As a senior in college, I took a class on Jane Austen—a great class with, it must be said, a weird vibe. Almost all of the students were women (out of around a hundred people, only five or ten were men), and it was a hothouse of Jane Austen obsession. In the first lecture, the professor identified herself as a Janeite—a member of “the curious American cult of Jane Austen,” according to the BBC—and, when she asked if we were Janeites, too, scores of people raised their hands.
If anything, the fervor of the Janeites puts into relief a fact almost too obvious to notice: the world of books is a romantic world. Romance structures literary life, and to be a reader is, often, to follow its choreography, from susceptibility and discovery (“I just saw it there in the bookstore!”) to infatuation, intimacy, identification, and obsession. We connect with books in an intellectual way, but the most valuable relationships we have with them are emotional; to say that you merely admire or respect a book is, on some level, to insult it. Feelings are so fundamental to literary life that it can be hard to imagine a way of relating to literature that doesn’t involve loving it. Without all those emotions, what would reading be?
The conditions in which we read today are not those of fifty or even thirty years ago, and the big question is how contemporary fiction will adapt to these changes, because in the end adapt it will. No art form exists independently of the conditions in which it is enjoyed.
What I’m talking about is the state of constant distraction we live in and how that affects the very special energies required for tackling a substantial work of fiction.
As an uncle I’m inconsistent about too many things.
Birthdays, for example. My nephew Mark had one on Sunday, and I didn’t remember — and send a text — until 10 p.m., by which point he was asleep.
School productions, too. I saw my niece Bella in “Seussical: The Musical” but missed “The Wiz.” She played Toto, a feat of trans-species transmogrification that not even Meryl, with all of her accents, has pulled off.
But about books, I’m steady. Relentless. I’m incessantly asking my nephews and nieces what they’re reading and why they’re not reading more. I’m reliably hurling novels at them, and also at friends’ kids. I may well be responsible for 10 percent of all sales of “The Fault in Our Stars,” a teenage love story to be released as a movie next month. Never have I spent money with fewer regrets, because I believe in reading — not just in its power to transport but in its power to transform.
Recently, a colleague mentioned that she had been rereading Richard Hughes’s “A High Wind in Jamaica,” which was first published in 1929 and is about a group of creepy little kids who become the unwanted wards of sad, listless pirates. She praised it, and her recommendation sent me to Amazon. The title was familiar, as was the vibrant cover of the New York Review Books reissue. One cent and $3.99 for shipping, and the book was on its way. A couple of weeks later, I opened to the first page and started reading. By the fifth page, I realized that I had read this novel before, and pretty recently, about three years ago, when another colleague had also praised it and lent me his copy.
Scientists, psychologists and English academics at Liverpool University have found that reading the works of the Bard and other classical writers has a beneficial effect on the mind, catches the reader’s attention and triggers moments of self-reflection.
Using scanners, they monitored the brain activity of volunteers as they read works by William Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, T.S Eliot and others.
They then “translated” the texts into more “straightforward”, modern language and again monitored the readers’ brains as they read the words.
Scans showed that the more “challenging” prose and poetry set off far more electrical activity in the brain than the more pedestrian versions.
As librarians across the nation struggle with the task of redefining their roles and responsibilities in a digital age, many public libraries are seeing an opportunity to fill the void created by the loss of traditional bookstores. They are increasingly adapting their collections and services based on the demands of library patrons, whom they now call customers.
In the United States, popular holiday gifts come and go from year to year. But in Iceland, the best Christmas gift is a book — and it has been that way for decades.
Iceland publishes more books per capita than any other country in the world, with five titles published for every 1,000 Icelanders. But what’s really unusual is the timing: Historically, a majority of books in Iceland are sold from late September to early November. It’s a national tradition, and it has a name: Jolabokaflod, or the “Christmas Book Flood.”