Ideas for other people: The Idiots' Review of Books
Here’s a fun statistical coincidence for you.
According to a recent Pew study, a little over a quarter of American adults (26%) didn’t read a single book last year. Not a print book, not an ebook, not even an audiobook.
Totally unconnected: According to the Washington Post, the percentage of American voters who voted for Donald Trump was roughly… yep… 26%
Now, of course I’m not suggesting a correlation between illiteracy and voting for Donald Trump. If Trump voters couldn’t read, there would be no Bill O’Reilly on the best seller lists, no Ann Coulter and no Ayn Rand either.
What I am saying is that in an age of “alternative facts” when ignorance levels are rising faster than sea levels and when – yes – we just elected a President who “doesn’t read books” , those of us who can read should be doing so in spades. We should be devouring non-fiction by the cartload (this week I suggest Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s “Merchants of Doubt”) just to keep the average national IQ roughly stable.
We should also be reading fiction by the tonne, as a counter to the sociopathy of Trump world. As cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley explained to the Post…
…engaging with stories about other people can improve empathy and theory of mind. "When we read about other people, we can imagine ourselves into their position and we can imagine it's like being that person," Oatley said. "That enables us to better understand people, better cooperate with them."
Or as was put even more succinctly by Eleanor Roosevelt …
"The reason that fiction is more interesting than any other form of literature, to those who really like to study people, is that in fiction the author can really tell the truth without humiliating himself."
Then there’s the scientifically proven benefit of reading as a stress reliever. According to neuropsychologist Dr David Lewis, reading books are significantly more effective at reducing stress than listening to music, drinking a cup of coffee, going for a walk or playing video games.
In a world filled with beeps and boops and other constant alerts, the more time adults spent immersed in books – any books – the better. Or put in the form of the shittest t-shirt slogan: Life is stressful. Books are good.
The good news is that, in the past few weeks since I quit the digital swamp, I’ve had a lot more time to read. Not just books themselves, but also the wider writing about books: literary magazines, book reviews and op-eds about literature. Anything, really, that might help me discover new authors and titles and generally inspire me to read more, and read better.
At least that was the plan. In fact, after just a few weeks exploring the literary web, I’m about ready to give up books for good. The harsh truth is, I’m just too stupid – too uncultured, too unhip – to read.
Exhibit A: My bedside table, on which there are currently six books. In no particular order: John A. Farrell;s “Richard Nixon: The Life,” Margaret Atwood’s “Hag-Seed,” Agatha Christie’s “A Murder Is Announced,” Charles Cumming’s “A Divided Spy,” Anthony Burgess’ “Earthly Powers,” and Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind In The Willows.”
We can dismiss Cummings and Christie right away. I feel ashamed even mentioning them. They are, after all, writers of genre fiction – which, as the New York Times’ Glen Duncan helpfully explains – is little more than pornography.
A literary novelist writing a genre novel is like an intellectual dating a porn star. It invites forgivable prurience: What is that relationship like? Granted the intellectual’s hit hanky-panky pay dirt, but what’s in it for the porn star? Conversation? Ideas? Deconstruction?
And, like pornography, genre fiction something to be enjoyed behind closed doors, preferably furtively under the bedsheets. Here’s the National Review’s Tevi Troy, writing shortly after President Obama was caught reading The Bayou Trilogy series of mystery novels.
The Bayou Trilogy has received excellent reviews, but it is a mystery series. While there is nothing wrong with that per se, not every presidential reading selection is worth revealing to the public. Bill Clinton, for example, used to love mysteries, but he did not advertise the titles of what he once called “my little cheap thrills outlet.”
Yeah, Barack. Get a room, ya pervert.
Then there’s this from hip lit blog The Millions…
When a friend admits to me – usually a bit sheepishly, knowing that I am a literary writer and reader – that she is reading a paperback romance novel, or, even “worse,” a series of them, I laugh it off and say, as sincerely as I can muster, Good for you, I’m sure you need the relaxation and escape, and we move on to the next topic.
In my fiction classes, I always ask students to fill out a brief survey on the first day of class so I can get a feel for their reading interests; invariably, a number of students list Dean Koontz or Dan Brown or Nora Roberts or (most recently and markedly) Stephenie Meyer as their touchstones. When I see these writers’ names or hear them mentioned in class, something goes thud in my stomach and a low-grade dread begins to buzz in my head.
And this from the Guardian…
Literary authors are the luxury brands of the writing world, the Mercedes, the Harrods and the Luis Vuitton of high culture. Genre writers are mid-range consumer brands, with an equivalent status to Skoda, Argos and Primark. Stephen King is the Ford Mondeo of letters, the writer dads actually read while pretending they got past chapter three of Infinite Jest in their 20s.
Or if you prefer your shame with a side-salad of condescension, how about this from the University Observer…
The assumption is often made that genre fiction is poorly written, however this is not always true – in much the same way that literary fiction is not always well-written. Whilst it may not contain deeper meaning, it’s nevertheless a difficult feat to drive a compelling yet credible plot, and simultaneously maintain a degree of suspense.
The mind is not completely unchallenged and sluggish whilst reading genre fiction as some literary fiction proponents claim. For example, mystery novels, with their plot twists and subtle clues, require the reader to truly engage with and analyse the material they are presented with. What’s more, genre fiction can easily claim to demonstrate examples of utilising powerful and moving literary tools, characteristics that are regarded as inherent to literary fiction, merely in a different form.
Perhaps I might still be redeemable it I could claim I’m only reading Christie or Cummings for “relaxation and escape” as The Millions puts it, or perhaps as an anthropological study into what yokels consume instead of actual literature. But the truth is far worse: I actually enjoy reading genre books.
Before reading The Divided Spy, I also read Cummings’ earlier book, A Foreign Country. I really enjoyed it. I also read a couple of John LeCarres last year, including - quelle horreur - a TV time-in paperback edition of the Night Manager with Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Debicki, and Hugh Laurie on the cover.
It’s disappointing to me that authors feel that, in order to be successful, they need to write a book that a) is easily made into a movie and b) that people will want to see as a movie.
(This is going to sound terrible, but) They appeal to the lowest common denominator. I’m not afraid to admit that I’m a little elitist and a bit of a hipster about my books. (If I wasn’t, I probably wouldn’t be doing this whole book blogging thing in the first place.) If it takes a major motion picture to motivate you to read a book, I’m pretty sure we won’t get along.
Which brings me to Margaret Atwood. Hag-Seed? Surely that’s real literature. It’s based on the Tempest for God’s sake. I also recently finished reading The Heart Goes Last, which the author very kindly singed for me when she spoke at Pandoland. And I’ve read the MaddAddam trilogy too, and not only because Sarah was namechecked in MaddAddam itself (really). Even the literary web doesn’t have a bad word to say about Margaret Atwood.
But here’s where I embarrass myself again. Because, while reading Hag-Seed, I’m also thoroughly enjoying the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu. As I’ve now learned from the literary web, watching TV adaptations makes me worse than stupid. It makes me a typical illiterate dude…
Men prefer to watch film adaptations of books than read the original novel, according to a new study, which found the opposite is true for women…. Researchers found 75% of men would opt for the big screen version of a story, while 30% admitted they had not picked up a book since they were at school…. Men also tended to be slower readers and less likely to finish books.
Speaking of being mentally subnormal: Before quitting Twitter I was amused (and more than a little heartened) to see how many people were making comparisons between popular fiction and Donald Trump. “1984” and “The Plot Against America” shot back to the top of the bestseller charts – as did Sinclair Lewis’ (to my dumb easily distracted brain, interminable) “It Can’t Happen Here.” Like you (probably) I was amused by how many readers, particularly millennials, saw a link between Trump and Voldemort in the Harry Potter books.
I haven’t read any of the Potters, but I don’t begrudge anyone else – old or young - that pleasure. Let he who doesn’t have Wind In The Willows bookmarked on his nightstand cast the first stone.
Or, better yet, hand the stone to the Washington Post. Per an op-ed published last week, written by cultural critic (and Interflora betseller) Sunny Bunch…
[T]here’s something tacky about the near-universal retreat by adults into children’s literature to voice their concerns.
Perhaps you could read another book?
For instance, if you’re tempted to argue that Trump’s victory resembles the rise of Voldemort insofar as it was enabled by those in power burying their heads in the sand and refusing to recognize what was happening, consider citing Albert Camus’s “The Plague.”
Perhaps I could, guy who reviewed Baywatch and complained there weren’t more boobs in it. Thanks for the recommendation.
By the way, in that same essay, by the way, Mr Bunch also dismisses (emphasis mine) ‘the standard “1984” / “Brave New World” / “Fahrenheit 451” troika’ having moments earlier criticized “the near-universal retreat by adults into children’s literature.” Which is it?
But, I get his point, and the point of much of the literary web. Popular = stupid. Genre = moronic. Books I enjoy = I am a complete fucking imbecile. Clearly I need to get myself to a bookstore and trade my copy of 1984 for something less – ugh – entertaining.
As luck would have it, I was in New York earlier this week so figured I might check out Amazon’s new “bricks and mortar” bookstore in Columbus Circle. All of the convenience of Amazon but in a real world environment, but where I can actually rub shoulders with my fellow readers as I pick up my prescribed copy of The Plague.
I needn’t feel any guilt for doing so. It’s not like Amazon’s stores (which seem to be mostly a way to sell more Prime subscriptions) are going to meaningfully compete with indie bookshops – on service, stock, or experience. And who knows, maybe some of those 26% of Americans who haven’t read a book this might see the Amazon brand above the door, wander in through idle curiosity and emerge holding an honest to god paperback. Hard to argue with that, right?
According to the Guardian’s reviewer “, the first thing you notice when you walk in [to the Amazon store] is an air of excitement.”
Excitement! In a bookshop! Release the hounds!
I could go on. But I’ve got the message.
On behalf of all of us drooling halfwits who persist in reading the wrong books, bought from the wrong stores, and compared in too childish a way to Donald Trump, I’m truly grateful to the Smart, Hip and Well Read people of the literary web for taking the time to set us straight.
It’s thanks to those Experts I realize now that I’m basically a literary lost cause. That realization is incredibly freeing: Allowing me to finally abandon reading altogether and turn my attention to something better suited to my IQ. Eating soil perhaps, or repeatedly bashing my head against a brick wall while chanting the lyrics to Mambo Number 5.
Or perhaps I could use all my new found free time to start my own literary magazine for the millions of other irredeemable dipshits like me who persist in reading for pure enjoyment, and who are stupid enough to think that Voldemort (or Big Brother) are perfectly appropriate literary references for these terrifying times?
Not, really. I have a book of my own to write, and I've started enough magazines for a lifetime. But somebody should start that magazine so I can subscribe to it.
Let's call this the latest installment of my semi-regular Pando series, ideas for other people... “The Idiots' Review of Books”: A lit magazine for the rest of us morons.
It could even be printed on chewable paper, with a cover-mounted fidget spinner. I reckon the Amazon Bookstore would sell a million copies.