Saturday, 19 April 2008

Robinson Crusoe's Airplane

I recently heard mention of a book called How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by a man called Pierre Bayard. The title reminded me of the UK politician who was famously asked what he was going to do now that he had some free time. He replied that he was going to read Ian McEwen’s brilliant new novel. Now, he hadn’t actually started reading the book at this point but he had already made up his mind that it was brilliant. Why? Because he’d heard other people saying so and, being a man who liked to appear knowledgeable, he was more than ready to join in the chorus of praise. That’s what happens when you see a book as a badge of cultural rank instead of as something to be enjoyed.

Of course at one time or another most people, myself included, have tried to pretend they knew about something they were secretly ignorant of. But it doesn’t look good when you get found out. And what a shame to turn books into trophies in this way! It takes all the fun out of reading. Novels become like cod liver oil – something to consume, not because you really want to, but because they’re good for you,.

A few years ago I was asked to speak at a Literary Festival in South London. One particular member of the audience was determined to pick a fight with me.

‘Don’t you think that novels for teenagers are a waste of time?’ she began.

‘Well, no I don’t, obviously, since I write them,’ I replied.

‘When I was a teenager, I was reading Jane Austen, Dickens and Thomas Hardy,’ she said, emphatically.

‘Well I expect that plenty of teenagers read those authors now,’ I pointed out, ‘but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for books that reflect the current experience of young people.’

‘But why do we have to keep dumbing down all the time?’ she demanded.

I suggested, politely enough, that I didn’t think my books were dumbed down at all. But I was wasting my breath. On and on she went, complaining that young people weren’t being stretched. She kept talking about her own teenage appreciation of literature and how much she had gained from it, though I couldn’t help feeling that it hadn’t improved her powers of empathy one little bit.

Surely literature should be something to celebrate, not to boast about, or to make other people feel inferior? Remember that sensation of losing yourself so completely in a story that when you stop reading, you look around, dazed for a few moments, as reality reasserts itself. You know you’ve got to put the book away or you’ll be late for your appointment, but it feels almost painful. And all the time you're away from it, the story is still going on in your head, calling you back so that you can’t wait to pick up the book once more. That’s why we read books, not so that we can boast about them, or use them to make other people feel inferior.

This is what I wanted to say to the woman at the festival but of course I only thought of it afterwards. At the time I was too busy trying not to be rude.

I recall a conversation that took place many years ago when I was at Primary School. A number of children were talking about the things they’d done and seen during their Summer vacation. There was one poor boy whose parents never took him anywhere. But he was determined not to be outdone. He waited until there was a gap in the conversation, then he piped up with, ‘My dad took me to see Robinson Crusoe’s airplane.’

The rest of us looked at him in complete bewilderment. Nobody bothered to point out that Robinson Crusoe was a fictional character or that there was no airplane in his story. We just nodded, saddened even at ten years old, by such a desperate need to gain status. Thank goodness we’ve all grown up since that time. Or at least some of us have.

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