27 October 2005

Looking Intelligent

I am a fairly keen reader. Or rather, I am a lapsed keen reader; or a keen reader who doesn't find any time to read any more. Something like that, anyway. Accordingly, this piece in Monday's Guardian caught my eye:
Books are the new snobbery, according to a survey today. Social competitiveness about which titles we read has become one of the new mass forces of the era and only middle-aged people are relatively free of it.

Driven partly by pressure from incessant literary prize shortlists, more than one in three consumers in London and the south-east admit having bought a book "solely to look intelligent", the YouGov survey says.


"The latest literary pressure is keeping up with the rest of your fellow travellers and commuters. Bookshelf contents are fast becoming as studied and planned as outfits as a way to impress others. Books shortlisted for prestigious literary panel awards are becoming 'de rigueur' reading for many."

Yet the results indicate that "reading" is a relative term. When asked about specific titles, only one in 25 people turn out to have read the novel chosen as the best in the Booker prize's 25-year history, Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children - and half these had failed to finish it.

Only one in 100 had read Andrew Levy's Small Island, picked earlier this month as the best of all Orange prize winners. Not a single reader had yet opened this month's Booker winner, John Banville's The Sea.

Other strongly publicised titles endorsed by literary panels fare only slightly better. One in 20 members of the public has read Zadie Smith's White Teeth and only one in 25 Yann Martel's Life of Pi or Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist.

Read the rest of One in three has bought a book just to look intelligent here.

I have a few thoughts on this. Firstly, just a couple of points about the article itself, or the journalist's take on this story: why is one in 25 people having read a given book considered a low number? When you consider how many books there are out there, and how many people don't read books at all it seems pretty respectable to me. And yet, the number of respondents having read, or half-read, Rushdie's Midnight's Children is described as "only one in 25". Same story for several other titles mentioned in the article. Odd. And also, since when is one in 20, i.e. 5%, "only slightly better" than one in 100, i.e. 1%? In my book (boom boom), that's exactly 5 times better, which is plenty. If my finances were exactly five times better than they currently are, I would consider that rather more than a slight improvement. Whatever.

Now that I've got my pernickety criticisms of the writing in the article out of the way, I can actually respond to the real point - that lots of people apparently buy books to impress other people, including people they don't know and will never meet. Hmmm. Interesting. I would not fall into that category, I don't think. I have never consciously bought a book because I thought owning it or being seen reading it would look good. That strikes me as a bit weird. And kind of pathetic.

Perhaps there would be a market for dust jackets and book covers? You know, forget the book, just sell copies of the dust jacket for a pound or so. That way, those who wish to be seen to be reading certain "in" books could just purchase the cover of, say, Jon Banville's The Sea or something by Harold Pinter, who has recently picked up the Nobel Prize for literature. Then, they could slip the relevant dust jacket onto the book they are actually reading, could go on enjoying Jilly Cooper or John Grisham, or whoever it is, but still get the Kudos. See? Remember, when it happens, you read about it here first! Although ... do you think that authors can demand royalties just on the dust jacket of a book they wrote? That could possibly be the sticking point.

Although I don't buy books that I think other people think I should be reading, I must confess that my booking-buying appetite is much more voracious than my book-reading appetite. Yes, I am guilty of buying books and then never getting around to reading them. And the thing is, I buy fewer than half the books I actually want to buy. I always force myself to hold back when I'm in a bookstore. But nonetheless, I have heaps of books that I bought with a view to reading them straight away but have never got around to reading. At least they're there when I do finally get around to it though. And at least they're books I actually wanted to read in the first place, not someone else's idea of what's hot and what's not.

And the final thing I noted about that article was this: embarrassingly enough, I discovered that I had read only three of the 23 books mentioned in the entire article (I will leaving you guessing at to which ones). Yikes! De rigueur reading indeed. See, I told you I was a lapsed keen reader.