The good book

Good Friday is a very special day in the Christian religious calendar, since it represents the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ. In some cultures the crucifixion is renacted, complete with blood sacrifice, but in most Christian communities the day is celebrated in a far more sedate form. Christian fervor, including the excesses described in The India Road, has abated. I’ve commented on the way Christian outlook has shifted from radicalism to tolerance over the last centuries, and the subject comes up again today as I read that a Lebanese man is sentenced to death for witchcraft in Saudi Arabia. Clearly there is a lot more here than simply a change of time zone.

And for many people, particularly in northern Europe and in North America, Good Friday is one of their rare encounters with fish. In many countries in those areas fish form a small part of the diet, by contrast with Japan, Iceland, and Portugal, which have the highest per capita consumption in the world. Interestingly, sushi bars have shifted the taste scene, bringing teenagers and young people in general into the fish arena. These are people who would never normally order fish in a restaurant, or choose it on a plane, but peer-pressure has shifted the goalpoasts, and now they love it raw. Lots of parents also get drawn in by teens, an alternative version of the “fish meal trap“. Of course much of the fish eaten at sushi bars is cultivated, and the taste is very different from that of wild fish.

Nevertheless, for many in the developed world eating fish is an infrequent experience. Almost as infrequent as reading books. Fish in the ocean are becoming scarcer, and I’m worried that books may be getting scarcer too. The pundits suggest that there will be mergers of publishers and online retailers (not much of a prediction, there are a number of book chains that are also in the publishing business, and self-publishing does exactly that), and that the proliferation of e-books will drive a renaissance of printed books. Or even that the e-book client will get a yen for the old musty tome, and replace the trophy wife with the old bag. Perhaps.

But the evidence that young people are reading is not there in colleges and universities, in the daily actions of teens, and in the very early formative years. A college professor at Oxford recently said that when he told his freshman class that their first assignment was to read a book, the response was a general groan. “How long is it?” someone asked. Of course students have always groaned about reading lists, not necessarily because they didn’t like books, but because they didn’t like those. Nothing wrong with food, but give me a burger, I’ll skip the pan-fried hake.

So let’s not generalize. But it does seem likely from anectodal evidence that reading is on the decline. Young people are less prone to discuss or recommend a particularly good book, and when you travel, the ubiquity of distributed computing means that other alternatives are appearing as a substitute. I see fewer people reading books on planes, likewise in the places which traditionally doubled as informal libraries: airports, parks, beaches, doctors’ waiting rooms, trains and buses…

How could we find out the real trend? Look at photos of people in the park, or on a train, over the last decades, ask kids at school, look at sales in book stores at transportation hubs, include in the next census data on how many books you have at home (in weight – I have a ton!), or how much you spend a month on books. And there are always questionnaires, which are not my favourite thing. The Chinese speak of measures and countermeasures: if you share my aversion, here is a delightful questionnaire countermeasure.

The problem is not so much that the medium changes, a lot of reading and writing is done on Facebook and Twitter, and YouTube is a wonderful source of education materials. I don’t mourn the passing of old ’78s, LPs, or CDs, and I love the power of Web 2.0. My worry is the change in content.

Books take time to read, and some of the very best are not the ones that grip you initially. Just as what you find most attractive about someone you love isn’t necessarily what drew you to them in the first place. Or, if you are one of the lucky few who enjoy your job (if 70% of it is good, don’t change), you may remember that at the start you kept thinking it was just temporary, until you found something you liked.

Books, more than anything else, reflect the human capacity to transmit knowledge. The depth of thought and flight of the imagination you get from a good book is unmatched and incomparable. I’m worried that if we lose our will to read, we’ll lose our capacity to dream.

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