Monday, February 5, 2018

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


I am posting these comments for early February, but I am writing them at the end of December, and I am coping with an awful phenomenon that occurs at about this time of year.

You see, books-page editors (they used, somewhat more pompously, to be called “literary editors”) on national magazines, newspapers and various websites at this time of year face earlier-than-usual deadlines. So they have to fill up their columns well in advance of the time that they will appear. Everybody wants time off for the summer holidays, after all. One tried-and-true way of doing this is not to run more reviews, but to fill up pages with lists of the “Year’s Best”, which can be compiled in the month or so before deadline. So from the Listener to The Spinoff to the local rag I am assailed by lists of the Year’s Best Books.

Once upon a time, I used to feel daunted by such lists. I would scan them and discover that I had read only a few of the books listed. “Was I getting out of touch with the literary culture?” I would anxiously ask myself. “Was I falling behind on all the really worthwhile things I should be reading?”

Then it occurred to me that I was already reading as hard and as much as I could reasonably read. I have a house stuffed with books, old and new. I make it my business to read old books almost as often as I read new ones, in order to get some perspective on what is now being produced. This, I believe, is an asset for anyone who regularly comments on books. On top of this, I am a frequent reviewer: to give my stats for 2017 – I penned 13 reviews for the NZ Listener, 13 for the Sunday Star-Times and its affiliates and 5 for Landfall-Review-on-Line. On top of which I do weekly (now fortnightly) postings of reviews of new books on this blog. I estimate I read about fifty new books a year (approx. one a week) and about half that number of old books. (The “Something Old” section of this blog is sustained by my continued reading of older books, but also by my resort to reading diaries which I have kept for years.) I further note that I do not include collections of poetry in this count.

So having acknowledged all this, I come to the stunning conclusion: YOU CAN’T READ EVERYTHING.  Nobody can. The best anyone can do is to read as much and as widely as you can to remain in touch with the literary culture. None of the reviewers or editors who compile “Ten Best” lists of books have themselves read everything worthwhile that is available, after all. Their lists are simply lists of books that have come into their ken (or, for those who are not so scrupulous, books of which they have read other people’s reviews).

Another thought that occurs to me is this – experience tells me that many books which are highly praised, and make it onto “Year’s Best” lists, are books whose reputation does not endure. Perhaps you could go to an archive and pull out of a back-room a dusty copy of a national journal from ten or twenty years ago. Look up their lists of “10 Best Books of the Year”, and see how many are now either unreadable or preoccupied with things that already mark them as period pieces. Sheer novelty (or topicality) is at least one of the reasons many books make it onto such lists. [UPDATE: I have just seen the "long list" of ten books up for the Ockham Book Awards. Oh woe! Oh misery! I have read only five of them. Mind you, none was a masterpiece, so my "Look-at-it-again-in-ten-years" rule kicks in.]

While I am blathering on about the reception of books like this, there is another matter that currently bemuses me.

Have you noticed the sheer anxiety about the reading of books that is often expressed on Facebook and the internet in general?

I doubt that a day goes by without my seeing yet another posting on the internet on the value of reading books, on the advantages that the regular reading of books gives to children, on how important it is to encourage children to read, on how good it is to give books as gifts, on how surveys show that regular book-readers are better informed than other members of society etc. etc. etc.?

I am not disgreeing with any of these propositions – quite the contrary – but to me it signals a great anxiety about the survival of books, as we know them, in the face of other forms of distraction, enlightenment and entertainment, including the internet itself, of course.

The more people shout on line about the value of books, the more anxiety they are displaying about the survival of books.

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