What are you reading for?

 | Fri 25 Oct 2013 14:51 ICT

The other day I was reading a novel in a coffee shop near Chiang Mai University and something made me think of a Bill Hicks comedy sketch.

“I was in Nashville, Tennessee last year. After the show I went to a Waffle House. I’m not proud of it, I was hungry. And I’m alone, I’m eating and I’m reading a book, right? Waitress walks over to me:

‘Hey, whatcha readin’ for?’

Isn’t that the weirdest fuckin’ question you’ve ever heard? Not what am I reading, but what am I reading FOR? Well, goddamnit, ya stumped me! Why do I read? Well . . . hmmm…I dunno…I guess I read for a lot of reasons, and the main one is so I don’t end up being a fuckin’ waffle waitress.”

He makes a valid point, and I don’t mean that being a waffle waitress is a barometer of your ignorance. Reading for Hicks promotes not just perceived mainstream intelligence – because you can get high test scores from repeating mnemonics to learn lies, or following instructions to hurt yourself – but it also promotes individualism, and a deeper understanding of the world around you. Any good novel, for instance, attempts to do this.

It is in made-up stories ironically where the truth often resides given the fact that non-fiction has been so compromised. ‘Big’ news is compromised by profits, by the insistence from editors of brevity, and for the fact that each story has to be purified and scoured so as not to upset the sponsors…whoever they might be. Former journalist David Simon – creator of The Wire – said in an interview that he started telling lies so he could get closer to the truth.

The Bill Hicks’ non-reader was almost as dangerous as its natural predators. In the Hicksian interpretation of the world the non-reader is an easily manageable personality, of the painfully solipsistic, roaming moron variety, noticing only its own reflection and the surface of the world it inhabits… endowed perhaps with the capacity to pour coffee into a cup, but deprived of a cutting-edge eye, and so effectively a primitive being. Missing is an armory of protective knowledge, the necessary biological equipment to protect itself against constant verbal harassment from the mainstream media and political exploitation.

It was reported in The Telegraph this year that schools on the American high school curriculum are going to drop J.D Saligner’s novel about growing up as a young, alienated man in America, The Catcher in the Rye, “in favour of ‘informational texts’’.”

The article stated:

“American literature classics are to be replaced by insulation manuals and plant inventories in US classrooms by 2014.”

*Strangely, considering the gravity of such a story, the Telegraph is the only news source I can find who published this information. The story has however been quoted countless times.

Fiction, it said in the article, has to be sacrificed for these informational texts so that children will be better prepared for the workplace. The humanistic is exchanged for the mechanistic so we might work better. But will we live better?

Only a few weeks ago a widely disseminated scientific report on How Reading Novels Improves Intelligence revealed:

“The tests found that after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious non-fiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.”

French author Louis Ferdinand Celine called the non-serious fiction “pop stuff”. He writes in his 1930s book Conversations with Professor Y that it was this stuff that would one day be the only stuff that existed, as literature that had an “emotive yield” was not only difficult to understand – as opposed to reading about terrorist bombs in the Whitehouse – but also dangerous to those in power for whom the mechanistic man is amply controllable, and also for those who profit from the business of selling pop stuff. Sooner or later Celine writes, novelists offering an “emotive yield” will be extinct, or at least, as he was, disgraced or banned.

You can’t preach the book. You can’t proselytize the novel, because if you do you sound like an overeducated elitist or a hardly educated supercilious twat. I fall into the latter category. Moreover, in this awesome epoch where a Miley Cyrus tweet attracts many millions of doggishly dilated pupils, then preaching the book makes you come across as a bit of a knackered appliance in the tawdry workshop of modern history. Preaching books won’t get you many Followers these days.

The reason I thought of Hicks in that full two-floor coffee shop was because I was the only person reading a novel/book. In my hands it felt as though I were holding some kind of relic, a 395 baht antique…and I felt old, I felt concerned that I’d brought this serious thing into the future with me.

What yer reading for? I heard Hicks say in his southern state waitress drawl.

I stayed there for around three hours, on the top floor, reading my novel and thinking about non-reading as cultural and also generational. I was also experiencing a kind of speed-psychosis as clicking sounds emanated from all corners of the shop. Clicks downstairs seemed to be flying up the stairs as if carried inside invisible mozzies. The clicking sound was the sound of young men tapping mouses (or is it mice?). On closer inspection the mouse tapping was the production of bullets that would manifest on a computer screen as someone’s unreal head being blown off. I don’t want to generalize, but the women with the men were nearly all swiping screens – at a much more laid back speed to the blokes’ tapping – while their men sat in silence with their ear phones on, killing things. Online world-war seems to be male dominated, at least in Thailand.

“The National Statistical Office NSO survey revealed that 25.3 per cent of the 59.2 million literate Thais over six years of age did not read.”

It’s been reported that reading in Thailand is not very popular these days – a few years ago research revealed that the majority read “an average of seven lines annually.” If you’ve worked in a university, been to a sprinkling of coffee shops, hung-out in airport departure lounges, or tried to find a good library, you won’t find this statement (from a Bangkok Post op-ed) very hard to digest.

But according to an article in the Asian Correspondent in 2012 Thailand did have a reading culture…and a very high level of literacy; the country once had a “rich bibliophilic tradition.” It just doesn’t anymore. The conclusion in the above story is that the culture of non-reading has been systemically engineered, so that now it is habit, or custom, and protects its own interests.

In the absence of competing stories, truth has virtually no competitors.

The writer of the Asian Correspondent article, Bangkok Pundit, believes:

“Unless severe restrictions on free speech, through the various ways that speech is criminalized in Thailand, are lifted and the entire education is completely changed, you are not likely to see many more books read.”

I was sitting with my book (actually, Rory’s book – don’t you love the interconnectivity of a book, the sharing, how it binds people), taking in the modern sounds of human nature: tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap…and I wondered if books and reading would ever come back in, or was I ageing into a world where subjects were discussed in coffee shops not relating to each other’s emotions, or the human condition in story form, but grand online explanations of how to throw pigs at houses.

Supercilious twat?

Humanities departments are shrinking the world over…libraries in the UK are being closed, for good. The young generation is walking into an informational world, one in which decimal points promote happiness, and emotions are expressed by pressing a button. Serious novels are being swiped from your children’s schools so in the future they might be able to market a virtual fart, and if they’re good, one that even smells like shit.

Retired political science professor and social critic Tenet Charoenmuang of Chiang Mai University once told me while despairing of the critical faculties lacking in some of his students, “we are building a nation of engineers.” He explained to me that his own education in the 60s in Thailand was more a form of “indoctrination”. He also told me that Thailand was on the cusp of an enlightenment period, which I guess would mean a(nother) reading period.

So, reading is bliss…or is that ignorance?

If some people, especially those ensconced in the wilds of the northern countryside, want to sit under a banana tree and watch their cows eat grass, rather than read Das Kapital or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, then who am I to criticize the balmy farmer and his simple life? Look at those heavy readers and their neurosis, their panic attacks, their bouts of futile, existential despair? Reading serious books is not everyone’s cup of tea. Who seriously wants to be trapped inside Kafka’s Burrow?! I’d rather go stalking fish in the sea, or simply fuck. Surely nature itself – back to nature as William Wordsworth prescribed, as well the Transcendentalists – and the company of others, can help promote emotional intelligence…and what’s wrong with simple happiness?

The problem I guess is the encroachment of modernity onto every tract of our lives. Technology, or the self-interests of others, might be moving into your little haven next season. Someone may convince you your fully functional cows are worth less than part of a car you don’t really own… and someone else wants to expropriate your land, and your kids are hooked on iPhones that they can’t afford. Maybe if you’d read about land expropriation of the rural classes and the pitfalls of debt and consumerism, these things may not have happened to you. Maybe we are living in a world where – ironically as books go out of fashion – reading has never been so important. And if we do return to nature, then we’ll go back smarter. 


James Austin Farrell