Leaving the Bestsellers to Dolts? Beware! You Could Be A Book Snob.

Reading Woman with Parasol  - Henri Matisse“Which books were you most inspired by?”

“Hardy Boys”.

When you hear a grown man tell a crowded auditorium that his inspiration to become a writer came from a children’s mystery book series, you can be forgiven for staring with your mouth agape. And when that man is a bestselling author you have decided to stay away from, there’s enough to pat your back.

Delivering the Penguin Annual Lecture at the Siri Fort Auditorium in Delhi yesterday, Dan Brown convinced me (and perhaps many others in the audience) that he is the lucky recipient of absolutely undeserved attention.

Accompanying a writer friend who had to cover the event, I had been drawn to the lecture by hoping to uncover the biggest mystery surrounding bestselling authors: How does such trash give scores of people giddy knees. Last evening was not going to answer that question in totality, even after marvelous words of wisdom from Mr. Brown: At being asked whether writers were soft targets on controversial issues and what responsibilities they had, he explained, “They say the pen is mightier than the sword. The thing about the pen is, it can reach a million people. A sword, well…”

It was an entertaining evening though, mostly because of the audience, like the chump who stood up to proudly state “Sir, I’ve just finished reading The Da Vinci Code, it is the first book I have EVER read” or when Brown looked particularly nervous and fidgety at being asked how he researched for his books or decided what to include or keep out. He finally answered, “I spent one year researching for my books.” Imagine, a whole year of research on books that proclaim to lay bare buried secrets of one of the most prominent religions of the world. Reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time could take longer.

While I’m still questioning the worth of this “gleefully erudite” novel and its writer, it has pushed me to ponder over another matter: Could I possibly be a book snob?

Here’s the dilemma. Just because Wodehouse makes me chuckle and Proust makes my heart sing, should I necessarily roll my eyes at readers engrossed in Dan Brown or even the likes of Chetan Bhagat, Amish Tripathi?

Or, as a bibliophile, should I simply rejoice at them having found books, utter drivel as they may be?

Many who argue for the latter state that these writers have brought non-readers to the written word, even considering them instrumental in keeping publishers afloat. The argument runs that Shakespeare also played to the gallery in his time. Who knows how these men will come to be revered in future they say. ‘All fiction is entertainment after all. These men have caught the pulse of the multitude, give them that at least.’

A young girl in the audience at last evening’s lecture asked Dan Brown why each of his books has a murder in the first few pages.

“I want my books to be fun. I want people to regret putting them down to complete their daily chores.”

What really is better or right or worth a celebration then? Should we leave it at letting people discover what they might in words, with whomsoever they choose for company?

In 2005, Salman Rushdie called The Da Vinci Code, “a novel so bad that it gives bad novels a bad name”. And yet sometimes the same person may discover and enjoy both him and Brown at different times.

The answer I believe rests in timelessness. For true art may lack universal appeal but it can hardly enjoy only fleeting attention.

Given the lifetime worth of wonders to devour, the choice may not really be between murder in five pages or description of insomnia over fifty. It is about realizing that life is too short to read Dan Brown.

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7 thoughts on “Leaving the Bestsellers to Dolts? Beware! You Could Be A Book Snob.

    • But perhaps only because Proust was still waiting to enter your life. Because once he does, there can hardly be any afternoons without him, and certainly none in favor of racy upstarts.

  1. I firmly believe in Market Correction. So even though not all best-sellers are worth reading, they are worth something nevertheless. So, if I don’t like a book, I know its not meant for me. As in I am not in the target segment. After all the onus is on me to pick a book that I ‘feel’ I like. This is what makes the likes of Chetan Bhagat relevant and exactly what dignifies what they do. No matter how bad they are.

    Jonathan Saffran Foer was praised for Everything Is Illuminated. When his second novel came out the critics panned it, and then took it a step further and literally went retro on him and panned his first book as well.. true story…

  2. I found The Da Vinci Code quite exciting when I first read it. Upon revisiting the book a couple of years later, I was rather appalled at its quality. It is all about the degree to which one has been exposed to literature. I believe we must make good literature more accessible and ‘reader-friendly’. On the other hand, if you don’t like Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, you probably shouldn’t force yourself to read their works. This is what Bertrand Russell had to say about this :

    ” Children are made to learn bits of Shakespeare by heart, with the result that ever after they associate him with pedantic boredom. If they could meet him in the flesh, full of jollity and ale, they would be astonished…but if at school they had been inoculated against him, they will never be able to enjoy him…Shakespeare did not write with a view to boring school-children; he wrote with a view to delighting his audiences. If he does not give you delight, you had better ignore him.”

    I have observed how most people my age ( 18-30, generally speaking) were scarred as kids/young adults by doorstops that passed for textbooks and a cold, clinical system of education that preferred ‘order’ and discipline to spontaneity and creativity.Most of my friends from college have developed a deeply-entrenched aversion to anything that may be perceived as a ‘big book’. Such books are very hard to read, they say, and not worth the effort after a day spent slaving at an IT/bank job. A friend confessed that she prefers easily digestible, ‘pre-masticated pap’ that
    1. is cheaply available at the neighborhood bookstore
    2. contains no references to obscure literary figures, cultural practices and historical stuff
    3. is expressed in a language that she can understand ( a no-frills approach), and
    4. has clearly defined plots and narrative that are relevant in some way

    Yes, as a bibliophile, one should simply rejoice at their having found books.

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