literature GCSE (Catcher in the Rye, and To Kill a Mockingbird), and I only read Death of the Heart because I was stuck in the house, ill, and had got Nina Bawden and Elizabeth Bowen mixed up in my head.

Given this trumpeting of ‘must-read’ books, it’s quite surprising that the Bluffers’ Guide series hasn’t moved into classic novels, but then I suppose that Cliff Notes[7] and others have cornered the market. This is an entirely different situation from friends, having just read something heart-rending, saying “oh, you must read this!”, which is usually combined with them digging said book out of their bag and handing it over to you, which I sometimes think, having tried to read some of them, is meant only as some sort of pain-spreading vengeance on the part of people who have lost several evenings ploughing through lengthy descriptive passages and metaphorical accounts of gardening (have forgotten the name of that one, too, thank God), and don’t want to suffer alone. No, this ‘must-read’ status has been assigned by a combination of precious literati and an aspirational press, enabled by a nervous social element; like the self-satisfied Literature Professor mouthing off to adoring students (and student journalists), who don’t know enough to know when s/he’s wrong, but know just enough to be snooty to their fellow students who have never read Proust. It’s like when you’re a first year, and get bullied by the fourth-years (am showing me age here) – you hate it, but when you’re a fourth-year, you’re just as mean. You also realise that the sixth-formers will take the piss out of you mercilessly; nothing changes.

I shouldn’t bother with the ticking, I know, or with the mild guilt that I still haven’t managed to read the original Wuthering Heights, much preferring the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain’s version[8], but I like lists; I like ticking things. And I like books; I enjoy books – I even enjoy bad books, whingeing at length about how it isn’t possible to translate from Latin to English without changing the word-count[9], marvelling at the shortness of the chapters in the one James Patterson I ever read (the title of which now fortunately escapes me), devouring Dan Browns in much the same way that I only eat McDonalds when I have a hangover, and my willpower is greatly reduced, and I really enjoy it. But I look with regret at the ‘unread shelf’, currently hosting several ‘must-reads’ which I know I will never read. Not because I want to read the damn things – I clearly don’t – but because I feel, a little, like I am failing in my duty by not wanting to. And that by saying that this ‘must-read-ity’ is daft looks like I am basking in ignorance, which I’m not. That’s a bloody stupid state of affairs.

So, join me, citoyen/nes – do your own ticking, and share your pet peeves.

[9], absolutely not to be confused with, which is actually rather good