Put That Book Down and Join the Group

This is a hilarious bit of reading. (Which I would have missed, despite entrenched habit of perusing the Guardian, but for Norm Geras’ always-interesting site, where you can vote for your own favourite novels, to the tune of three.) Lashings of sarcasm and mockery in Catherine Bennett’s look at Jane Root, BBC2, and the Big Read.

To ignore books is easy. So is burning them. You just need a match. But to make independent reading sound dull and great books look stupid, to transform literature into a vehicle for celebrities, polls, lists, voting opportunities and confected rivalries, to get books confidently debated by experts who have never read them, to set up a competition between Winnie the Pooh and War and Peace: that takes a kind of genius.

Oh go on – tell us what you really think!

The whole, quite fabulously patronising presumption of Root’s “campaign to get the country reading” is that reading is such a painfully lonely and arduous business that we need generous dollops of celebrity, hype and audience participation to force the medicine down. Or as Root describes her mission: “It’s an attempt to turn reading, which can be a very private experience, into something which can be enjoyed together.” The ramblings of people who actually enjoy this private experience might be as off-putting to the general viewer as the confessions of some sordid onanist. Better a jolly book group, you gather, than a pathetic, solitary exercise in self-flagellation.

Solitary reading is it! You wanna go blind?

Now stop that, that’s quite enough. Sorry, sorry. There is a serious point lurking behind the mockery, of course. It is infuriating that people insist on erasing the boundary between popularization and dumbing down. It is perfectly possible to popularize science, philosophy, history, literature, without making them idiotic; people do it all the time. Look at the success of Carl Sagan’s ‘Cosmos’ for instance, and James Burke’s ‘Connections’. Both fun, entertaining, accessible, often funny, without being downright stupid. The stupidification is not necessary, so it would be nice if people like BBC and PBS producers would stop doing it.

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