We had a rousing fight at book group on Sunday, which is why it is so much fun to go every month. Among the things we were talking about, that we always talk about, is what makes a book worthwhile. Should it feel like work to read a book, or should one be compelled through it by writing and plot and character? Is there virtue in WORKING hard, concentrating, or is that an indication that the author has been unskillful? We have some diverging viewpoints in the group about this issue.
We also talked about the Mill on the Floss, how slowly it starts, and how un-modern the amount of attention to landscape and small domestic squabbles is. A contemporary editor would slash 50% of the first 350 pages, I'm sure, to get to the story more quickly, even though the writing is descriptive and lovely. We talked about what that stylistic preference is, and how to judge books written in a different era. We talked about the Da Vinci Code -- half of us have read it and half either refuse to or tried and couldn't bear it. What makes a book worthwhile? One person described the Da Vinci Code as "trash" but had read it three times. If you want to read a book three times, is it trash?
We talked about shortening attention spans, and there were of course some disparaging remarks made about kids today, how they watch too much TV and don't read. I chimed in with a cautionary remark and a reference to Steven Berlin Johnson's Everything Bad is Good For You. I haven't read the book yet but I've heard him speak, and I suggested that it's not entirely clear that all new media of storytelling -- movies, television, videogames -- are inferior to the book in terms of what they require from and elicit in the viewer. I repeated something I remember Bran Ferrin saying years ago: It is storytelling, not the book, that is the enduring and universal need of human beings. Great storytelling will always draw us in. I think he's right, and I think being attached to a single medium of storytelling is a mistake. The technology we use to tell stories will change -- we're not painting cave walls anymore. But we'll always have stories, and we'll always come together to share them and to react to them. Why are books better? Oooh, lots of opinions about that.
It was a lively conversation, full of spark and juice, as usual. I was reminded of it this morning by this post by Rob Hyndman about the future of books.