Sunday, 2 November 2014

Reading for pleasure

Recently, French culture minister Fleur Pellerin made the awkward admission that she couldn't name any books by Patrick Modiano, winner of this year's Nobel Prize in Literature. Despite the fact that a similar reaction to Modiano seemed to come from the international literary community, there has been a bit of a brouhaha directed towards Pellerin, who also admitted she hasn't read a book for pleasure in years. Calls for her to be removed from her post abounded alongside applause for her candour in a world otherwise governed by vote-grasping politicians for whom habitual lying is a part of the job. At first I baulked at her admission, but after giving it some thought I'm inclined to be more charitable. France may be a country which places enormous value in its literary tradition, yet despite - or because of? - this literary snobbery, and against my better judgement, I find myself instinctively siding with Pellerin. Her honesty is certainly nowhere near as galling as Ed Miliband's asinine, image-serving selections on Desert Island Discs. Robbie Williams' Angels and perennial favourite Jerusalem? Either he pandered to his spin doctors, or he's just really boring.

Admittedly, when I first Pellerin's comment I assumed she meant that most of what she reads she does so for work. I can empathise there. Having reached a point in my career where there's no longer any point in buying books because I'll just never get round to reading them (strangely enough, though, this doesn't seem to stop me), it's rare enough that I find the leisure time these days to read something that I don't need to report on or write about. I'm not complaining - I freaking love my job - but Pellerin's comment did make me realise that reading without my business hat on is something I haven't done for quite a while. My almost hour-long commute, previously an hour of escapism by fiction, has become an extension of my working day, and a stressful one at that (concentration is hard when you're stop-starting through clogged arterial bus routes surrounded by rowdy teenagers and toddlers). I do read at home too, but after a long day and a journey like that, who wouldn't prefer, sometimes, to slump in front of something pedestrian like Grantchester with a gratifying fish-finger and ketchup sandwich? And on the frequent occasions when the man in my life seizes control of the remote and switches from sleepy-village-whodunit-telly to high-speed-police-chase-telly, I find it just as hard to switch off as on the bus. Perhaps it's time to invest in a decent pair of headphones. Or blinkers.

I was taken aback, though, when I realised Pellerin meant that she doesn't actually read books at all. If reading has ceased to be a choice of leisure activity for me, then it's become way of life - both a reflexive action and a professional necessity. Before I dusted off my mental pitchfork to join the mob of Pellerin-chiders, however, I had to remind myself that culture encompasses a whole host of things - film, television, journalism, street art, music, performing art, spoken word poetry, theatre. Judge not, lest ye be judged, and all that: while I like to think I'm culturally aware, my knowledge of cultural forms other than the literary is patchy at best (I realised I was past it on the music front long ago when I stopped recognising the names of any of the Mercury Prize nominees and songs from my school days began to be played under 'oldies'). Even in terms of books, which is supposed to be my area of expertise, I'm a damn sight less well-read than lots of people I know, and this will only ever get worse. It's an awful truism that the more you read, the more you realise how much more there is to read. At least Pellerin is comfortable enough to admit her ignorance. After all, it's the first step towards wisdom… or so somebody once said.

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