Friday, 5 October 2012

Thoughts on a Good Book

It is perhaps ironic that I am having thoughts about books on National Poetry Day, but then poems are published in books, so maybe it it a relevant sort of post to do. (This was started yesterday, but finished today). I was recently invited for a job interview, which makes a bit of a change, most of my job applications are resulting in nothing except a curt "Sorry, we have too many applicants and we are not shortlisting you" sort of reply. Sadly, I didn't get the job, but I suspect that I was not the sort of person that they were looking for. For instance, the first question I was asked was "Is there such a thing as a Bad Book", and I have been thinking over that concept ever since the interview. I suspect that although the question was open, allowing the interviewers find out more about each applicant, they were looking for someone who would tell them what was a bad book. 

As a trained librarian, a teacher of children with Special Educational Needs, and further more as a Doctor of Philosophy, I had to answer that "no, there is no such thing as a bad book". I went on the explain that even the Argos catalogue may inspire some children to make the first steps in reading, in order to decipher the strange symbols to which some people add sounds. Any book is good if it can prompt literate behaviour. When I came home I thought about what I really should have said (and the alternative reply certainly wouldn't have got me the job anyway).

A book is an inanimate object and can neither be good, nor bad, because it does not have a sense of morality. A book just is. You can say that a book is written badly, or contains concepts that are considered immoral (bad) by a certain society, but that is the fault of the author, not the book. A book may be interpreted in a certain way and cause a bad effect. One that springs to mind is Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses. On the other hand, a book can have a positive influence on people, for example The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressel, which  described the injustices done to the working classes. It appears to have been a book that inspired many a socialist politician. Of course, if you are not socialist, then you many have a different point of view about the book.

Which leads nicely to the thought that books are simple objects that hold a quantity of words. The words were put there from the mind of a person (or if co-authored, the minds of persons!) who used the words to describe the ideas that their imagination produced. these ideas are someway linked to the author's experiences, either real or researched for the book. The reader, however, interprets the words in their own way, according to what ever experience they may have.  A close friend of mine, who we will call Edith, relates a tale about a book the she bought for her sister.  Edith bought it because she had read it and had enjoyed the story of the relationships of the main characters. The sister read the book and passed it to their mother who also read it. When the three of them got together, and talked about the characters they found out that they each had a different idea of the what the characters looked like and the nature of the relationships. Edith commented "IT was like we had read completely different books". The act of reading a book engenders feelings inside the reader which they interpret as "bad" or "good"; the book itself is neutral.

Other aspects can influence the readers opinion. The print is too small to read easily, not enough pictures, too many pictures. It may be too large to hold or too small and fiddly to turn pages. The smell may be objectionable, it may have come from the home of a smoker, and smell appallingly of cigarette smoke to a non-smoker. Some people do not like handling a well used second hand book, because they think that it is dirty. A crisp new volume may smell and feel delightful. A book, after all is tactile and sensory experience and all humans differ in the sensory experiences that they like or dislike. In other words, for any book as an object, there will be people who describe it as good, or bad.

So, I have just had a thought, maybe the interview question should have been interpreted as my personal opinion of a bad book, and I should have listed the points that I do not like in a book. this would have given the interview panel an idea of my personality. However, I am a trained librarian, and teacher and a Doctor of Philosophy, therefore I know that my petty prejudices about a certain book or author does not give me the right to dictate those feelings to other people and censor their reading. It is for those others to decide for themselves. Whatever are the feelings, a book is merely a book and words are just words, quality and morality is supplied by readers.   

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