From an Abandoned Reading

A few weeks ago a survey explained why readers never finished their books. The reasons ranged over poor craft, characters that irritated the readers, unrealistic plots or plan boredom. The most compelling reason to complete a book was story, that is, the story was riveting and had to be finished.

This market research confirms intuitions and demonstrates the personal nature of reading. With other product surveys the manufactures could amend the product to align it with user expectations. Washing powder, soup, household paint can all be made to conform, more or less to consumer needs. That aim is more difficult with books, though there are series that offer the comfort of fulfilled expectations.

One intriguing fact out of the survey was how guilt played a strong factor in finishing a book. Once started, the reader had to go on doggedly reading those pages even if every page was a form of mental torture. Admirable or slightly crazy, it’s not as if the writer or publisher will enforce a punishment or test.

One way around that trial is to know what the end will be. I know someone who reads the end of the book immediately after she has read the first five pages to be sure it’s worth reading the whole book. This nasty habit she got from an ancient relative.

Not finishing books has weighed on me recently with one author. He is like a long-lost friend, or a distant family member, who comes to visit and leaves wet towels on the bathroom floor; he has a thousand opinions on everything and he never tires of telling you about them. After ten days his presence, even within published pages, is wearing and not easy on the nerves.

I am pushing my way through Pale Fire by Nabokov and I’d like to quit as I have all the other Nabokov (except Lolita) books which I have started, been fascinated by at the start, and then closed after about thirty pages, for another few years. This time I had to know why. Pale Fire is held as one of his best and it has all the hallmarks of the Nabokov style.

It is boring but not in a dumb way, it is boring because the sentences are solidly constructed but unexciting as the book imitates, yet again, the ironic academic style. There are no musical qualities to this book, or any Nabokov book. The sentences fall hard and precisely but even his biographer has said, Nabokov had no musical interest and that is a great absence, because great writing is inherently musical.

The construction of Pale Fire is fastidious in a clever second-rate sort of way, the sort of way that a precocious young man announces in a work that is based on a chess strategy and the reader is meant to be impressed. This stuff makes academics gooey because they have to interpret it, but as creative invention, it is quite ordinary.

The last thing is that it uses the author’s preoccupations and themes, which is common, but they are presented in the same guise as many of his other works. Lepidoptera, chess, poetics, pseudo-Slavic countries and so on that a reader would deduce the author was infinitely fascinated with himself, and perhaps like that other writer of the Russian diaspora, Ayn Rand, he was.

I recall, while doing a philosophy course on the theory of the mind, the lecturer quoted Rand, saying, she could not understand why solipsism was not more popular. It is almost a Nabokov joke – with a wink too – but what unites these two is a deep and shared sense of conceited arrogance.

When I have finished this book I shall read something he would detest: The Sound and the Fury, The Brothers Karamazov, Cousine Bette, Dr Faustus, La Nausée – the choice is practically infinite.

Guy Cranswick
30th July 2013

Brother, can you spare a book?

Finding silver linings in dark clouds and looking on the bright side of a really terrible situation is not always welcome. Dr Pangloss proved what an irritating tick he could be, even in an earthquake.

Apart from the platitudes that do no one much good, optimism does have its uses. Possessing a better view of a bad situation can offer some relief. Finding comfort and solace in a book would be another, and quite, common one. That seems to be how Spaniards are facing up to tough times as reading is now rising faster than ever.

In the midst of the crushing despair in Spain, a country that is rushing backwards to a previous era, book borrowing is up nearly 51% in Andalusia from 2008, when the economy hit the skids. In Seville’s libraries, lending is up by 150%. For bookshops, though, there has been drop of 40% in sales.

That boring old printed books –no HD Bluray – should find readers says a lot about distractions, about having it all and then not having very much, if anything at all.

TV purveys constant acquisition as a means to fulfillment and happiness. To an audience with no money there is no sense to apartment renovation in a market that has no value to anyone, and why fill it with stuff made elsewhere? With a book the reader has it all in their hands, whether it’s heartfelt or trashy, there is nothing more to buy, it’s complete.

Looking to get along on a little less is not exclusive to Spain. In an annual survey of young people in the US this year the survey found that at the beginning of the recession, more of the 12th-graders were willing to “make do” with less, in other words, to ride a bike rather than drive. It correlates with other research that people become more altruistic and less materialistic, when living with economic hardship. They can find pleasure and connections in things that don’t cost very much at all.

Back in Spain the really remarkable thing is that the libraries are run by volunteers because municipal money has been cut. Some of the libraries have no power, no water, and yet they serve books and provide a semblance of community for people who are really struggling.

Paradoxically it’s the Internet that acts as catalyst for trying out the strange medium of books. Children roost outside a library leeching wireless connectivity on their laptops and then occasionally go inside to experience the shelves and the silence of a library. Once inside they will pick up a book and then borrow it.

That’s a good habit to get at any age.

Guy Cranswick
19th July 2013

Where no bard has gone before

In June the Star Wars screenplays were published – oh dear, really?! The difference with this publication is that an intrepid writer has transformed them into Shakespearean verse.

Is this a light sword I see before me? Obi Ben Kenobi – I knew him well…done the obvious jokes, now?

Good.

Despite being very successful no one could say that Star Wars as literature, even as movie writing, was very good. Stories of the actors scoffing at the script and then changing the words to alleviate their embarrassment are quite well known.

This project serves two purposes: it improves a script that needs it, and introduces new readers to Shakespeare. The second aim seems to be more important but I wonder if it will work. The pleasure of Star Wars has been many other things but not the words. It’s a fair guess that the fans of the franchise are not overly critical of dialog and language, as say, the members of the Emily Dickinson society are.

It’s also a fair bet that the words, and there are lots of them in a Shakespeare text, might get in the way, they might be too much. Film adaptations of the plays cut all the talking to fit the film form where pictures do much of the talking. In a play, on a bare stage, the constant flow of words holds the attention, but that might be distracting or irritating to a reader who prefers a product defined in its traditional genre.

Those questions aside there is scope to expand this project into other areas, where, to be euphemistic, the quality of writing has not been overwhelming.

The General Hospital Shakespeare (daytime soap, generally) might be one. Instead of the dead fish expression when being told unexpected news; the actors might talk swiftly:

“tis of no account that the mistress did not relay these alarums upon today’s business, I will to her house and henceforth…”

The Action Adventure Shakespeare would be an alternative to the terse, monosyllabic dialog for which the action genre is known. Imagine the scene as the heroes escape into a twenty minute car chase they are typically grim faced, shouting instructions through gritted teeth. How much more enriching it would be to hear the desperate men talk:

” Go to my lord! There are a hundred pack hounds at our heels already nibbling upon our bowels, we should take flight but not as cowards filled with the souls of geese. Do not tarry!”

It is too easily parodied and that may be the stumbling block with this Star Wars verse. The impetus is authentic but putting Shakespeare and Star Wars together is like cross genre musical jokes, say like bolting country and heavy metal together. The limits of the genre, the definition of what it is and therefore not, are very strict.

Space would be about the final frontier for Shakespeare and I hope the book is a success; at the very least, that some readers discover Shakespeare and explore further.

Guy Cranswick
9th July 2013