An article on my RSS feed recently caught my attention, a post by Swapna Krishna on the Book Riot blog entitled On the Perils of Feeling Dumb While Reading. This has now been latched on to by the Guardian, who are doing an open comment feed about Which books make you feel stupid. I think that to some extent Swapna is conflating the issue of not being ‘clever’ enough with not enjoying a book that everyone else seems to rave about, but the main thrust of her argument rings very true with me – for many people the act of reading is not just a pleasurable activity, it is an intellectual exercise. Last week my colleague wrote about the comments of Lynn Shepherd, who among other things said that people shouldn’t read Harry Potter because they should be reading something ‘more stimulating for grown-up minds’. Now, I am in the camp of people who don’t like the wizarding series, but that doesn’t stop me from seeing that this is simply rubbish. Reading is an intellectual act, yes, but it is an intellectual act no matter what is read – the intellectual bit is in the translating of squiggles on a page into brain pictures. This rang small bells inside my head about something I’d read earlier in the year, about people lying about the books they have read. I searched onwards.
In September 2013, the Guardian conducted a poll of 2000 people to discover the books people claim to have read but actually haven’t, with 1984, War and Peace and Great Expectations at the top of the rankings. This in turn seems to be copying (ALLEGEDLY) a poll conducted on Book Riot in July of last year of 828 readers, where Pride and Prejudice, Ulysses and Moby Dick triumphed as being the most unread books listed. The one that I find particularly odd is the listing for Ulysees, as I’m pretty sure having pretending to have read that requires you to also pretend to have a solid grasp of about seven European languages, as well as a firm footing in ancient Greek and Latin, and to know your myths like the back of your hand. That would take a whole lifetime of blag. But why do people feel like they have to lie about these things? What is it that we are supposed to think about a person who has read 1984, and what should we think about them if they haven’t? There is a real fear of being trumped in the mind of the reader, and yet all it would mean is that there is one thing less to have a conversation about. I rather like it when someone hasn’t read a book I’ve really enjoyed, as it means I can wax lyrical (as I do on this very blog) until they excuse themselves to go to the loo and never come back.
In 2003 the BBC ran a campaign called the Big Read, where it polled the public for the best-loved novel in Britain. You can see the list of 100 books here, but the top three are Lord of the Rings, Pride and Prejudice and the His Dark Materials Trilogy (cheating, that is. trillogytrilogy). Recently a meme has been doing the rounds on the internet (I may just be hopelessly out of touch and it has been there for ages, but it fits in to what I want to say) that is titled something along the lines of The BBC believes the majority of people will have only read 6 of the 100 books in this list, so how many have you read? What I like about this so much is that, from what I can make out there is no evidence that the BBC said six out of one hundred is the average. Indeed, the list isn’t even identical to that from the Big Read (the top three in this case being Pride and Prejudice, The Lord of the Rings and Jayne Eyre). What it says is, “the ‘elites’ think that we are stupid, so let’s prove them wrong by pointing out that we have read at least seven of these books.” This is the mirror-image of pretending to have read a book to avoid elitist humiliation. But why the elitism, and why the humiliation, in the first place?
I think the root of this issue is to be found in education. Education has allowed what we now know as a Canon to be created, to which some books are grudgingly added, but whose hallowed lists are mostly full of what academics have decided are good literature, literature which Means Something, Literature What Matters. But this is surely a nonsense – LWM doesn’t matter to everyone, and many canonical texts are now no more that windows into a vanished world. The Scottish education system is slowly edging away from ideas of canon – the Curriculum for Excellence is supposed to give teachers the freedom to teach whatever will engage and benefit the young minds they try so hard to fill – and that can only be a good thing. Of course, this is tricky. We seem to love lists, and without a list of interesting non-commercial fiction to chew through then perhaps we’d be at the prey of marketing companies. But what is the Penguin Classics range if not a marketing stunt? I urge you all to throw off the shackles of this pre-Enlightenment idea that if a book was written a long time ago it is greater than or equal to greatness. If we hadn’t got rid of that idea in Science we’d still be believing that elephants hadn’t got any knees. And how do we take the first step toward this new found freedom? Say you haven’t read something ‘classic’. Like this. [deep breath]
I have never read Pride and Prejudice, or To Kill a Mockingbird, and I may never do so, as there are rather a lot of books that sound more interesting. But please, feel free to tell me why I should.
[That was actually rather harder to do than I’d thought they would be]