Bookend?

Let’s not personalise this, so no names. But a few years ago I read about a group of academics protesting at their university about some restructuring or other then taking place. Their ire was particularly directed at one of the university’s senior management team, an academic who, they claimed, didn’t have a single book in his office. More recently at another university, or so it is claimed, another member of the senior team stated openly that he didn’t see the need for a university library any more.

But it’s not just university heads and their teams. The Independent newspaper recently reported that at an English university some academics are finding it hard to persuade their students to read books. One professor suggested:

‘Students struggle with set texts, saying the language or concepts are too hard.’

Others have reported that Victorian literature is disappearing from the curricula of English degree courses because the novels are simply too long – nobody could be expected to read them cover to cover.

Of course it’s not just universities. A couple of years ago in America the Pew Research Center found that 23 per cent of adults had not read a single book (in whatever form, including digital and audio) in the preceding year. Some 35 years earlier that figure would have been 8 per cent.

So what is happening? Are books dead? I doubt that: in recent years there has been a drop in book sales in some countries, but more than off-set by significant increases in others. Nevertheless, people’s engagement with them is changing, and because you can read things in unusual ways and take them from unusual sources it is hard to gauge changes in reading patterns. And of course a ‘book’ is a more complex item now, as it is not necessarily something printed on paper between covers.

I would be more concerned if the choice of books we might read were all about volume and length. There is of course an important place in literature for the short story or the novella. But it is important that we take the time and make the effort to engage with ideas that occupy more than 60 pages. There may be all sorts of reasons for including or not including Charles Dickens on a university curriculum: but the fact that his books tend to be longer than 500 pages should not be one of them.

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5 Comments on “Bookend?”


  1. I believe the Game of Thrones saga is several billion pages long…


  2. It is also the elements of language that are found difficult to impossible: metaphors, similes, figurative usage, allusion, being the biggest sufferers. To use a figurative image.

  3. Greg Foley Says:

    Reminds me of the Spitting Image skit of a 1980s game show, Telly Addicts presented by Noel Edmonds, in which the following exchange happens:

    ‘Noel Edmonds’: “Name one book”
    ‘Contestant’: “The TV Times”

  4. Anna Notaro Says:

    “Printing, having found in the book a refuge in which to lead an autonomous existence, is pitilessly dragged out onto the street by advertisements and subjected to the brutal heteronomies of economic chaos….This is the hard schooling of its new form. …. The newspaper is read more in the vertical than in the horizontal plane, while film and advertisement force the printed word entirely into the dictatorial perpendicular. And before a child of our time finds his way clear to opening a book, his eyes have been exposed to such a blizzard of changing, colourful, conflicting letters that the chances of his penetrating the archaic stillness of the book are slight. . . ” Walter Benjamin (1920s)

  5. paulmartin42 Says:

    Charles Dickens like Shakespeare was never meant to be read as a book. The episodic published nature of chapters of Little Dorrit is comparable to the Coronation Street of today, or indeed universitydiary.wordpress.com.

    Of course as virtual reality takes hold and people go around with cardboard boxes stuck over their eyes and plastic ones next to their ears in wheelchairs acquired via not paying due attention when crossing roads I am left contemplating which episode of Dr Who will have come true:

    Me and Sarah Jane,
    In silence walk along the shore,
    Tears of joy and mocking laughter,
    Words lost in the wind.
    The tide was rising,
    But there we stayed,
    We had no fear of dying
    We weren’t afraid.

    (c) Genesis


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