Are Books Getting into Trouble?
In the context of the weakening of the bookshop industry with the nationwide closures and job losses REDgroup Retail incurred last year, I see fit to ask ourselves if books are indeed getting into trouble. If I were to take the matter lightly, my jocular answer to this ominous question is: “Yes! Books are getting into Trouble since last October.” It started with my RIP piece and I have had the pleasure to entertain you ever since. Thanks heaps, Steve Proposh, from the bottom of my heart.
Sorry for sounding a tad emotional here, but one tends to forget that emotions and intelligence are equally important in many situations, according to research in neurosciences. Emotions are crucial especially when it comes to any decision-making process, like choosing a book for instance. But, generally speaking, it seems that books – like medicine – are made available only on prescription: critics might recommend such and such a book, TV and radio book shows might promote a writer whose latest book has freshly been released, literary festivals are intent on honouring the highest profiles that could dispense with that extra bit of good build-up, literary prizes like the Miles Franklin Award also contribute to this winner-takes-all logic, and the dutiful consumers are meant to take their picks – but chance or personal taste has nothing to do with it anymore. Please note that, as part of the National Year of Reading, a 2011 campaign was devised to compile a list of books that would be apt to encapsulate the “Australian experience”. And the winners are ….
When researching Australian fiction, people started asking me what they should read. It is a tricky question because you want to provide an answer while avoiding establishing a canon. Yet, whatever you say will reflect your own taste. So I imagined a virtual space, epitomized by The Great Australian Novel – A Panorama, with a giant table on which basically any appealing Australiana-packed novel would be on display for avid Aussie readers to make their own choices. No big deal! It is merely the horizontal counterpart of the vertical library bookshelf concept: pre-selection, classification and exposure.
By writing this essay, I also wanted to convey the largely underrated pleasure of the text, the kind you cannot derive from science books. For it is the privilege of the literary text to enable readers to experience its “jouissance” – a noun Roland Barthes used to refer as much to delight and sensual pleasure as to orgasm. And the pleasure of the text can only be felt by sharing one’s emotions and satisfying reading experiences. Some bookshops have perfectly understood this, and I love wandering around browsing in the bookshops where the staff has thoughtfully decorated the shelves with reading cards designed to share their unflagging enthusiasm for books. You might say, here comes a prescription in a different guise! Except for the fact that emotions are central in the response that you give.
Since I started this article on a jocular note, allow me to share this amusing gift from an insatiable reader, Michael Nelson, who has come up with a mind-expanding reward system to guestimate the value and success of a book held in a library.
No star: copy in mint condition, never borrowed.
One star: borrowed once in the last five years and will remain on the shelves till the next library cull.
Two stars: placed on reading list occasionally for essay, short term loan only.
Three stars: key passages underlined (and presumably copied for essays, possibly even with acknowledgment of source)
Four stars: extensive underlining and some pages torn out. Missing pages might even be replaced with photocopies from another copy.
Five stars: All copies stolen from library.