Bibliophile

Over the last seven days, following my last entry for Blogg52, I’ve run a bibliophile’s — a book lover’s — questionnaire. One question a day here At the Quill, and on Facebook and Twitter. I come out of the experience with a slightly increased respect for all those people who create “click bait” questionnaires on the social networks. It’s not quite as easy as it looks. (Which isn’t to excuse the poverty of effort put into some of those Facebook questionnaires.) Anyway, having got to the end of my seven days it seems appropriate to sum things up.

First of all I should thank all the people who took time out of their days to respond to some or all of my questions. Thank you Agneta, Aleks, Anna, Eva, Kate, Lena, Miranda, Monica, Pernilla and Silia. The overall average of your response suggests you are all delightful, well-balanced people who are nevertheless passionate about books. Not an entirely surprising result.

If your responses say something about how you feel about books, the questions — and the way the alternative answers were formulated — gave you pointers towards my feelings. To be sure, I was trying to be light-hearted, but I think there are undercurrents.

I tried to strike a balance between questions about the physical object and the content of books. For good or ill, I am — as it seems all of you are — still wedded to the book as a collection of printed pages bound up between covers.

My first question had to do with books on shelves – the space available, the decorative quality, the dust trap they constitute, the challenge from the e-reader. “You sit in your sofa and look at your shelves and think…” No one chose E, my fifth alternative response: “Now all my books are on my e-reader I have much more space for my collection of porcelain plates with pictures of kittens.” Because, after all, you’re book lovers – not Dolores Umbridge. The results here were 7 As, 8 Bs, 1 C, 2 Ds. What I didn’t do was identify the sense in which people looking at their shelves were thinking: “So many books, and so many I’ve not yet read” (B). I hope it was an expression of delight and anticipation.

The second question was to do with giving away books you have enjoyed. It seems we’ve all done it and that none of us are unaffected. I clearly share the experience of waking in the middle of the night crying “Oh, no! What have I done?” And going on-line to replace the books I’ve given away. However none of you seem to have sunk to the level – as I have – of going to the charity shop and trying to buy back the books you’ve given them. (I didn’t succeed – someone else was ahead of me.)

Question 3, on Friday, had to do with our reactions when we see people reading books on public transport. Six out of seven of us find ourselves trying to identify the book by squinting at the cover or casually leaning over the reader’s shoulder. The seventh, it seems, is happy to actually ask, “What are you reading?” And strike up a conversation. In reply to some comments on Facebook I reminisced that for a period of time I was taking photographs of people reading books in public – till I saw a cartoon in our local paper in Gothenburg where a man reading a book on a park bench was surrounded by people taking photographs of him with their mobile phones. I decided my photographing of readers was a cliché, and stopped.

Question 4 was the question I feel most viscerally about. “You are watching a film and a scene comes up in which books are burned, torn, drowned or thrown. What do you do?” I was a little disappointed that only four people responded, but perhaps that’s indicative of something in itself. (Okay, it might just be indicative of a lack of time on a Saturday for silly questionnaires.) When I wrote this question I was thinking exclusively of my reaction to seeing physical books damaged or destroyed (“Wince, shudder; Cry out.”) Some of the responses reminded me that another perspective is to think about what the books contain and what reasons may be given for the destruction. This was the question I had not thought through as thoroughly as I might. However, I still feel that physical books have a value that may be greater than their contents. Is this rational? I’m just now thinking of that scene in the TV series Homeland where Brody the putative terrorist and traitor, lovingly wraps and then buries his copy of the Koran after his wife has thrown it on the oily floor of his garage. On the one hand this feels emotionally appropriate – the book has been damaged, is dead, and should be buried with respect. On the other hand, burying a book puts it as completely beyond use as burning it, so how is it better?

Question 5 came on Sunday. This one was about book series for young people that have become film series. I think I may have inadvertently skewed part of the response here since one of the series I chose to mention was the Fifty Shades series by EL James. Here’s what I was thinking.

JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series (1997-2007) sparked a phenomenal interest in reading among a generation of young people, and for all the criticism the series received from the literary establishment (the likes of Harold Bloom – “Harry Potter is stupid crap”), both children and teachers were delighted with the series though for different reasons. The children loved the stories and the characters; the teachers said “It’s fantastic how this series has caught young people’s attention and introduced them to the delights of reading.” (Which was also the most popular option in my quiz.)

Harry Potter started out as a series for older children, but grew over the seven episodes to become a Young Adult series, taking up some darker themes not usually seen in books for a younger audience. Susanna Collins’ Hunger Games series (2008-2010) and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series (2005-2008) were both aimed at a Young Adult/New Adult audience. Although both certainly developed their own unique readership, it seems to me that they may well have benefited from the success of Harry Potter and inherited some of that series’ readers as they grew older and started looking for more books that spoke to an adolescent’s spirit of enquiry or resistance, filled the sense-of-wonder/fantasy void and/or confronted awakening sexuality.

How does Fifty Shades (2011-2012) fit into this context? Well, it started life as amateur fiction created within Twilight’s fan base. For all its trappings of explicit sex and rose-coloured BDSM it is a romantic fantasy. I can appreciate that enthusiasts for Potter or Catniss are uncomfortable finding their favourites yoked to what is effectively soft porn, but I think the link holds.

Although none of my respondents ticked the D box (“What? Are they books? I thought they were films!”) it was apparent from the comments that most people are familiar with these series as films rather than books. As all my respondents, “you”, are adults I’m guessing it rather depends on how old the children are you associate with, which series you have met met as printed books.* (Declaration: I read the first five of the Harry Potter series because my niece Caroline was reading them, and the first one of the Hunger Games series because my friend Lena translated it. I’ve seen all the Potter films and the first two Hunger Games films. My knowledge of Twilight and Fifty Shades comes exclusively from YouTube trailers and Wikipedia.)

Let’s move on to Question 6. This was about film adaptations. I was interested to see that while some people were prepared to behave stoically in the face of the compromises (aka butchery) always present when films are adapted from books, others were prepared to admit to outbursts of ranting “to your friends and work colleagues about how the director has ruined the book” and enumerating “in detail in which specific ways the film fails to follow the book.” There’s passion for you!

Finally, Question 7 was to do with the disappointment one feels when a friend’s book recommendation turns out to be less than satisfactory. I’m not sure whether it’s a positive thing that no one admitted that a disappointing book recommendation might lead them to doubt their friend’s judgement and the basis of their friendship. Or perhaps it’s just me who is unhealthy in this respect. Having gone through this once – some years ago now – I’ve schooled myself to try to react according to my A answer (“Toss the book aside and get on with your life”) but it has to be said there is always a sneaking concern, given that the recommendation came from a close friend, that I may be “just too dull to appreciate” the book’s qualities.

Well, there you have it. My questionnaire and its analysis are complete. I promise not to do it again… at least not very soon.


*Hmm. It occurs to me that although you are all adults some of you may still be young enough to have met at least Harry Potter as teenagers. I sometimes forget my own advanced years. 🙂

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.