Enda O’Doherty writes: It is possible that UNESCO’s World Book and Copyright Day (it’s today!) is passing you by. Never mind. Perhaps you are one of those (27 per cent of Irish respondents to a survey conducted by Picodi.com) who say they don’t read much or are not interested in books at all. Seventy-one per cent of Irish people, Picodi say, bought at least one book over the past year. (I think that should be 71 per cent of those who replied to the survey.) Favourite categories are romance, sci-fi and fantasy, classical literature, comics and thrillers. And 36 per cent of respondents thought book prices were excessive or “way too high”, the latter apparently being worse than the former.
More women than men, the survey finds, buy books, and the single largest category or genre is romance. Forty-four per cent of respondents bought books online and 51 per cent in actual bookshops. In which countries do people buy most books? Well, according to Picodi’s figures the top two reading nations are the Turks and the Russians. Ireland comes in fifteenth, just behind Kazakhstan. Germany is, surprisingly, thirty-ninth and France does not feature at all; it seems they weren’t asked. All this makes one wonder a little about methodology. This is what Picodi say:
This report is based on the internal data of a global e-commerce platform Picodi.com regarding transactions in online bookstores and a survey conducted in March 2019 among 7800 respondents from 41 countries.
If this means that all respondents to the survey were customers of online book suppliers then one can perhaps edge towards a few tentative comments. One, that a survey that is based on people who buy books online, and possibly also in brick-and-mortar bookshops, is no doubt useful and interesting but that the results may be a little skewed as there are still many people who never or almost never buy books online and yet quite possibly buy a lot of books. Two, that countries which still have a large number of bookshops may feature less in a survey such as this. Readers see the need to support their local bookshop (often in a relatively small town) and keep it alive. This could well be the case in France, the country in which, in my experience, books, bookshops and literary culture seem most highly valued – and have traditionally been supported by the law (Germany comes close). Third, people may well be more inclined to buy books online in countries (Turkey? Russia?) where the local bookseller might well be under pressure to tell the police who is buying what.
The Picodi survey, like all exercises of this kind, is of course predicated on the notion that buying books is a good thing. Such inquiries are often commissioned by corporate bodies representing booksellers or publishers, and of course we would expect them to believe that book-buying is a good thing. But there is a more general and more deeply-rooted belief in society that reading is good, that it is better than other ways of passing one’s time (bingeing on Netflix, watching the Champions League in the pub or hunting down ideological enemies on Twitter). In particular it is believed that the practice of “reading for pleasure” should be fostered in young children (for their own good), just as our great-grandparents once felt that habits of daily prayer and regular bathing should be inculcated at the earliest age.
Occupying oneself with books was not always positively regarded however, particularly when it first began to surface in social groups who their betters felt had no business reading. The German cleric Johann Rudolf Gottlieb Beyer, writing in 1796, deprecated the rash of
readers of books who get up and go to bed with a book in their hands, who can’t put it aside at the dinner table, leave it close by them at work, take it with them on a walk and who cannot tear themselves away from whatever it is they are reading until they’ve finished it. But no sooner have they gobbled down the last page of a book than they’re looking for another one … No smoker, no coffee drinker, no tippler, no gambler could be more attached to his pipe, his cup, his bottle or his card table than these bibliomaniacs are to their reading.
Other commentators of similar temper focused their scorn on the social standing of some of the new readers: a valet de chambre or a footman reading, a maidservant reading. But whatever for? Perhaps, behind the superiority and heavy sarcasm, lay an anxiety that these new readers – principally of novels but sometimes also of political tracts – might be enjoying highly accomplished works in which members of the upper classes, those who employed them that is, were portrayed as fools, rakes, knaves and hypocrites. Nor was scorn always the most extreme form that opposition to the spread of literacy might take. The Virginia (United States) Revised Code of 1818 decreed that “all meetings or assemblages of slaves, or free negroes or mulattoes mixing and associating with such slaves at any meeting-house or houses, &c., in the night; or at any SCHOOL OR SCHOOLS for teaching them READING OR WRITING, either in the day or night, under whatsoever pretext, shall be deemed and considered an UNLAWFUL ASSEMBLY”.
When, in 2013, the Bank of England agreed under pressure to place an image of a woman ‑ Jane Austen was the chosen one ‑ on the next new issue of the £10 note, due in 2017, much of the media coverage was, quite understandably, given over to the stream of threats and abuse that Caroline Criado-Perez, who had campaigned for female representation on this most visible manifestation of official Britain, was subjected to. The literary critic John Mullan, however, pointed out another small problem with the note, in particular the few words which were chosen to accompany the representation of Austen, based on a sketch of her by her sister Cassandra: “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!” This has the advantage of being brief – but it is also rather bland. It’s not that Jane Austen didn’t on occasion offer spirited general views on matters of interest. Here, for example, from Northanger Abbey, is her defence of the novel, still in her time a relatively new genre and not a highly regarded one:
… there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. “I am no novel-reader–I seldom look into novels–Do not imagine that I often read novels–It is really very well for a novel.” Such is the common cant. “And what are you reading, Miss–?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.
Of course there may not have been room for a long screed like this on the £10 note (the queen might have had to move over). The main problem with the words on the banknote, however, is in the context. While the sentiments on the novel drawn from Northanger Abbey are the narrator’s, the sentiments on reading (from Pride and Prejudice) are those of a character, and a not very likeable character at that. The scene is Netherfield, the house in Surrey which has been “taken” by Mr Bingley, who is playing host to his two sisters, to the husband of one of them, to his friend Mr Darcy, and, temporarily, his new neighbour Jane Bennet, who has been taken ill while on a visit to the house, and her sister Elizabeth, who has come over to nurse her. Mr Darcy, in spite of certain faults of character – pride, and a certain waspishness in company – has the notable virtue of being intelligent (“ … Darcy was clever. He was at the same time haughty, reserved, and fastidious, and his manners, though well-bred, were not inviting.”) He also has the no less attractive virtue of being very rich. Caroline Bingley finds him, as her brother’s closest friend, all in all a very attractive package, but at the point in the story we are concerned with she is beginning to worry that he may be drawn to Elizabeth Bennet – in spite of the fact that the two seem to have a very sparring relationship and that Elizabeth is relatively poor and has some rather embarrassing relations. In the drawing-room after tea, Mr Darcy is immersed in his book, and so Miss Bingley takes up a book too, but she is not really inclined to read it, having other fish to fry:
Miss Bingley’s attention was quite as much engaged in watching Mr Darcy’s progress through his book, as in reading her own; and she was perpetually either making some inquiry, or looking at his page. She could not win him, however, to any conversation; he merely answered her question, and read on. At length, quite exhausted by the attempt to be amused by her own book, which she had only chosen because it was the second volume of his, she gave a great yawn and said: ‘How pleasant it is to spend an evening in this way! I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of anything than of a book! When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.’
Reading was important for Jane Austen. She came from a reading family herself. And a character’s reading (reading seriously) tends to be an indication of depth in her novels: a combination of intellectual ability, moral understanding and human sympathy which is the primary Austenian virtue. In Persuasion, Captain Benwick, a reading man, derives some comfort from literature after the death of his fiancée while he is off at sea. This shared enthusiasm also brings him closer to the book’s heroine, Anne Eliot. But it is Louisa Musgrove whom he eventually marries – a young lady who had previously exhibited no noticeable intellectual interests at all but who, while in convalescence after a serious fall, has had the captain constantly “at her elbow, reading verses, or whispering to her, all day long”. Reading can thus improve a weakish character. In Emma, the heroine, though “handsome, clever and rich”, is also somewhat superficial, as well as spoilt and scheming: that is she has a character much in need of amendment. And the worthy Mr Knightley, sixteen years her senior, has, since her earliest adolescence set about choosing suitable books for her to read to meet this very purpose. Knightley of course eventually marries Emma. This is what we now call “grooming” and Knightley should consider himself very lucky not to have received a visit from the Surrey Constabulary.
What Caroline Bingley is in Pride and Prejudice is a hypocrite, a class of person on whom Austen the novelist doted: where would she have been without hypocrites, fools and babblers? Miss Bingley wishes everyone to think she is a “great reader” and pronounces loudly and at length on the value of books, but in fact the truth is the things bore her. She is rather reminiscent (though she is not so monstrous) of that other great literary hypocrite, Dickens’s Mr Pecksniff in Martin Chuzzlewit, who we are told was a bit like “a direction-post, which is always telling the way to a place, and never goes there”.
And yet there is something in that phrase “quite exhausted by the attempt to be amused by her own book” that hits home a little. Only this morning, I must admit, I fell asleep in my armchair just a few pages into an essay on networks in the global Middle Ages. Those of us who have houses of our own may well have realised Caroline Bingley’s dream of having an excellent library, or a serviceable one. But how many of the books we have collected have we actually read?
There is of course a streak of snobbery in the comments of “real readers” on “bad readers” or non-readers or, even worse, people who buy books only to be well-thought-of. And this goes back a long way. The second century Greek-Assyrian satirist Lucian wrote a book making fun of “an ignorant man who bought many books”. The tone, however, is rather sour and the sentiments harsh and one would have to say it goes on a bit. Something similar might be said of Edith Wharton’s attack in “The Vice of Reading” (1903) on so-called “mechanical readers”. Why should we all be readers, she asks. We do not all expect to be musicians.
It is when the mechanical reader … invades the domain of letters ‑ discusses, criticises, condemns, or, worse still, praises ‑ that the vice of reading becomes a menace to literature. Even so, it might seem in questionable taste to resent an intrusion prompted by motives so respectable [motives of self-improvement], were it not that the incorrigible self-sufficiency of the mechanical reader makes him a fair object of attack. The man who grinds the barrel-organ does not challenge comparison with Paderewski, but the mechanical reader never doubts his intellectual competency. As grace gives faith, so zeal for self improvement is supposed to confer brains.
There is certainly snobbery here, and, to my ear, also a certain flavour of the Pharisee in the temple: “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are … “ None of us, surely, is perfect, in this or in any other regard. The function of hypocrisy, or any other kind of folly, in Jane Austen is primarily to make us laugh rather than to invite us to condemn. And among those we are asked to laugh at is Elizabeth Bennet’s sister Mary, who, while she solemnly tells us “I profess myself one of those who consider intervals of recreation and amusement as desirable for everybody”, is here, one suspects, delivering her considered verdict, among much whirring of wheels, after digesting some classic endorsement of the virtues of balance she has come across in her programme of reading. Her two younger sisters, Lydia and Catherine, think of nothing but balls (and red coats, that is young officers), while Elizabeth, in much the same way as her creator, Miss Austen, derives equal enjoyment from a book and a ball.
Now that I am too old for a ball, I must derive much of my amusement from books. Oh yes, and instruction too let us not forget. And if I occasionally nod off, if what I think is a desire to read a book can sometimes be closer to a desire to have read a book, well, nobody’s perfect. And if the number of unread titles on my shelves – or yours ‑ are a reproach, well at least we are keeping the booksellers and their families out of the poorhouse, which is surely a worthy and commendable thing.
Images: Portrait of Madame de Pompadour by François Boucher: not reading but posing. Lucian: the man who bought many books but couldn’t read them. Decadent young woman (after the ball) by Ramon Casas i Garbó: beyond tired.
Survey on reading at https://www.picodi.com/ie/bargain-hunting/buying-books-in-ireland-and-around-the-world.