Saturday, September 18, 2010

Bibliophobes

Idiots wanting to burn books have been in the news for a while but I wont even stoop to talk about that lunacy, however if you'll indulge me I will blather on about bibliophobia from the other side of the political spectrum. About once a week I go over to The Huffington Post to take the pulse of this part of America. I'm usually on there for about a minute before I see something that irritates the hell out of me, an article by Sean Penn wittering on about Fidel Castro the humanitarian or Alec Baldwin trying to pretend he isn't as dumb as a board or this MD guy they always have on talking about how - get this - quantum theory proves the existence of the soul/God/the Afterlife. The post that annoyed me this morning was an older one on 13 books that everyone pretends to have read but no one actually has. The author goes on to boast of his ignorance and about how boring the books on his list actually are. I don't want to increase The Huffington Post's hit counts for this piece so I'll tell you the 13 books in the order I remember them: As I Lay Dying, War and Peace, Infinite Jest, The Canterbury Tales, Remembrance of Things Past, The Satanic Verses, A Christmas Carol, Moby Dick, Don Quixote, Democracy in America, A Brief History of Time, The Name of the Rose.
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Purely by luck I have actually read all 13 of these books (I polished off the Rushdie only this month). None of them are particularly difficult and apart from Infinite Jest and The Satanic Verses none were a chore to complete. Why the author of this story and the hundreds of commenters on it would brag that they hate these particular books (and books in general) is a mystery to me. When I was a kid books were things to be cherished and loved: the library was a magical place and bookshops were just as exciting. Who are these people that hate books and don't want to be challenged by anything slightly out of their comfort zone? I feel sorry for anyone who hasn't read the second part of Don Quixote which is funny and strange and post modern, or Ulysses with its extraordinary, beautiful ending, or As I Lay Dying which if you really focused you could read in an hour. Hating books is nothing to be proud of. The other side of the coin is the people who pretend to have read these books when in fact they haven't. In a way I respect them more, at least they understand that these important novels and texts are highlights of our sorry excuse for a culture.
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There's always been a No Nothing/nativist streak in American life but The Huffington Post/Fox News dumbing of America is a trend that I feel is now unstoppable. My friend Roger was fired as editor of Harper's Magazine because he didn't want to make it cute and all HuffPost-like and only two Sundays ago the headline - the lead frickin story - on The New York Times's website was about Victoria Beckham's sense of style. Sure, in the Symposium Plato complained about "the youth of today" and probably for millennia before that oldsters were whinging that everything was going to hell, but this time it feels different. There are more distractions than ever and reading books for pleasure really might be on the way out as an entertainment mode within a decade or so. We're texting and tweeting and gaming ourselves to death. Few people it seems will give a shit.