Saturday, March 05, 2011

What price World Book Night in the Can't Be Arsed Society?

If the various pro-book initiatives we've seen this week are anything to go by, authors have no more business pronouncing on how the public should behave and public policy should be shaped than rock stars or footballers. They sound every bit as much like naive sixth formers in an overheated debate. First Alan Bennett likens the closure of libraries to "child abuse". (He should read the most sensible contribution to this debate, from author and library campaigner Anthony Horowitz, who indicated a way forward for school libraries without avoiding the unpalatable truth that public library use has declined by a third in the last five years.) Then Philip Pullman, speaking in favour of the scheme whereby a million books are going to be given away, says "give books to people and they enjoy them and go and buy more books." (Tell that last one to the record business, who found that giving away CDs with mass market newspapers depressed the artists sales in some cases.)

Both seem classic illustrations of the shortcomings of this whole debate. The pious pronouncements at the top don't match the actual behaviour on the ground. People's disinclination to read books is not because they don't have access to them. It's because they can't be arsed. This doesn't change because you have further pandered to their indolence by rushing up and putting a book in their hands. Furthermore, the declining handful of independent book shops complain, not without reason, that the last thing we should be doing is giving books away, thereby adding even further to the perception that a book, if it costs you anything, ought to be about as much as a bottle of supermarket wine.

In the attention economy the actual book is neither here not there. Most of the people who are being given books today have got loads of unread books at home. What they lack is the will to read them. This is because they have persuaded themselves that their lives are somehow too busy to allow reading time. Oddly enough, they don't have any trouble making time for TV. A BARB survey just found that while the average Briton claims to watch TV for 20 hours a week the true figure is nearer thirty.

Tonight BBC-2 is all about World Book Night. Lots of well-known, good-hearted people will be popping up on your screen talking about how much they love reading. Wouldn't they be better off just taking a leaf out of what the BBC used to do in the 50s, which was shut down for an hour after Children's Hour to allow parents to put their children to bed? Impossibly quaint, I know, but at least it made the point that there were some things that listening and viewing simply got in the way of. They should have a Reading Hour in which they replace their normal output with a caption saying "Read A Book. Now." Obviously most people won't, much like most students and lecturers spend most of their Reading Weeks fornicating or pruning their roses, but at least it makes the point that you should.

So tonight I will not be watching the BBC's programming about World Book Night. I shall go in the other room and read a book. I urge you to join me.


  1. I'm afraid you're right David. For every one Save Our Library campaigner there's (at least) twenty Can't Be Arsed merchants.

    The fact of the matter is that unless you can get kids reading from a young age they'll probably never get the bug. And how many people do you and I know that only read on holiday? And they don't use Public Libraries (sorry, Communication Hubs) or independent bookshops - they buy the latest Dan Brown and Michael Crichton 'blockbuster' paperbacks (with shiny embossed covers) at W H Smith, Heathrow.

  2. As usual David, you’ve hit the ‘n’ on the ‘h’. The irony of the BBC, however well-meaning, “celebrating the joy of reading” by giving us two and a half hours of television is both laughable and depressing – another chance to hear why Mariella Frostrup likes Ian McEwan, I suppose. Unfortunately, as others have pointed out, reading is difficult. It requires time. It requires mental effort. For most of us, it requires quiet. But we live in a culture that wants everything to be quick and simple, like handing a book out for free – so much easier than walking into one of the Waterstones that litter the high street. Sometimes things are worthwhile because they require effort. Not all riches are handed to you by Simon Cowell live on ITV.
    Furthermore, the answer to declining library use is not to turn them into internet cafes and DVD rental shops. In fact, that rather suggests you’ve admitted defeat. Following its refurbishment, Burnley library now features something called “The Crib@Burnley”, something that the county library service chose to trumpet with quotes from young people such as “I never thought the library could mix the fun factor with reading.” If I were a librarian, I’d put my head in my hands – or take a long, hard look at what exactly I’d been dedicating my life to.
    An interest in reading is cultivated in the young, when they are at school and where, sadly, so many don’t learn to read. Iceland had 99 % literacy back in 1945. Why are we still so far from achieving anything close to that? Certainly not because books are difficult to get hold of.
    I’m with you. I’ll spend the evening finishing The Soul of a People – a book about a time when books were regarded as the solution to a problem, and not the cause of one.

  3. For me it's not so much time or not being arsed; it's a question of energy. I do two jobs one of which involves physical labour while the other, on a hospital ward, is a drain mentally, to the point where the the other night I couldn't remember the name of my brother's long-term girlfriend; she gave me this mean look that seemed to say 'You're doing this on purpose' but I wasn't. I was just plain exhausted.

    When I get home I've had enough. I don't want to exert myself any more. TV will always win out over a book because even if you're watching something that requires a level of mental engagement (at the moment I working my way through The Corner) it will meet you halfway.

    I can feel my reading habits reverting to my student days when I offset the demands of the list of core texts with magazines and comics. Today I bought a load of graphic novels - The first two collected volumes of 'The Unwritten', which I know nothing about beyond the fact that they were penned by Mike Carey whose name is a benchmark for quality storytelling. I also bought the concluding volumes of 'Ex Machina', which I stopped reading in monthly parts when I was on the dole and couldn't afford it.

    I picked up 'Eaten by a Giant Clam: Great Adventures in Natural Science'. I'm going to take it to work with me and read it in the 20 minute window of time that is hilariously referred to as a lunch break. Somebody better get eaten by a giant clam in it or I'm taking it back.

  4. I'd like to know why loving books and "saving" public libraries is thought to be synonymous. I read plenty of books and I buy them all, with my own money, in second-hand bookshops. That way I can get things that have been filtered out by the right-on public sector as unsuitable for my sensitive little eyes.

    Add to that the amount of time and money the public libraries spend on films and music, of which they have vast quantities in obsolete forms, and I have to say, I don't care if all of them close tomorrow.

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  6. "I urge you to join me". Just how big is your other room?

  7. Have you sen just how much "a bottle of supermarket wine" costs these days??

  8. Another manifestation of the 'can't be arsed' society might be propounding lots of seemingly good and fine reasons for not trying to halt the decline of public libraries, for not at least trying to halt the decline of reading in the adult populace. A counsel of despair if there ever was one.

    Mr Medd, what exactly is wrong with people reading books with "shiny embossed covers"? How awful it must be to see people reading, but all the wrong books bought from (horror) chain bookstores. Hell in a handcart, etc.

  9. Lee - I don't know; you tell me. Perhaps the next time you want to take a pop at someone you could take a moment or two to actually read what they've written. For your information I worship at the altar of pulp fiction (especially American pulp fiction) and many of the titles I read are indeed shiny and embossed. I'm only saying.

  10. Apologies John, I didn't mean to appear to be having a go: it's absolutely fine to read Crichton, Brown et al... indeed that was rather my point.

    I'm only saying that I don't see what the supposed disconnect is between this campaign and people who only buy books at airports or in chain bookstores... isn't it in fact exactly these people that campaigns like the ones mentioned should be trying to reach, e.g. if you liked this Dan Brown book, you might want to try thisUmberto Eco (say) book, available at your local bookshop... or perhaps even your library.

  11. I read a great book about a giant shark once. The brute came back to life from the dinosaur days and killed loads of people. I think the government shot it at the end, unless it didn't.

    Anyway, I'm sure they'd shift more books if they were about giant sharks coming back to life and killing people.

  12. Yeah, Ishiguro really missed a trick there.

  13. Anything's got to be worth a shot if all you've got in your arsenal is uptight butlers and miserable guff about Japan, Lee.

    Imagine The Unconsoled ... but with dinosaur shark attacks!

  14. One feels that they missed a trick not promoting World Giant Extinct Shark Day.