Of all our artistic achievements literature is undoubtedly the most significant. From Homer and the Epic of Gilgamesh to more recent works, we have an unrivalled and unsurpassed testament to human creativity. In barely more than a human lifetime the West has gone from mass illiteracy to very high nominal levels of literacy, yet this privilege, very hard won in many cases, is taken for granted. Books are the foundation of understanding and development but they don’t enjoy the prominence they deserve. This is partly because they are, thankfully, a mass market product, but few other things are as durable, reliable and trustworthy as a book.
Books are losing their importance because we are living through a time of unsurpassed convenience, and books are, there’s no denying, a time-consuming proposal for a society sustained on fast food and something fleeting called ‘instant gratification’. We live in time where fewer and fewer of us need to invent, make or even think- we simply consume. But the range of conveniences we enjoy is undoubtedly stifling our mental dexterity. I’m certain the disgruntlement and disillusionment so many feel is due to the lack of any intellectual challenge. Although stress is a common complaint, it is often less about inability to endure anything demanding and more about being swamped by a wave of banal, illogical, meaningless and unrewarding tasks.
Books are an indispensable part of our collective intellectual evolution. Their benefits cannot be quantified in the numerical or ‘target-specific’ manner so often demanded by governments and institutions. And it may be unseemly to express it as such, but we need constant reminding that books are the most economically viable and accessible cultural experience. Books preserve and nurture language but more importantly they preserve and nurture so much more in the individual reader- one of the reasons of course totalitarian governments suppress books and writers. Conversely, easy availability and minimal censorship have made books and writers devalued in democratic states. The economics of one-upmanship have made works of visual art more prestigious and acclaimed simply through the allure of sole possession. The paintings of Vincent van Gogh are undoubtedly great and a wonderful experience to see but they are not necessarily any more remarkable than a cheap Dostoyevsky paperback, say. The comparison is crude but it is valid because the visual arts are disproportionately prominent for a couple of reasons. Firstly the possession of something exclusive, singular, is far more appealing to the rich who influence the media’s coverage of the arts but the audience, too, is happier with art that can be evaluated -rightly or wrongly- in glances of a few moments rather than through several hours of effort. The public respond very enthusiastically to a career retrospective of a painter that can be enjoyed in an afternoon visit to a museum rather than the prospect of reading the ‘complete works’. For many, possibly most, attending a visual retrospective has become ‘culture lite’- a digestible snippet demanding not too much concentration. The extensive coverage of auction prices gives the visual arts allure and a connection, however flimsy, to a world of celebrity rather than anything bookish and reserved. Often obscure novelists and books of minor significance are pilloried for pretension despite being available for the price of a Big Mac when vast sums, that could subsidy enormous publishing and literacy schemes, are spent on single works of visual art by artists of negligible talent and impact. The folly of paying millions for works of questionable significance is applauded and faithfully reported. At auctions the spectators frequently applaud the inflated prices- yet they experience nothing other than the verbalization of numbers. It’s a sight for Freud.
It is almost sensual to hold a book and thumb the pages, the type tumbling through the fingers like a waterfall and it is almost always extraordinary to begin a book, whether it is a completely imagined work, an unbiased or even prejudiced interpretation of history or expression of personal ideas, knowing that the insights of the author, possibly acquired through a lifetime of study, are being conveyed to us in a way that few skills can match. There is the old story of the young child who preferred the play on the radio rather than television because the pictures were better, books, as any reader can vouch, do that best of all. Although I am unrelenting in my support of the Internet and computing, books have had us interacting, without any hullabaloo, at the most intense personal and intellectual level for centuries before the word was coined. (We should remind ourselves that the new-fangled podcast is a perfect example of something old becoming new again. The wireless age is older than the computer age. )
I can think of no other pursuit which can engage us for hours of effortless concentration that may only be interrupted by, say, a ringing telephone. Books coax us into a dance where the author takes the lead. There is a ‘theory’- it surfaces every so often- that babies, even foetuses, will be more intelligent if exposed to classical music. Well, anything we find absorbing will always help us to fulfil our greatest potential. This is not a theory, it’s common sense. Reading being solitary, for all but very young children, can offer richer rewards than most endeavours and although it can demand more of the individual, it is not an ordeal- people who find it so are receiving bad advice or bad tuition.
Curiously as novels become increasingly irrelevant to the mass audience, fiction is inescapable. We are surrounded and bombarded by fiction in its most insidious forms. Our leaders, regardless of ideology, peddle more fiction than most of us will ever be able to read in a lifetime- fiction in the form of distorted accounts of present difficulties and sentimental projections of the future that could shame writers of even the soppiest romances. The faces of young girls, sometimes mere teenagers, are used to promote skin care regimes for menopausal women. Men are coaxed into believing that motorbikes, cars and various expensive gadgets are indispensable accessories in mating rituals. Newspapers and magazines attract advertisers by peddling the illusion that their readers are richer and more sophisticated than they are, and the readers are flattered enough to board this carousel of increasingly unsatisfying consumption. Most people who are indifferent to books are addicted to fiction.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, those who sought shelter in the Louisiana Superdome gave eyewitness accounts of murder and gang rape. It has now been proved beyond any reasonable doubt that although there were disturbances, the events described on television were fictional. To be harsh, those accounts reflect the intellectual and moral deprivation of our age. When confronted with a camera and the opportunity to seize the limelight afforded by the moment, we are merciless. To be sympathetic, those accounts reflect our natural creativity and instinctive desire to be storytellers, to dispense an account of events coloured by our own hand regardless of the circumstances. Mobile telephony has shone a light on the inadequacy of speech but has also exposed a tendency in so many people to be just a bit too theatrical about their lives. Everywhere I hear people happy to discuss their most personal details. I notice a lack of inhibition regarding the discussion of financial prosperity – there is always, though, the suspicion that self-deception is at the heart of it. Every trip or purchase has to be trumped. We have acquired an astounding capacity for exaggeration and deception. On several occasions I have witnessed seemingly sane people use a mobile phone as a prop to mount a monologue. I think many, many people are now leading lives where there hopes and aspirations, however far-fetched, have become completely visible to the point that much of their daily existence is not dissimilar to what readers know as autobiographical fiction, real events and memories recalled and reshaped for greater effect. But is this a symptom of something far more serious?
More depressingly there is now a trend among young users of social networking websites to ‘grieve’ for strangers. Something that inevitably touches all of us and most of us find almost unendurable is now being sought by young people who want to experience a fictional grief and post ‘heartfelt’ condolences. This has the potential to be very poisonous. We now accept that gratuitous violence in cinema and videogames has made (some of) us increasingly immune to bloodshed. It is unavoidable that artificial grieving, especially if it is occurring in isolation and is a substitute for deeper personal troubles, will doubtless will lead to the participants being indifferent about death. And it is inevitable that there will be some kind of social network suicide or murder pact scandal. But this is not attracting the kind of objections it should. The hell of Iraq or Darfur doesn’t interest the grieving young enough to protest or write letters but online grief expressed in the memory of someone they didn’t know is yet another commodity of convenience in their comfortable lives, completely devoid of intellectual challenge.
The use such ‘social’ websites rather than face to face meetings is part of another worrying trend. Many young people are now so lacking in individuality that electronic props are indispensable. Since they don’t read their judgment and critical faculties are undeveloped. They don’t value each other by what they have to say – they’ve succumbed to a form of mass conformity where individualism is not about what is in the head but grotesque tattoos and piercing. There are constant messages about obesity, smoking and alcohol consumption but I think – granted the evidence is anecdotal – we are on the verge of a mental health epidemic. There is an argument that the former issues are the symptoms of the latter. Admittedly it’s easy to make a connection between mass cultural ignorance and ‘mindless’ violence, but surely there is one. I’m not suggesting that reading a novel can resolve the excesses of the self-absorbed but fiction does provide the intellectual impetus that many of us need. The fiction writer imagines situations in which the motives of human behaviour can examined, explored and manipulated to illustrate truths about our psychology which are as valid, if not more so, than anything that can be chronicled in non-fiction. But all books are more urgent than ever because we are surrounded by public figures- politicians, celebrities and industrialists- who are purposefully evasive and vague even in unchallenged statements. Books are needed to supply the context, treacherous or noble, and the minutiae of events. A magazine article running twenty pages will seem thorough and informative until a book of the same subject appears and it is four-hundred pages!
Declining book readership inevitably leads to greater inarticulacy. Again the evidence is anecdotal and questionable but people around 18-35 do seem to have absorbed the speech patterns of entertainment more readily and if they read books at all, they are for children. It is not intellectually, emotionally or physically healthy for adults and children to be sharing so much vocabulary and so many interests. Sometimes the generation gap is a very good thing! As parents become unable or unwillingly to discipline their children physically their verbal and expository skills become more important – and many parents do not have these skills because they have never read books other than compulsory coursework. Parenting is not wholly dependent on the creative communications skills that come with reading for pleasure but they do help- they help to comprehend and they help to recognise when advice is needed. And of course reading to children, explaining moral dilemmas, role-playing, is unbeatable on several levels not the least of which is communication between parents and children. The bedtime story is cheaper than gadgets and helps build the bond that can defuse tantrums and later problems. Rather than squandering time and money on assorted reports and schemes to address family breakdown why don’t governments just grasp that books are a long way to the answer?
As children are exposed to increasingly adult advertising and products, the path to maturity is becoming obscured. There is considerable public preoccupation about paedophilia in relation to the Internet but the dangers are nearer and unintentional, therefore more dangerous. Society is removing the barriers between adults and children in many ways, to the point that children can be, and are, more easily exploited by adults in numerous subtle ways. The greatest danger children face is having infantile parents and guardians, and sadly that is not something we can legislate against. There is never a shortage of parents describing themselves as their child’s best friend. What an absurd and alarming thing to say! Is what the school run is all about? A sneaky cigarette with the kids before class? Plotting pranks in the car? I’m not playing with you, I’m in Mum and Dad’s gang!
When you have parents lacking in intellectual curiosity and children relying on gadgets which supply answers before children have learned to ask questions the results will be catastrophic. For instance, a web-cam linking children in other countries is possibly the most dangerous convenience of the computing age. Children have to wonder and guess what is happening to relatives and friends far away. They have to be puzzled and intrigued before they are thrilled and disappointed. They need to imagine and manipulate what they think are the facts before they experience or see the reality. Just as the immune system becomes accustomed to and over-reliant on antibiotics the mind will not function creatively if it is not confronted with puzzles and obstacles. The speculation prompted by a few words on a telephone or photographs with Christmas cards is absolutely indispensable to a child’s development and it must occur before encountering factual reality. Too many solutions at an early age will be gravely damaging.
Culture’s place in contemporary society is more urgent than ever. We are disinclined to think of culture as a commodity but culture has always been at the forefront of what is now called globalization. When it was routine to buy, and expect to buy, things which were nationally grown and manufactured, books and plays were translated and stars of screen and stage were routinely international. Throughout history many of the things we now classify as artisanal were traded across continents. Culture is not a luxury, it has been indispensable since the earliest civilization
Many think books are taken for granted, but that is too optimistic. Ignorance is flaunted- conversations are littered with boasts of ignorance and incompetence where there should be curiosity. Teenagers and parents of teenagers loudly complain that there is ‘nothing to do’ when anyone with even a faintly active mind understands there are not enough years in a human lifetime to do what there is to do. Although I wouldn’t propose books as the cure for all of society’s ills there can no doubt that so many people could rid themselves of all the modern ailments – depression, esteem issues- if they took the opportunity to cultivate an inner life rather than commend themselves to an existence measured and valued so explicitly on the consumption of trends, fashion and gimmicks like life coaches, though it’s inevitable these things will always have a presence and influence. Who needs knowledge or application in the era of instant and unmerited celebrity? In many parts of the West it is now common for employers’ groups to complain about standards of literacy and numeracy. And of course the way adults gripe about their elected leaders within a few months of their accession implies a very clear and widespread inability to comprehend and investigate political issues. I think the alienation many feel is beyond the normal confines of voter apathy. The mechanics of trade and currency fluctuation are beyond the grasp of the average voter even though they will find the lives being disturbed by such events. This is where lack of curiosity is so destructive, so fatal- the impulse to investigate and comprehend is relatively rare. Many, if not most, voters are not disinterested in how they will be governed- they are simply bewildered by economics, foreign affairs and the legal system. Very few people actually live in a world of intriguing dinner parties sustained by dazzling conversation. Without books most adults receive little or no intellectual stimulation once they exit formal education.
I don’t think it would be wrong to say that publishers, particularly those basking in prestige and heritage, have, or had until recently, a social contract with readers. So many publishers are neglecting their duties by peddling chick lit, frat lit, conspiracy lit, blatant lie lit and even shamelessly plagiarized lit. It is more important than ever for readers to experience original and wonderful books. Like many enterprises, publishers have lost sight of their business, though for many it was something deeper than ledgers. The more visible publishers benefited from so much reader loyalty and co-operation from booksellers who promoted titles through genuine enthusiasm rather than bribes. Advertising and promotion beyond the book pages wasn’t especially prevalent. Readers largely read and supported their contemporaries in tandem with the classics. Today’s young adults are not reading their own writers as keenly as their parents did theirs and the parents can’t be expected to succumb to the latest twenty-something literary sensation who promises, the blurb may say, to shed light on the secrets of the human condition and redefine our place in the universe for his generation… Mass (such as it is) readership is, like popular music, a fairly recent phenomena and there doesn’t seem to be any certainty it will survive.
Ideally celebrities give us guidance on political and ethical issues without us having to tire ourselves with research and investigation and all that tedious thinking that helps us form an opinion, that makes us alert human beings. We are no longer attuned to the preposterous language that is daily vocabulary of the media. A procession of regrettable celebrities appear with unchecked regularity describing the most mundane and banal people and events as ‘awesome’. We can count on the same crowd of well and freely-dressed celebrities telling the world that a gaggle of fashion designers are geniuses. I can’t be the only person thinking I’m watching scene from a screwball comedy. There is something subtly hilarious in an actress- it’s always a woman- saying Giorgio Armani is a genius for making her look presentable. If actresses intend to make pronouncements about genius they should stick to Ibsen. We are inclined to censor and stifle controversy yet give free rein and media pulpit to those peddling drivel. If we are going to have censorship then it is these people we need to silence. Yes, they are ridiculous but their influence is malignant. We are so accustomed to these so-called celebrities talking about finding themselves (when most of them should get permanently lost) that we have lost sight of the simple pleasures of reading or being absorbed by music.
Unfortunately books can instil illogical hostility. There is no reason for this. The language of dance may be spoken only by dancers and connoisseurs of dancing, the vocabulary of sculpture will remain a life-long mystery to most but literature is immediately accessible without study. The artist who uses words will always be the most accessible- collaborative arts like, say, cinema, are principally entertainments. It’s true that a deeper understanding of any subject covered by a book will need application but books use language, which whether spoken, written or expressed in a sign language is common to humanity. If a radical political novelists wins the Nobel Prize for Literature it disturbs the slumber of newspaper columnists, but the Nobel Prize for Economics has been awarded to many snake-oil salesmen who have destroyed the lives of millions with barely a raised eyebrow. As a society reads less it becomes less discerning and curious until its adults and children are dazzled by works of mediocrity. Books are usually not the culprits of pretension, that is reserved for the visual and performing arts. I’m sure there are people who purchase books of daunting content to carry around rather conspicuously in public, but that is a novelty with a short lifespan. Pretension and bad art are necessary. They present us with a reference point and the opportunity to express an opinion, incite debate, and even enrage. The mediocre pianist can make us aware of the gifts of the great pianist instantly. Bad architecture, since it is inescapable, presents us with a reference point and the opportunity to express an opinion and incite debate, but we need books and language to say so.