Hard times: are tough books worth the effort?
OK PUNK,” I growled. “Let‘s go. You and me. Right now!”. There comes a time in life when a man has to step up, to cast off the shackles of timidity and embrace his fate. Alas, such an hour was upon me.
Steadying myself for the challenge, I made my way over to the desk and stood eyeballing my nemesis with the fiercest glower I could muster. Trash-talk seemed futile: this guy was a pro.
Bulked-up like a heavyweight boxer, bristling with an air of assumed superiority with its one-word author and snooze-worthy cover, this bad boy had a reputation and an ego to match. These three-hundred pages were going to be gruelling, a challenge none but the bravest would attempt. But he who dares, Rodders, he who dares…
Five minutes later and I‘m to be found weeping for mercy. Take my children, my family, anything you want, but please, please, no more! Forget water-boarding, electrocution or feral dogs sniffing their way around the nether regions, if you want terrorists to ’fess up just give them a copy of Virgil’s Aeneid and you’ll have all you want by tea-time.
And so, chastened and humbled, I retreated from the battleground. In the face of sanctimonious Trojans I found I simply wasn’t up to the challenge.
But, wait, hang on a moment, why should I be forced to such self-flagellation, such feelings of ignominy and worthlessness by a lousy, ancient old book? Why was I giving into this peer pressure? Just because Aeneas’ assorted wanderings don’t get me writhing with pleasure, does that make me any less of a man? Should I be condemned to forever blush with shame for the fact that I’ve never finished one of the greatest texts of the Ancient world?
And I venture to suggest that no, I should not. Granted, I’m an English student and part of the job description entails trailing through books that would make lesser men tremble. But I think it’s time some brave, battle-hardy fellow stood up against the armed might of the literary establishment and said, ‘Whoa, easy guys, it’s all right to have fun once in a while, you know!’.
Since the dawn of the printed word we common readers have invariably tended to don the mantle of the serious intellectual. Sitting in smoke-filled cafes, an untouched frappuchino idling on the tabletop, we tilt our edifying tomes for optimum recognition value from every corner of the room.
Add to this a well-used biro pirouetting its way through our fingers with the odd thoughtful “um” and “ah” escaping our lips and the image is complete. Forget whether the book is any good; as long as its hefty, looks coma-inducing and has at least two or three classical references buried within the title, and we’re contented readers…and very bored readers.
Never more than now has the literary world been so tedious. In one corner of the ring are the ‘literary’ novels – your Amis, Rushdie, Barnes and Bellows alongside the black-bound Classics – while the big-sellers, those rip-roaring yarns that everyone secretly stuffs into their holiday bags, are condemned to languish under the pall of ’commercial fiction’.
While your Grishams, Pattersons et al might rake in the dough, they’d barely be worthy to tie the shoelaces of your esteemed lit crit or prose super-stylist. If you want to kill a literary party mention the word ‘popular’ and watch the bigwigs squirm with unease.
This is stupid. Silly. Nothing more than snobbery at its worst. What was Dickens if not the greatest popular novelist of all time? And the old Bard was rather handy with the box office at his peak. Literature is nothing without its readers.
And what, at the end of the day, is really so impressive about the crusty old classics? Would character development and emotional insight now be the first thoughts of friends when you admit to having spent the weekend curled up with some chick named Anna Karenina? >>>And, nowadays, that sly, after-dinner reference to Austen is more likely to conjure up images of a wet-shirted Colin Firth than admiration over free indirect speech or a masterful use of irony.
Don’t get me wrong. I could bore you batty with reasons why Keats is a genius or Dickens the greatest novelist ever to grace the planet. But the reason their every scribble sends a tingle down my spine is not because there’s a Penguin sign gracelessly emblazoned on the cover or a quote from an esteemed Professor screaming from the first page. It’s because they’re fantastic, life-changing and – dare I say it – fun.
And so I urge you faithful readers, be proud when you enter into the pop lit section or settle down with the latest chart-topping thriller. Read books for pleasure, not for prestige. Trudging through unreadable classics is neither ennobling nor character enhancing. Merely a waste of your brief time in this world.
Readers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your boredom!