Tuesday, May 22, 2012

On the question "Have you read?"

How many times have you been asked, "Have you read....?" or even "Have you watched/heard...?" and answered 'No", only to have your answer received with scorn? Did you feel like you've somehow failed to be something, likely intelligent enough or worldly enough?

Well, don't be surprised that you do feel a bit irked and self-doubtful because that's just what they would like you to feel. Why? So they can feel better because they are in the know.

But the even better turn of events is that if you ask just the same question about anything not in mainstream media there is a very high chance that the response to your question will be "No" too, meaning you can in turn get them back with a careful sneer or snobbish look. Done, dusted, game over.

All this can occur because it is actually far more likely that you will hear the answer "No" to any "Have you read...?" question you pose than yes, simply because of the number of books available to read far exceeds the number of books it is possible to read in your lifetime, let alone by the point at which you get asked this question.

How we choose what to read is greatly influenced by the education system and by the mass media but also by the recommendations received by those willing to pose this question in a more friendly manner, meaning they're asking you so they can either have a conversation on the book or recommend it to you because they're just that enthusiastic about it and think you'll enjoy it too. By these methods alone do we ever chose exactly the same books to read en masse. Otherwise, it is all personal choice and given the wide variety of personal interests and immediately available books there isn't as much overlap in reading material as you'd think.

If you send two people into a bookstore and say buy anything at all, topping out at 10 books, it is far more likely that they'll have a completely different set than a completely similar one. And if there are any similarities it is likely only to be 1-2 books in the list. Yet you'd probably find them all worthy of reading for some reason or another.

The great thing about this is the number of enthusiastic recommendations that can occur because of this, something an author or publisher can encourage through a good reputation and a decent personality. Such things just add to the appeal of a fantastic book. Forced viral campaigns don't work so well though, when it comes to many people making choices on reading material. The only thing that could work is peer pressure through this "Have you read...?" question and the surprise or sneer at the answer "No". If you're worried this isn't enough, don't fret, peer pressure can make many, many people do a lot of dangerous, crazy and out of character things so being forced by peer pressure to read a book isn't something most feel the need to protest about.

There is something else that comes from knowing that it is likely a person won't know of a work unless prompted. It is the knowledge that even those who profess to know a great deal about many a written work don't know near as much as either they think, you think or any of us want. Purely because it is utterly impossible for them to know of or read all the necessary works required to be in a position of absolute authority in the literary world. So breathe easy, you aren't as clueless or out of the loop as you thought and there is no-one capable of holding authority over you in the field of literature. They might just hold a bit more experience, that's all. Or they might be a tad pretentious.

This means though, that scorning someone for not having read what you have isn't a very nice thing to do and only makes a fool out of you. No matter whether you're scorning a friend, a teacher, a writer, a reader or anyone really, you have basically gone about it all wrong. The world of literature is there for exploring and sharing openly. Monopolising, aggrandising, sneering, snooty behaviour, self-importance and shouldn't belong but it does anyway.

But I will say this: despite everything you hear, the choice of what to read, how much to read, to follow a trend or not to, to believe the knowledge you gain makes you important or not - all of it - is up to you and you alone. But be careful, your attitude only reflects on you. You aren't solely what you read. You aren't as intelligent as the level of literature you read and memorise but rather something else entirely. The world of literature is there to explore but you aren't the world of literature and never will be. It is a world to explore and add to and it will never be conquered by anyone. Rejoice in that. Have fun!

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