Monday, July 9, 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.


Do I have to convince you that I like reading books?
I hope not.
Every day, I devote some time to serious reading. I read what has just been published and what was published long ago, in order to maintain a sense of perspective about newly-published books that are currently being praised or (in some cases) over-praised. Hence the “Something New” and “Something Old” sections of this blog. I cannot bring myself to think that someone who does not read frequently and deeply is fully civilised. When I am in a new city, or even in the out-of-the-way parts of my own city, I often have a habit of checking out second-hand bookshops. My house is filled with books – far, far too many of them probably – many of which I have yet to read. Catching up with things that have sat unread on my shelves for years is another motive for cranking out “Something Old” essays. On the floor of my study, with its crammed bookshelves, sit piles of yet-to-be-read review copies of new books, through which I try to work my way systematically.
So I am no enemy of literacy or the joys of reading, okay?
But recently, and especially on Facebook, I have noticed a worrying trend. There are more and more incitements to read, written by people who are apparently worried that the habit of reading itself is dying. This is never specifically stated, but it is an implicit subtext. Some of these incitements are relatively harmless posts on ways to get your children reading – an admirable objective, although even here there is the assumption that in your household children won’t be reading anyway. (So get off your arses and read regularly to your young children, nitwits!) And coupled with this, there is often another assumption that reading is, in and of itself, a virtue rather than a pleasure, a pastime or a means of enlightenment. Let me make it clear, bibliophile though I am, that I have never suffered the delusion that I am morally superior to the woman who hardly ever reads a book but prefers dressmaking or netball as pastimes. Being literate and informed and “fully civilised” are not the same as being morally good.
Obviously some of the posts about reading, which I am now seeing on Facebook, are motivated by self-interest. A high proportion of them are put up by publishing companies – usually marginal and “independent” ones – and by groups such as the New Zealand Society of Authors (of which I am a member…. or perhaps once was a member. I might have let my membership lapse). When it comes to reading, such groups and companies have “skin in the game” as it were.
More annoyingly, many of the literacy-propaganda postings have a hectoring tone. I have now had my fill of posts with titles such as “100 Books You Must Read Before You Die” or “Twenty Notoriously Underrated Writers You Should be Reading”. Note those bullying verbs “must” and “should”. Who says I must or should read any of these things? As I have been at pains to explain in this post, I am already reading as widely and as much as I can. To feel a sense of obligation to read everything recommended by such bloggers would be asking too much. To quote the title of one of my earlier postings (which I am heavily cannibalising in this one) You Can’t Read Everything. Besides, I am fully capable of discovering underrated authors for myself, without having to follow somebody else’s doubtless partial list. And I already know that whatever list of the “underrated” or the “great” that somebody else can produce, I can produce an alternative list of my own.
It seems to me that underlying much of this nervous on-line anxiety to promote books and reading, there is a looming awareness that novels and printed prose in general are no longer the main forms of cultural communication. Dedicated though I am to reading, devoted though I am to great and compendious novels, I accept that those who choose to read, complete and unabridged, Ulysses or Moby Dick are a tiny proportion of the educated part of the population, and an even tinier proportion of the total population. The same goes – only more so – for the readers of modern poetry.
And from here on it will always be so.
Drop the anxiety, on-line posters. Accept that we are a minority compared with all the television, Sky, Netflix, download and Youtube watchers, and be happy with our minority status.

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