A Book is For Ever

Thursday, 26 July 2007

I’m not going to comment directly on Harry Potter, save to say that I have not read Deathly Hallows and have no particular intention to do so. (I have, however, read some of the spoilers and I can’t say that anything that happens in there surprises, challenges or startles me.)

What does surprise and rather depress me, on the other hand, is how so many grown-up people I otherwise respect have fallen for a blatant marketing scam. The one that says that reading Harry Potter isn’t the most important thing, it’s having read it that really matters. This is why the bookshops open at midnight so that people can queue for ages for something they could easily walk in and buy at noon the following day. And then there’s the race to have read it before the sun comes up, or whatever (that’s the real scam, the one that says everybody must have their own copy rather than one read it when the other has finished.)

I can’t help wondering where Harry Potter will be in thirty years time. When I say this, I don’t want to fall into the trap that Mr Clifford Crozier, headmaster of Greasby County Junior School, fell into in 1964 when he announced that the improving piece of classical music that had just opened assembly would live forever, but “who will remember The Beatles in thirty years’ time?” Harry Potter will be in print, I don’t doubt that. But he will have been superseded over and over again by new phenomena because the marketing people will even now be working on these now that the Hogwarts Express has run into the buffers. Harry will languish in the Childrens’ section of bookshops, probably unbought by many because his 600+ pages will be too much of a chore for young readers. He’ll be the Ivanhoe of his time – who reads the Victorian blockbuster Walter Scott much these days? And that’s not to deny Scott’s immense contribution to literature.

Harry will probably be one of the lucky ones. The book trade these days is a disposible market. More books are published than ever before (and ironically it’s harder than ever to get published). Most of the titles on Waterstones’ shelves will be out of print in five years, never mind thirty, and few of the authors will warrant an entry in a 22nd-century edition of the Oxford Companion to English Literature. Meanwhile, the writers I read in my youth – many of whom were already long-dead or elderly but no less readable for all that – were banished. At one time, in the main Waterstones branch in Reading, you had to look for Steinbeck or Hemingway or Woolf on a small shelf hidden under the stairs.

Old writing doesn’t suit the marketers. There are no ancillary profits to be made from merchandise or film rights (which after all is what the marketers are after – the purpose of a book these days seems to be to become a film) out of dead authors, or even those that aren’t young and glamorous, so they are pushed aside. A book must be contemporary, and “relevant”. The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there (but The Go-Between has plenty to say to us about contemporary life).

The minds of contemporary readers have to be stamped with the notion that older writing is dusty and worthy and dull. But that’s simply not so. Quite a lot of it demands a level of concentration that today’s diminished attention spans can’t handle, but that doesn’t make it less enjoyable. I’ve been revisiting Graham Greene lately and something screams out at me; Brighton Rock, at 250 pages, seems to have much more substance than contemporary thrillers three times the length. It’s chewy and gripping and the characters are full of life; none of them are unambiguously good or bad just as nobody in the real world is unambiguously good or bad. What really amazes me is that the pre-war world of Brighton gangsters could so easily be transposed into the world of contemporary drug dealers.

Readers are being short-changed. Good writing is good because it is enjoyable writing, not because it is worthy. And enjoyable writing will always be enjoyable writing. The best books are the ones you read more than once over many years, because they can always deliver something new. And the best books will go on and on being a good read.

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