Monday, June 18, 2018

Bilbliophilic elitism

You know, the worst of claiming to be a reader is that people assume you are well-read. The problem is the books that they expect you to have read. Murakami makes me yawn, Arundhati Roy puts me to sleep and Salman Rushdie stresses me out more than my job ever did. Things have come to such a pass that, whenever a book is said to feature in the long list for the Booker prize, I rush to strike it off my TBR (the 'To Be Read' list which book lovers compile, much like the to-do lists that you make and then forget totally about.) Elitist I mostly certainly am not, duly certified by the incredulous laughter of anyone who ever heard my name and 'reading elitism' in the same sentence.

When I do read any book which has words, metaphors or writing that I cannot grasp, I do not chuck it into the garbage bin and run around telling the world that the book is trash. That sort of reverse snobbery - of expecting to be praised for NOT reading Rushdie, Roy et al and looking down on the authors for being too stupid to write what I can readily understand - seems to have skipped me as well. (Am I ashamed of not reading them? I know this is the digital generation and all that, where every issue has to be a zero or one, but is it so impossible to conceive that I can be neither proud nor ashamed? I mean, I do eat every day and I do not see it as either a matter of pride or shame, so can you kindly make the effort to think that this, too, could be one such thing?)

What beats me, though, is this idea that all books are created equal and it is only individual opinions that classify them differently. I mean, come on, does this mean that no fiction can be bad fiction and none great? That's like saying a masala dosa is a masala dosa, so why bother going to MTR for one (Just to clarify, the MTR restaurant, near Lal Bagh in Bangalore, is (was?) famed for its masala dosa.) It could well be one person's opinion that it is no better than any other, but quality in matters of taste is more about consensus. To say that you did not find any difference may be considered a legitimate opinion but, if you choose to say, "There IS no difference", then you should not be too surprised if people laugh at you, bad manners though it may be.

Food does that to me - makes me digress...and drool. To return to book-lovers, it is fine (and right) for a book-lover not to be judged for the genres he chooses to read. (Like, I'd consider it reprehensible to laugh at someone for preferring paranthas to masala dosas...Ugh! there I go again.) To judge a person based on his genre preferences could well be termed elitism (AND, no, Classics is NOT a genre. Those are books of various genres which have retained their charms well after the time they were written). But, within the genre, there are books and there are books. There are books that you want to chuck away at the first page; there are books that you plow through hoping that the author will redeem himself sooner or later; there are books that you find OK to read but will not regret losing your copy even midway through the read; there are books that you will want to read through non-stop but will not want to revisit; there are books where you come out with some of your own attitudes, morals and view of the world changed to a lesser or greater extent...

So, YES, there is such a thing as quality in the writing and it is NOT all a matter of opinion. OR popularity. Almost everyone of us reads for comfort at times, and most may well read ONLY for comfort. Books that provide you a comfort read are the ones which vibe the best with your own attitudes and morality, your own biases and prejudices, where you can switch your brain off and just coast. Since almost everyone reads for comfort at times, these are the ones that will be the most popular. When attitudes change or when people with a different cultural attitude read, these books fail to appeal, for THEN they will not suit their readers (unless they are so well written that the reader forgets the lack of topicality, in which case they are not merely pop fiction). Which is why most popular fiction has always to be new and topical. Even in such a thing as a thriller, the pop fiction reader will not vibe with a story that is set in a society without, say, smartphones. (Oh! The tragedies of the past because someone in city X could not communicate with someone in city Y except via telegrams!) THAT is why it is said that great fiction has to stand the test of time and transcend be read and relished years after the author is dead or by people with different cultural mores or both.

Opinions about how a book measures up on the yardsticks for great fiction can differ. But to junk all the yardsticks and claim that it is all a matter of opinion...

Just because all recipes say 'salt to taste' does not mean that you can dump a kilogram of salt into a kilogram of dosa batter and claim that it has been cooked well! YOU may like it but just try feeding it to others. THEN you will know that quality is not merely a matter of your opinion!

And, no, I do not think it is elitism to say so.


  1. But you ARE better read than most around you...that’s the sad truth you will have to make your peace with! 😛
    Ok, the thriller I wrote (there is even a mention of smartphones in it!) is never going to make any long (let alone) short list, so I feel you can safely read it! Let me know where to send you a signed copy - and by signed, I mean signed apology!

    1. Apology? Anyway, should I not make you wait at least as long as you made me wait for my book? 😋

    2. Is there a third one that I am not aware of?? 😮
      I’ve had your first two on my Kindle for ages now! Though I must admit, I was unable to finish the second book because there weren’t any sly characters killing other sly characters in that one!

    3. No there is no third. But how am I to know what is on your Kindle 😀 If I remember right, you did not much take to my first one either. 😀

    4. Nahiiiin!!! I am pretty sure I had liked all the 3 stories when I had read them! It has been ages now.
      And I’m sure I would have liked DEDF as well...but somehow my brain stops working whenever I read non fiction books.

    5. Your review on Amazon fooled me, then 😀 And I sort of assumed that humor would keep your brain going...or, perhaps, I delude myself in thinking ADEDFW was a light satire 😀

  2. Lovely post Suresh. I'm glad someone as well read as you said this. The elitism and importance people assign to being a bookworm is sometimes so funny. A couple of people take pride in being a bookworm like someone who has finished their Phd.

    So, YES, there is such a thing as quality in the writing and it is NOT all a matter of opinion. OR popularity//Best words in the post.

    Keep writing such lovely posts

  3. Delightful (or should I say tasteful?) comparisons you make with food! This 'salt to taste' thing is truly a means to confuse people who need recipe to even make an omelette in kitchen! Imagine a two-egg omelette with 1 kg of salt!! It is like a book in the Spiritual Philosophy genre with Devdutt Patnaik level of intelligence!! So yes, quality of writing matter, and so does the level of knowledge, research, right understanding, right expression, etc. I agree with you completely, it is not at all elitist of me to say that I am very, very selective in what I read. Someday I will donate or give away all the books from my home which are half-read, quarter-read, 1/10th read, and of course the ones who still remain packed in their plastic covers! That should clear up half my bookshelves. By the way, talking of books not fully read, I must be honest in sharing this here that I didn't finish your book. It was not the style that is responsible for my not finishing, I enjoy your style of humour, it had more to do with my schedule at the time...I was traveling and never got a chance to finish the book. It remains about half-read on my kindle. Maybe someday....

  4. Bibliophilic Elitism, that is a nice term to coin. I might be using it more often now. Do you go through your Instagram often? There is where real Bibliophilic Elitism exists. Your post made me think of what happens in social media and how people it is such a rage now that it sometimes gets difficult to separate the genuine from the fake.

    Anyway, I loved reading the post. And it helped me cool my head off for the exams.

    1. I never really use Instagram and, with this info in hand, I certainly won't going forth either. 😀

      Glad to be of help...with exams 😀