Tuesday, August 08, 2006

To read or not to read?

The Observer ran an interesting article this weekend on Richard and Judy (a married couple with a daily entertainment show here in the UK) and how their televised book club is affecting the British bestseller lists - last week, three of the six books they recommend for summer reading took the top spots in the national bestseller listings. The book club is on weekly (I think), and each week Richard and Judy send out camera crews to capture the thoughts of some people who have read the book they are featuring on the show that week. The public thereby gains a range of opinions in colloquial language on a number of books, and can also refer to the website for additional information on the author and the book as well as quotations taken from the televised reviewers.

Anyway, the article got me thinking about the reasons people read (or not). I am passionately devoted to books and always have been. On the other hand, my sister probably only owns about three books, and she has those because other people bought them for her. I remember one occasion when the two of us were out shopping with out parents - we must have been about 11 and 13, and on the way home in the car, we were comparing purchases. Shopping was an exciting event for us; we each had a paper round, and earned about five pounds a week, and we'd save up to buy our individual objects of desire. Naturally, my sister always wanted cosmetics or clothes, which I duly admired. I will never forget the look on her face as she looked into my Waterstone's bag at the book inside, and said, incredulously: "You spent seven pounds on a book?" then, as she turned it over, "You spent seven pounds on a poetry book?" There is some famous quotation I came across the other day (predictably, I cannot find it again) which expresses the opinion that a love of reading is developed through having books read to one by one's parents while very young. All I can say is, my mother read books to both my sister and I on a daily basis until we learned to read by ourselves, yet one of us loves reading and the other does not see the point.

I've digressed somewhat. I meant to discuss the role of the professional book critic in promoting books, because it occurs to me that the vast majority of the reading public obviously do not pay much attention to what reviewers in national papers say, or possibly even the bestseller lists. I wonder if anyone really pays attention to professional critics; I very rarely do, unless it happens to be John Bayley, because I know I can trust his opinions. It is common knowledge that publishers routinely manipulate the national bestseller lists by buying up their own books in vast quantities in an attempt to bring them into the public eye via the bestseller lists (so clearly they believe in the power of the bestseller list), so sales rates are not always good indicators of the quality of a book. What, then, encourages people to pick up a certain book? Might more people read if reviews were couched in language that is less literary, or simply more colloquial? I am speculating here, but I would ascribe the success of the Richard and Judy book club to good old popular culture. There is an anti-intellectual trend in the UK (even among university students - Oxbridge students divulge the name of their university at their peril to a student of any of the other UK universities) which reflects negatively on books and reading. At the other end of the spectrum are those who scoff at the notion of something as untaxing as chicklit fiction, and don't seem to be able to get their heads around the fact that entertainment literature has its place in the book world as much as the Romantic poets do. Given that one in five adults in the UK is 'functionally illiterate', totalling over 7 million adults, maybe Richard and Judy is the way to get more adults reading. After all, Nietzsche is never going to be everyone's cup of tea, and who cares whether people are reading something light and fluffy, as long as they read and enjoy it? If parents like reading, they can encourage their children to read - it may turn out that some kids, like my sister, will never take to reading for fun, but everyone should at least be able to read.

I know there is no evidence that Richard and Judy are actually causing people who do not tend to read for fun to go out and buy books and start reading, but since people are actually buying books as opposed to borrowing them, and in sufficient quantities to top the bestseller lists, their show is clearly exercising a strong influence over vast numbers of people, among them likely to be some who generally do not read as a regular pastime. People trust Richard and Judy, and appreciate hearing what other 'normal' people think of books. It is an unprecedented phenomenon, and makes me think that maybe televised book clubs are the way forward in promoting reading. They are arguably the most accessible form of book reviews for the majority of adults, because there is no need to spend time on specific book websites, or go into a library and be faced with a bewildering array of literature with no way of knowing what you might enjoy. Instead, the choice of literature is narrowed down for you in your own living room, and you can even buy the books through Richard and Judy's book club website. I say bring on the televised book clubs!


Dorothy W. said...

I don't like it when people snear at Oprah's book club over here in the U.S. She picks some good books, and she gets people to read, so what's wrong with that?

bloglily said...

Ditto. There was a big thing when that obnoxious guy who wrote The Corrections implied he was too good for the likes of Oprah. What an idiot. it's a kind of reverse snobbery that good literature shouldn't be too popular. I do admit to one manifestation of this snobbery that I've got to deal with: I never buy versions of books that have the "movie" cover. I read books because I like books, not because I saw the movie, I grumble to myself. But really, who cares why you read something? Presumably, you read because you like to and that's all there is to it. Thanks for a terrific post.

Stefanie said...

I don't like the Oprah slams either. She did, after all, get thousands of people to read Anna Karenina. My public radio station has "book club of the air" and they have special segments throughout the month talking about the book and then have a culminating event at a theater with the author present who then reads and talks about the book. They get marvelous participation.

The Traveller said...

Sounds like Richard and Judy took their cues from Oprah! I think discussion groups remove the fear of books, and stop them being defined as solely an intellectual exercise. I have a copy of the Corrections which was reduced in the shop to almost nothing, clearly because nobody wanted to read it - knowing his attitude, I don't want to read it now, either.

Bloglily, I don't tend to buy books with movie stills on the cover either, but I made two exceptions - one for the televised Nicholas Nickleby, because the actor was so good looking, and an edition of the English Patient with Ralph Fiennes looking very fine indeed on the cover. Who could refuse to buy a book with a sandy Ralph Fiennes on the cover?

Danielle said...

If Oprah can get William Faulkner back on the NYT bestseller list in these days, I say good job Oprah! Actually I was turned completely off Jonathan Franzen when he snubbed Oprah. My only little pet peeve is that I hate any sort of sticker attached to the book, which Oprah books do have. Does Richard and Judy only recommend new books? Or do they ever recommend classics? I agree--everyone likes different books and as long as they are reading who cares if it is Jane Eyre or Chicklit?

The Traveller said...

As far as I can tell, Richard & Judt recommend pretty much anything - they've done a few books I've read and loved (The Time Traveller's Wife, Shadow Of The Wind), and there could well be some classics in there somewhere - I'm really not sure.