Wednesday, April 23, 2014
Readers, pseudo-readers, and non-readers
Today is World Book Day. I hear that, in 1923, booksellers in Spain wanted to honour Miguel de Cerventes, author of Don Quixote, on 23 April, the day of his death, and that is how April 23 came to be celebrated as World Book Day all over the world. By a happy coincidence, if I might use the word “happy” in this context, William Shakespeare also died on 23 April, according to the Julian calendar, which was still in use in England at the time. In the UK, however, World Book Day is celebrated on the first Thursday of March.
That April 23 is World Book Day became part of my knowledge only a couple of years ago when I came across an article on the subject in a newspaper. Having gained this piece of knowledge, I called a librarian friend of mine and asked him, ‘Do you know when World Book Day is celebrated?’ ‘Who celebrates it?’ he asked in reply.
On reflection, that seemed the right answer to the question. In a world where reading is fast disappearing, how does it matter when World Book Day is celebrated? ‘My only books,’ said Thomas Moore in the nineteenth century, ‘were women's looks, and folly's all they've taught me.’ A modern Moore may mourn: ‘My only books are the box's looks, and folly's all they've taught me.’
To be fair, however, there are readers and readers. For some, reading is a pleasure. I know a number of die-hard book-lovers who have grown up on grandmother's tales, on adventure stories, and on such all-time favourites as Dickens, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, and P G Wodehouse – and, of course, on the unavoidable (and inevitable!) Shakespeare and Shaw. They can read Macaulay and Gibbon with as much interest and excitement as they can R L Stevenson and P G Wodehouse. They wouldn't wax eloquent on their reading like Francis Bacon (‘Reading maketh a full man’); they read for the simple reason that it gives them pleasure.
For some, reading is a kind of penance. It is because they read books either in the hope of gaining some knowledge or for practical purposes, such as writing an examination. I know a person who looks at every new book with suspicion and wonders if it is good value for money and time.
There is a third group that consists of people who love books, who want to be able to say that they have read all the books worth reading, but who never manage to read any books. Typical of the "reading" style of this group is what a fellow teacher living in Chennai does: she goes to the British Council Library and borrows five attractive-looking books which have just entered the library, keeps them for a fortnight and then returns them unread.
Readers, pseudo-readers, and non-readers – well, it takes all sorts to make a world.