Stephen King v Gameboy: are books always best?

Click to follow
I LIKE reading, I buy lots of books, and I want my young son to enjoy reading too, when the time comes. As I get older, it becomes harder to recapture the feeling I got as a child from being spellbound by a book, that feeling of not knowing who or where you are, or what time it is; and it is a long time since I last panicked when I saw that I had only a chapter of a book remaining to me. (That's the post- modern novel for you.) But even so, I do not want books to die, I do not want to see them burned, I wish the British would buy more books than they do, and I wish that when we did buy books, those books were good ones, and not, say, novels written by former partners of Rod Stewart, or by Edwina Currie. I doubt if I have parted company with many readers of this newspaper so far.

I am, however, perplexed by our now permanent panic about the reading habits of our young people. John Patten is concerned that kids are not reading enough Good Stuff (the usual suspects - Dickens, Eliot and so on). A recent report suggested that children who spend a lot of time playing video games are likely to end up lonely, depressed and spotty and this, too, has prompted much agonised introspection about the post-literate society. (I am not, before anyone writes to me, advocating illiteracy, which I regard as a very bad thing). It is difficult to see why. Reading too many books makes you every bit as lonely, depressed and spotty as playing too many video games, as every school swot knows; it's just that if you have made yourself lonely, depressed and spotty by reading the poems of Sylvia Plath, or L'Etranger by Albert Camus, nobody minds in the least. This latest piece of research is an argument for dragging our children, not to the nearest library, but to the nearest pub, preferably on karaoke night.

What happens to a lot of people (or rather, happened pre-Nintendo) is this: they read Stig of the Dump, The Borrowers and a load of comics; then they read some Agatha Christie; then they read the Good Stuff, then they leave school and college, start work, and either stop reading altogether, or read Jilly Cooper and Dick Francis (maybe some Ben Elton and Stephen Fry, if they are feeling ambitious) on the beach and on the train. In the meantime, they have completely forgotten who Elizabeth Bennet ended up marrying in Pride and Prejudice or who did what to whom, and why, in the Marabar Caves.

Fair enough. This sad, slow process of decay does not turn them into monsters: they pay their taxes, and buy the Big Issue, and worry about what is best for their children, just as Michael Ignatieff does. But what right have these people - and one doubts if there are many members of the present Government who read the TLS from cover to cover - to lecture the young on the dangers of SuperMario? Why is it so important that we all end up having a vague recollection of having read Hard Times - or was it A Christmas Carol? - once upon a time?

There is a stupendous amount of hypocrisy surrounding the subject of reading. All over the country, English teachers are forcing our children to draw pictures of the witches in Macbeth, or to charge about in gangs pretending to be the Montagues and the Capulets, just so that parents will believe that their kids are 'doing' Shakespeare. They're not, of course. They're just drawing pictures of witches during lessons, when they could be doing something useful, like reading a book they have a chance of understanding. And yet if children are encouraged to engage with their own culture, to work out for themselves how soap operas work, and what they mean, all hell breaks loose: MPs and tabloid editors who fall asleep every night on page nine of the new Robert Ludlum want the teachers hung for treason. There's no jerk like a knee-jerk.

What is the qualitative difference between reading a decently written middlebrow book by someone like Joanna Trollope and watching a decently made middlebrow TV programme, Inspector Morse, say, or a David Lodge adaptation? Is the act of reading morally superior to the act of watching? And is it better to listen to a badly abridged and poorly read audiobook, even if that book is a classic, than to see a brilliant piece of populist cinema? Is it really a good thing to kill a long train journey with a Stephen King paperback, and a bad thing to kill it, and a few two-dimensional monsters, with a Gameboy? A while back, on a Radio 4 programme called Are Books Dead? a very persuasive and articulate young man made the case for the superiority of computer culture over literary culture, while outraged Radio 4 listeners phoned in to take him to task. 'What if something bad happens to the world, and all the batteries in the world run out? Where will you be then, eh?' asked one. The strength and intelligence of this argument hardly helped to convince one of the benefits of a literary education.

Like I said, I'm a big reader; my younger, half-brother is not. He didn't enjoy reading when he was a kid, and he's much too busy with work, sport, friends and family - to enjoy it now. He has not read Middlemarch or anything by Dickens, and he has not forgotten who did what to whom in the Marabar Caves because he never knew in the first place. But he's smart, and he holds down a good job, and he's happily married, and very good company. I reject utterly the idea that someone who is familiar with the Barchester Chronicles is in any way a superior human being.

I feel sorry for people who don't like to read, because I think they're missing out: some of my most intense pleasures have been found in books. But they're only pleasures, after all, and I am sure that a fiction-loathing mountaineer or all ill-read scuba-diver would feel just as sorry for me as I do for them.

What we must be wary of is the increasing politicisation of reading by those who may be pig-ignorant about more or less everything, but who happen to have read the novels of Sir Walter Scott. That gives them the right to go on Mastermind; it doesn't give them the right to tell anyone, young or old, what they should be doing with their leisure time.-