Monday, 2 May 2011

Reading - Not for Everybody?

In Der Freitag, Magnus Klaue criticises what he calls infantilism in promoting literature. He finds it appalling that the public is being encouraged to read books for the usefulness or pleasure of the exercise, rather than for the aesthetic experience. The piece got me so angry I signed up as a community user and tried to boil my criticism down to a pithy response in German.

Here's what I think: reading is something anybody can do, provided they are literate. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it being either a useful or pleasurable activity, and if libraries, publishers, booksellers and cultural institutions want to encourage people to do it then it's perfectly legitimate for them to target people who want to use their time usefully or pleasurably. In fact, I imagine a PR campaign that said, "Hey people, books are great, you should try them some time for the aesthetic experience" might backfire.

OK, so maybe the writer himself doesn't refer to himself as a bookworm, a term he takes exception to in his piece. But that doesn't make him any better or worse than people who do (although his vocal exception to the term might make him an intellectual snob).

And while it hurts my soul to hold up an article in the FAZ over a piece in Der Freitag, I just can't help it. Joseph Hanimann wrote there a couple of weeks ago about the Schüler-Literaturpreis der Euroregio Maas-Rhein, a literary prize awarded by school students in the border region encompassing Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. This year's award went to the Flemish writer Stefan Brijs for his The Angel Maker (published by Penguin in Hester Velmans' translation). Although more surprised than he ought to be, Hanimann tells us how open the students were for "sophisticated" literature and how heated the debates were.

Is it just me, or is this proof that you don't need a PhD to be a passionate reader? Reading is indeed a pleasure, and at times a useful one too. Surely it's a good thing to encourage more people - from all walks of life and with all vocabulary levels - to read books? Klaue's attitude reminds me of indie music fans who would deny anyone they don't approve of from listening to the bands they discovered first. Luckily, that doesn't work either.

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