John Dugdale in The Guardian’s books review (March 29th) bemoans television’s lack of interest in books (but why should television interest itself in books – they’re the enemy – while television of course is only one of the many enemies of books?) BBC director general Tony Hall has announced “the biggest arts push for a generation”, but as Dugdale points out, his background is in the performing arts (Royal Opera House) so the big money can be expected to be spent in this area. Nor is he in any way enthused by the decision to commission a remake of Kenneth Clark’s 1969 series Civilisation. No reason for bookworms to rejoice here, since Civilisation was as “notorious” for privileging art and architecture over literature as it was for its “Eurocentricity” (yawn). Notorious on Dugdale Street perhaps; most of the rest of us thought it was the television event of its generation. I find it hard to think of anything since that has surpassed it in the cultural field. I might add that my copy of the accompanying book (which is merely a transcript of the soundtrack in print) shows in its index Addison, Aldus Manutius (a renaissance printer operating in Venice), Bacon, Balzac, Baudelaire, Beckett, Blake, Boccaccio, Book of Kells, Boswell, Browne (Sir Thomas), Burns, Byron. Et cetera.
Le Monde, meanwhile, is in a more upbeat mood about books and reading. In a front-page editorial (March 21st) to coincide with the opening in Paris of the annual Salon du Livre, the message goes out that the French are still reading and that there is no justification (yet) for panic. It is true that the size of the book market has slightly declined, but only by 4 per cent over three years. In fact in a ranking of people’s preferred activities reading came in just behind going out for the night with friends and ahead of listening to music and watching television. Nevertheless, this healthy state of affairs cannot be taken for granted:
Books, which require solitude and concentration, have lost some of their allure in the era of “interactive” pastimes. In January, the review Esprit ran a special feature on attention difficulties. That contemporary disease, overstimulation, related to an oversupply of information, does not sit well with the patience required for reading.
This idea that the need for constant stimulation, constant “updating”, constant novelty, will drive out the desire to sit still over a long period of time and stick with a single narrative thread or argument is so compelling and intuitively persuasive that it seems to be nothing more than the simplest common sense. But does a high level of dependence on one’s iPhone mean that one will inevitably lose interest in reading books? Or is everyone on the train actually reading Banville on their iPhones? The jury is still out on this one, mais les Français lisent toujours.