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Sunday, 7 September 2008

Why Books?

Overheard in the supermarket: a woman bemoaning the fact that she had visited the local public library with aview to using one of its computers, only to find that they were in great demand and she should have bookedher session beforehand: They just don't have enough computers, she announced with some venom, they seem to be spending all their money on bloody books! What they want them all for? So that's my question: Why books? For the purposes of this post books are: novels, short stories, plays - truth-telling verisimilitudes of any kind, which from this point on I will call TTVs for short. That out of the way, it is a fundamental question right enough, particularly so at this point in time when there is so much coming on stream that threatens to trivialise, or to appear to trivialise the TTVs. There are e-books, for instance, electronic book readers, techno-books, soaps, games machines, docusoaps, docudramas and much else, none of which are in themselves necessarily trivialising, though the ways in which they have been, and are being, used tends to make them so. I have even seen the soaps proclaimed as today's novels - more on that later. So, given all that, what are books for?Do they have purpose which cannot be fulfilled by any of these would-be usurpers?

We first encounter the TTV as children - not necessarily in book form, and always assuming we were lucky enough to have that sort of childhood. For us then they had much the same purpose as play. With no experience of the world, we role-played to discover as best we could what it mught be like to be a bus driver, fighter pilot, parson or parent. From stories read to us we heard what others thought it would be likeor had found it to be. Or maybe we encountered threats, real or imagined, that our small world held for us, and in the safety of the game or the story we rehearsed the ways to deal with them. We learnt, too, that actions - including our own - have consequences and began to realise that we should have to deal with those as well.

Some things never change, or not much. I remeber that our professor at London University used to impess upon us that: There are more ways of living a life than can be lived by one person living one life. If we want to try the other ways - or some of them! - we can probably best - or most easily - do it in a book. And the book in question will be a TTV, a novel or a biography, a mask of artifice revealing in its fiction a valuable truth.

We could widen the question, of course, and ask what are T.V. dramas for? For have I not already mentioned hearing them proclaimed the new novel? That proclamation was put out by no less a person than Jane Tranter, Controller of Fiction at the BBC in a recent speech to The Royal Television Society. What she actually said was that: television has supplanted the role of the novel in addressing the big social issues of the day. She was comparing the nineteenth century novel with present day television drama, but her words leave scope for some ambiguity: did she mean that in the nineteenth century folk read novels for the same reasons that people today watch T.V. dramas? Or did she mean that the world of the imagination has moved on from the nineteenth century novel and is better served now by T.V. drama, an altogether superior commodity? Certainly, those nineteenth century readers were an enthusiastic bunch, going to much greater lengths to satisfy their passion than we are likely to have to do today. Many clubbed together to buy the instalments they could not afford by themselves, many were illitierate; in both cases they would gather together and have the latest instalment read out. Today we sit mostly in family groups in front of the box for our nightly fix. Maybe even the family group is doomed; the writing has been on the wall for some time in the form of games machines, but now there is another threat: a television set that two programmmes at the same time. Which one you watch depends upon the angle to the screen at which you sit. Of course, you need earphones so... But I digress:There seems little doubt that Jane Tranter meant to imply that the T.V. drama was superior to the novel in terms of imaginative content and the variety of experiences available to the viewer. I find that a staggering assertion at a time when B.B.C. drama, if not actually being dumbed down - and I think it is - is certainly at an all-time low.

To test my feeling, I retrieved an old Saturday Guardian Review from the recycle bin and found in that one paper the following books reviewed: When Will There Be Good News?, described as a crime novel that is funny, clever and always surprising; Casanova, a biography of energy and brio;From A to X; A Story in Letters, John Berger's long-listed Brooker contender; Palace Council by Mark Lawson, a historical thriller that chronicles the fortunes of black America; The Bellini Madonna by Elizabeth Lowry, a mischievous tale of high and low intrigue that entertains; and Girl in a Blue Dress, by Gaynor Arnold the re-telling of Dickens's life with his estranged wife taking centre stage. There were others I could have added, Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, for example, not new I know, but then neither is everything on the box. The point is that just taking the books listed here, you would be hard put to it to find a comparable selection anywhere in the T.V. schedules.

Barely had I written the above, than Doreen suggested we sat down to watch My Zinc Bed, a BBC2 drama I had recorded a few days earlier. It was everything I have just been suggesting is no longer to be found among the schedules. It was on the theme of addiction, which did not immediately endear it to me, I having seen so many on that subject that were harrowing and nothing else. This was not like that. Indeed, nothing much happened. For sure, there were no tummy-wrenching scenes. The plot, such as it was, meandered, but mostly it was words. Dialogue. dialogue that made you listen and listen attentively. The pace varied, as did the emotive charge. It was difficult at times, but totally original. The exception that proves my rule, obviously! Encouraging, though.


hope said...

The best gift my parents gave me was the love of reading! I always thought of books as my "passport to anywhere".

Where I can be shy and sit back, in books you can jump right in and enjoy the action without fear of injury or death. :) What I usually tell people who say, "What? You read books? Why do that when we have computers and t.v.?"

Books don't need batteries, they don't have to be rebooted and they're so portable you can tuck them under your arm. Best of all, you can share. Thanks Dave, for reminding me. :)

Marion McCready said...

Did you see the BBC2 drama God on Trial, on last week? It was the best and most stimulating drama I've seen on tv for a long time.

Jim Murdoch said...

The problem with the box is that the programmes flash before your eyes and that's it. I too watched, and was equally quite taken by, My Zinc Bed but never thought to tape the damn thing to savour a second time. Books go at my pace. I don't have to up my game to keep up with the ever-increasing speed at which the TV forces information down my throat.

On Saturday though I took the opportunity to listen to a fairly decent radio adaptation of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a book I find myself rereading about every ten years or so; I have also seen the film adaptation with Tom Courtney. This was the first time my wife had made contact with the text and she was thoroughly underwhelmed by it. I, of course, was gob-smacked but she was quick to point out my long association with the work and so I could easily compensate for the play's failings. Which is true. And I had. She was also quick to add that I was sixteen when I first read the novel and obviously at that age the work would have had a much greater impact on me. How could I argue with that? I can't exactly read the book for the first time again at forty-nine, can I? Oh, and I taped the thing just in case it was worth a second listen.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

Being as I work in a library and we have only 4 internet-capable computers and we often have people wondering how they can go about getting on them, I got a giggle out of your overheard-in-the-supermarket quote.

My favorite line is, "I just want to check my email. Is there a two minute computer? Just for checking email?"

Why, no. There isn't.

I'm in charge of the browsing paperbacks collection -- they spin on racks. The nonfiction paperbacks spin right next to the table where people sit & wait for their computer turn so I try to stock the racks with at least a few things that don't take much attention, have pretty pictures, or snippets of kitchen table wisdom. Such books don't get checked out much but I do find them here & there about the room.

Anonymous said...

Books are treasures. For me, nothing can replace it. Technology come and go, but books will be there for a long time. In underdeveloped (or, the so-called thirld world) countries where computers and the internet are accessible only to those who can afford it, books are essentially needed. Especially by underpriviledged children in remote areas.

Thanks, this is a great post.:-)

Rachel Fox said...

I use books and TV for different times - generally speaking TV when I'm tired/lazy and want to 'veg out' and books for when I want to think/learn/explore. I know some TV can do the thinking job too but that's not really how I use it. Too many factual programmes just repeat themselves over and over (assuming the viewer is an idiot) and TV dramas...I'd rather watch a proper film.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Dave. Long live the TTV.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Hello Dave - nice to have you back.
Books are to touch, to smell, to hold, to savour, to covet (if there is one you want that you can't afford) and finally, last but not least, to READ. Nothing in the whole world takes the place of books - and it never will.

Lucy said...

Yes, books are irreplaceable. 'We read to know we are not alone' (which in fact I got from the film of 'Shadowlands'!), because only, or at least more often, with the written word can we get closer to the heart of others' thoughts.

But I now find myself getting nostalgic and lamenting the passing of TV as it was! When the channels and hours of transmission was limited, and watching was a shared family event, high, middle and, truthfully, sometimes quite lowbrow stuff, 'The Ascent of Man', 'The Forsyte Saga', 'The Virginian', we all sat down together, and I tasted stuff as a kid that I probably wouldn't have in reading alone. I feel it's a bit of a shame now if everyone plugs into their own choice of multimedia entertainment, and that broader sharing of things passes.

People are still reading 19th century novels, as well as more recent forms of entertainment and self-improvement. And don't forget, in the 18th century, young people frittering their time on low things like novels was being lamented too. But I agree, more is not better, and there are simple limits to what we can consume. And then there's blogging...

The Insane Writer said...

I would much rather be reading a book than watching tv or being online. Those get so old and boring. Books have so much value and fun that way too many people choose not to see.

Dave King said...

I get agreat deal of pleasure and fascination from the computer, but it can't hold a candle to a book when it comes to reading a good story or a novel. The screen is no substitute for the printed page. The book itself, I always feel, is part of the experience.

Dave King said...

Sadly, no, I missed it.

Dave King said...

I think the point about speed is a good one. It is a very significant difference. And not just spped, there is the fact of being able to turn the pages of the book back to check something you may have overlooked or forgotten, something that didn't seem significant at the time, but proved to be so later. You cannot do that with the tv, of course - unless you've taped it! But even then it is not as convenient to do so.

Dave King said...

I loved you two minute computer - you reall ought to get one, you know!
It reminded me of a fellow passenger on a cruise my wife and I took a few years back. We became very friendly and he asked me to show him how to email on the computer. He had a message he wanted to send. We managed that with no difficulty at all. A few days later he asked me did he have to do anything to get the reply. I said I would show him. I was going to the computer room after lunch. He was amazed at this. Had been waiting for the reply to come under his cabin door like everything else did on the ship!

Dave King said...

Welcome, and thanks for taking the time to comment.
The situation in the underdeveloped and developing countries is a good point and well worth further consideration. Thanks for raising it.

Dave King said...

Yes, that's more or less how I use T.V. and books. The number of really meaty plays/programmes on TV is very small these days, unfortunately - or that's how it seems to me. I am one of those who thinks they did it better in the past. Guess that dates me!

Dave King said...

Here, here!

Dave King said...

Weaver of Grass

Nothing there I could disagree with. I am one who treats books like precious objects - I would have them all in jewel cases if I could.

Dave King said...


You have picked up my thoughts exactly. I mentioned just now (to Rachel) how I thought things had deteriorated. It was programmes like The Ascent of Man that I had in mind. The point about the bemoaning of young people frittering their time on low things like novels is also well made.

Dave King said...

Insane Writer

Sounds like a very sane reader to me! Thanks for the contribution.

Crafty Green Poet said...

I love books and I feel that the experience of reading a good book will never be supplanted by watching the tv. But i know I'm very much in the minority as I don't watch much tv

Excellent post

Dave King said...

I'm not at all sure that you are in such a minority. I somehow suspect you might be part of a silent majority. Maybe we ought to speak up more, we who tend to just curl up in corners with our books.

Anonymous said...

Dave King,I love your blog!!!Thank you for feeding us with your Intelectul Vitamines,eventhough they are too expensive to find it here!!!!