It seems to me that reading is now an article of conspicuous consumption, like hybrid cars and personal trainers: a possession bestowing prestige and establishing social superiority. How do you make the private act of reading into a public display of consumption? You join a book club (I can’t believe how many people say they belong to one). You read what people who count are reading. You refer to books as “important.” You vote in CBC Radio’s Canada Reads contest.
It is no longer enough to read, you must be known to read, and the way to do that is to publicly discuss what you read, or tune in one of the book shows, which you then discuss with others, mutually confirming ownership of the desired item: well-readness.
In an earlier age, books themselves were objects for display, providing social status. They were readily available from the Book of the Month club, the nobbier Great Books series, the effete Folio Society. But the ante, as always, got raised in the drive to consume more impressively than the competition.
I think you can hear this change on the book shows and panels, where there’s a lot of preening, as if reading a book is like showing a horse. The point isn’t the largely incommunicable experience of reading; it is to demonstrate how well one reads, with opinions as proof. Friends have always traded tips on books they like, but that’s not the tone of the shows.
As for conferring social rank, I offer as evidence Oprah’s book club. There will never be a Jerry Springer book club. Those Neanderthals may actually read — who the hell knows — but you won’t catch them sitting around yakking about it!
What’s odd is that reading doesn’t work well as something to talk about. It’s too private. Maybe that’s why the discussions sound artificial and prissy. That isn’t so with public modes such as theatre or sports, which lend themselves to discussion. They belong to the oral, rather than the written, tradition. The best way to examine something you’ve read is to read about it.
My debt to Pete Seeger: I’d like to add my homage to Bruce Springsteen’s new tribute CD, The Seeger Sessions. When I was about 14, in the late 1950s, a friend’s older brother took us to a concert at Massey Hall in Toronto — as if he were initiating us into something risquÃ©. A lanky guy strolled onstage, with a lanky banjo. He wore a jacket and tie, but his shirt was orange! I’d never seen a tie without a white shirt under it.
After several numbers, he began a work song, Didn’t Old John Cross the Water? He stopped and said it didn’t really work with a banjo. He hauled over a log and axe that happened to be onstage too and removed the jacket. Under it, his shirtsleeves were rolled up. No cufflinks! Then he got everyone joining in. What was with that? Hadn’t we paid for these seats? Why were we singing for him? Well, with him.
For his encore, he came back onstage, scratched his head, and said brightly, “Would ya like to learn to yodel?” So this is what I learned from Pete Seeger: Things don’t have to remain as they have always been, even if you’ve never seen or imagined them any other way.
That’s a more complex issue, 50 years later. The mantra now is: Everything always changes. Think about the scorn heaped on the youth of France who dared to try to stop “change” so they could retain some of the modest job security their parents fought hard to win. But have you noticed how inevitable change is now supposed to be? The Seeger point, restated, would be: Even change doesn’t have to be as inevitable, inscrutable and unsympathetic to your needs, as you have always been told it must be.
Sham endorsement alert: Maclean’s magazine’s latest promo pack includes a line I wrote: “Welcome to the new era at Maclean’s.” That’s literally accurate, but tends to miss the dripping sarcasm and disgust with which it was employed in the original column, on the new editor Ken Whyte’s retooling of the magazine into a, er, tool for U.S.-style neo-conservatism. I’m happy to provide alternate copy for the next go: “Don’t blame me if you subscribed to this mean-spirited exercise in contempt for readers and manipulation of news.” Feel free. I waive any right to object.