‘Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.’ So wrote satirist P. J. O’Rourke.
Of course, he was joking. We should read whatever we want to read! But I think this quotation touches on a very real discomfort in readers over being judged for reading choices.
Recently, reports have emerged of a new practice at airport security in the US. The Bookseller in the UK reported: ‘Security staff in US airports have reportedly been demanding passengers clear all the reading material out of their hand luggage into a separate bin during safety searches so that staff can search for items made of paper.’
The argument for the practice – which will likely be rolled out across all US airports – is understandable. Carry-on bags are often full of items, and analysts at X-ray machines can struggle to see past books. But passengers have not taken kindly to having to throw their books into a bin and then watch as security officials leaf through the pages.
The American Civil Liberties Union has publicly raised concerns, outlining the ‘long history of special legal protection for the privacy of one’s reading habits in the United States’ (full details are at https://www.aclu.org/blog/free-future/new-tsa-policy-may-lead-increased-scrutiny-reading-material).
Reading privacy isn’t a new issue. Since the rise of e-readers, for example, concerned readers have been questioning how much data is being collected on reading choices and habits. The Electronic Frontier Foundation reported on this back in 2012 in ‘Who’s Tracking Your Reading Habits? An E-Book Buyer’s Guide to Privacy’. Their conclusion: ‘reading e-books means giving up more privacy than browsing through a physical bookstore or library, or reading a paper book in your own home’.
In whatever area this issue crops up, one thing is clear: readers do not like to have their privacy invaded.
What are you reading? It’s a common enough question. But are you always happy to answer that question honestly? Let me put it another way: can a reader always be confident in any situation that he or she will not be judged for what he or she is reading?
Take the 50 Shades series of books when they were at the height of their popularity. On London trains at rush hour, how many people were reading these ‘The Next Big Thing’ books? Plenty, I am sure. Some were holding up paperbacks, happy to let other commuters see what they were reading. Others, though, weren’t prepared to read erotica in public, and so they read on an e-reader – quietly, privately.
It is easy to say, ‘We should read what we want, when we want, and be “out and proud” about our choices.’ But life isn’t so black and white. Whether we like it or not, judgements are made. (At the airport, just imagine the reaction at Security when it emerges a traveller is reading a thriller about terrorism.)
Novelist Siri Hustvedt wrote, ‘Reading is a private pursuit; one that takes place behind closed doors.’ I agree that it is a reader’s right to read in this way. By all means, readers may choose to share books they have read and discuss them publicly. But a reader is entirely free to read without an audience.
Ultimately, I think a reader should never be compelled to answer that intrusive question: What are you reading?
I love books. I love to browse books, choose books, purchase books, collect books – and, of course, read books!
If, like me, you are a bibliophile, you will know well the happiness a book can bring: finding a hidden treasure in a second-hand bookstore, eagerly buying your favourite author’s new novel on publication day, simply holding a book in your hands and using it as a magic portal into a story world. For me, though, the greatest happiness of all is not to be found in holding a book in my own hands, but in passing one to another.
Giving books, quite simply, is a beautiful act. Soul-stirring. Life-affirming. Joy-creating.
Many people, myself included, enjoy choosing books to give as presents for friends and loved ones for occasions like birthdays and Christmas. A book is a thoughtful gift, after all, and choosing the right one means the giver has the perfect excuse to spend an hour (or more!) in a bookstore.
But increasingly book-lovers are going a step further, and finding ever more fun and creative ways to gift books.
What’s the best gift of all? A surprise gift. Imagine walking through a park on a sunny summer’s day, when your eye catches something colourful amid the green leaves of a tree. You go up on tiptoes to investigate and discover a book – a novel, wrapped up in green ribbon. Intrigued, you reach up and take down the book. On the cover you see a little sticker on which is a picture of a book with wings and, beneath, a gentle instruction: ‘Take this book, read it, and leave it for the next person to enjoy.’ You’ve just received a gift from a Book Fairy.
The Book Fairies (http://ibelieveinbookfairies.com/) are a group of book-lovers all over the world who leave books for people to find. Currently, there are 5,000 people sharing copies across 100 countries. Anyone can be a book fairy; all you do is pop on an instruction sticker (available inexpensively and in various languages from the Book Fairies website) and then leave the book someplace it will be discovered. Many Book Fairies post Instagram pictures of their gifts in situ, as a clue.
The Book Fairies grew out of Books on the Underground (http://booksontheunderground.co.uk/), which works in the same way: each week, around 150 free books are left on the London Underground system, in stations and on trains, for travellers to enjoy. (New York has its own version, Books on the Subway: https://www.booksonthesubway.com/.)
A key part of the concept is that whoever receives a free book eventually passes this book on to another reader, so theoretically these free books should remain in constant circulation, turning public spaces into libraries. The exchange principle draws on the ever-popular Little Free Libraries scheme (https://littlefreelibrary.org/), which originated in the US, in which readers are able to access micro-libraries in all sorts of places, donating a book in exchange for taking one.
What all of these programmes have in common is that they are run by volunteers, simply for the love of books. They want to promote reading and to widen access to books, especially important books; last week, for example, actress Emma Watson donned her Book Fairy hat and hid 100 copies of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in Paris.
Most of all, though, book givers want to bring a ray of sunshine to a fellow reader’s day. Giving a book – even to a stranger you will never meet – has a fabulous feel-good factor, because of the goodwill behind the gesture. As the Roman philosopher Seneca wrote: ‘A gift consists not in what is done or given, but in the intention of the giver or doer.’
Ask yourself this: what would your life be like without love stories? No romance novels. No romantic TV series or movies. No daydreaming, even. How would you feel?
I know that I would be! Since I read my first romantic fairy-tale as a young child, I’ve been in love with love stories. Romances make me feel wonderful: uplifted, comforted, dreamy, inspired, hopeful.
According to recent research by the University of Oxford, a romantic like me may be addicted to love, and so if I were to be cut off from romance, I would experience the feelings of withdrawal.
The Oxford English Dictionary offers two definitions for the word ‘addicted’:
- Physically and mentally dependent on a particular substance
- (informal) Enthusiastically devoted to a particular thing or activity
Of course, those of us who adore romance stories consider ourselves in the latter category. Certainly I am ‘enthusiastically devoted’ to dreaming, writing and reading romance.
But could one cross the line into being ‘dependent’ on romance stories?
The University of Oxford study is entitled: ‘Addicted to love: What is love addiction and when should it be treated?’ The researchers set out to consider how love may be viewed as an addition:
‘These phenomena—including cycles of alternating ecstasy and despair, desperate longing, and the extreme and sometimes damaging thoughts and behaviors that can follow from love’s loss—bear a resemblance to analogous phenomena associated with more “conventional” addictions like those for drugs, alcohol, or gambling.’ (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5378292/)
The New York Post entitled its article on this study ‘There’s a dark side to being a hopeless romantic’ (http://nypost.com/2017/05/10/theres-a-dark-side-to-being-a-hopeless-romantic/). The point is that addictive love can disrupt daily life and have a significant impact on mood and personal growth.
Can an ‘addiction’ to romance stories have the same damaging effect?
I am reminded of Mrs Stuart in Louisa May Alcott’s 1873 novel Work: A Story of Experience. Upon discovering a room ablaze and a servant just standing there and laughing, she exclaims:
‘She must go, Horatio, she must go! I cannot have my nerves shattered by such dreadful scenes. She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain.’
Can romance books turn your brain? Perhaps, if you were to let them. Remember the two definitions of addicted: while there is nothing at all wrong with being ‘addicted’ to romance stories in the sense that you are enthusiastically devoted to them, it is not ideal to be dependent on them, to become so devoted to the romance genre that you confuse fiction for reality.
Any ‘hopeless romantic’ knows, deep down, that while they can completely surrender as they read, giving themselves up to romance, at some point they must close the book. They re-enter a world in which romance is not always quite as readily available and sublimely magical as on the pages of a book (or on the big screen). However, they re-enter that world uplifted, comforted, dreamy, inspired and hopeful.
The aim, then, with romance: be enthusiastically devoted. Always.
Depending on where you are in the world, a café latte from a chain like Starbucks is likely to cost you in the region of £3/$4. Wherever you are in the world, you can absolutely buy all kinds of books for less than that.
Cheap books are available in various formats and from various sellers:
* Second-hand books sold offline and online
* Discounted books sold in deals at major retailers such as supermarkets
* Heavily discounted books sold by book clubs and discount outlets
* Heavily discounted ebooks (sold for far less than the print-book price)
These cheap deals are excellent news for readers. They can be good news for authors too, in the sense that any sale of a book means they have reached a reader. However, in terms of the author earning what they deserve for their creative work, so-called ‘bargain books’ can be bad news.
In the UK, the Society of Authors is currently running a campaign called ‘Fair Reading’, which aims to ‘ensure that a good deal for the reader is also a fair deal for the author’ (see http://www.societyofauthors.org/Where-We-Stand/Fair-reading). The campaign is focusing on high discounting of books.
Did you know that Amazon is changing the way it sells books? It has always been the case that if you buy a book on Amazon, you are sold a book stocked by Amazon – so Amazon pays the publisher for that book, who in turn pays the author a royalty. In the US, however (and in the UK soon), pressing that ‘buy’ button on Amazon may well mean you are not buying a book supplied to Amazon by the publisher, but a book from a third-party supplier.
The book is second-hand and heavily discounted (often to a mere penny or cent!). Second-hand does not necessarily mean used, though; it can be new and unread. Publishers often print two versions of a book: the quality one intended for sale in bookshops (for which the author earns a decent royalty per sale), and a cheaper run that is not intended for regular buyers but for heavily discounted sales like those via book clubs (for which the author earns but a penny or two per sale). According to the Guardian, ‘it is believed that large quantities are being dumped on the mainstream market to be sold as if they are secondhand – which would explain how paperback editions appear for sale long before they are available to bookshops’ (https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2017/may/17/secondhand-book-sales-authors-cheap).
The major issue here is the bottom line for the author. An author earns around seven to ten per cent of a standard sale. But on these third-party sales, the author earns nothing. So when you click ‘buy’ on an Amazon page to purchase a book, you are not supporting the author at all.
This is just one of several book-pricing issues that exist in publishing, another obvious one being ebook pricing. It is the underlying principle here that most interests me: how much should a book be worth?
The book/coffee price comparison is becoming a common one. On the Society of Authors blog (http://www.societyofauthors.org/News/Blogs/James-Mayhew/November-2016/James-Mayhew-Fair-Trade-for-Authors), James Mayhew writes: ‘for the people who can afford £3 on a daily latte or magazine, or who happily spend £6 for a cinema ticket, should books be just £1? This is about far more than my personal return on sales. It is about the symbolic devaluing of books.’
I agree entirely, and I ask:
* How much more easily do we buy a coffee than a book – and how much more quickly do we consume it?
* How many coffees do we buy per year versus books?
* Do we scruitinise the cost of a book more than the cost of a coffee?
* Does a few pounds or dollars feel perfectly reasonable for some hot milk, water and coffee beans, and yet not so reasonable for hundreds of bound (or electronic) pages on which are words formed by many, many hours of work, and so much dedication, skill and artistry?
* Should, in fact, a book cost more than a coffee?
I love books, absolutely love books. With that truth as constant as my heartbeat, I find it very difficult to conceive of getting rid of books – let alone actually doing so.
I remember, when I was a little girl, my father coming home regularly with boxes of books. At that time, due to the political situation in Egypt, many people were leaving the country, and my father would rescue their abandoned books and give them a home in our own house. Books, he taught me, are treasures.
Of course, we grew up in Alexandria, home of the famous library that was designed to collect all the world’s knowledge, but burned to the ground in 48 BC, destroying forever 400,000 precious books (see my article ‘The roots of a bibliophile: The Ancient Library of Alexandria’). Whenever we passed the site of the Ancient Library of Alexandria, we were sobered by the thought of that great fire consuming so many priceless books.
The destruction of books on a mass scale is distressing for bibliophiles. (The Nazi book burning is the most obvious example.) But even on a book-by-book basis, destroying a book can feel wrong. Say you have spilled tea on a book. Do you throw it away – can you bear to?
Do you remember the days when you took a much-thumbed tome that was falling apart not to the recycling centre but to a book binder to be restored? How far we have come from those times. Nowadays, we live in a culture of consumption in which no object is treasured as it once was. A thick paperback novel can be purchased for the price of a cup of coffee; it is consumed and then, often, disposed of: thrown in the bin, left on a park bench, donated to a charity shop.
The Guardian newspaper in the UK recently reported on ‘the books no one wants any more’. The Da Vinci Code and Fifty Shades of Grey are books donated so frequently to charity shops that they simply can’t sell all the stock. The hotel chain Travelodge provided data on the books left in their hotel rooms over the course of a year; Fifty Shades Freed topped the list, with 1,209 abandoned copies, followed by two other erotic romances, and then Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling. The most hyped books, the books with massive marketing campaigns that attempt to suggest you must read this book or you’re missing out are the ones that are most discarded – not valued, not treasured.
A couple of weeks ago a reader commented on one of my blog posts that advertising a book as a bestseller or by a bestselling author can actually make it less, not more, appealing. I found that really interesting, and it made me look at my bookshelves and consider how many of the books I treasure are books that have been hyped. The answer: very few.
I buy books that I am sure I will love – and therefore will keep. Before purchasing, I carefully read the book blurb; I read the first page or two; I even read the author’s bio, and sometimes I visit their website and learn about them as well. I do this so that I am assured a satisfying reading experience, of course, and to ensure I am not wasting money on a book I won’t enjoy. But I think the deeper-seated reason for my careful approach to book-buying comes down to the fact that I always intend to keep a book that I buy. It’s a thing of beauty, a precious object. I don’t just love the story and the characters and the poetry of the words; I love the smell of the ink, the weight of the work in my hand, the rustle and texture of the pages.
Do you love books in this way too? Does it break your heart to throw away a book? Do you feel an ache when you donate a book to charity? Can you bear to abandon a book? Have you ever bought a book and regretted it, because you didn’t enjoy it but struggled to let it go simply because it was a book? Does the story of unloved books sadden you?
I would love to hear your thoughts.