Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Proposing a Motion in the Chester Debating Society

Tonight I proposed the following motion in the Chester Debating Society (founded 1902):

'The book is mightier than the film, the play or the website.'

'I wish to propose the motion the book is mightier than the film, the play or the website.

The last time we went to see a play my husband sat next to a blind man who, as soon the lights dropped, slouched against my husband's shoulder. A few seconds later he was fast asleep. While my husband was concentrating on his accidental supporting role, I was trying my best not to accost the man sitting to my left. He had clearly come to the theatre simply in order to eat. As soon as he sat down he brought out a big plastic bag full of sweets and crisps, each one apparently wrapped in the most brittle cellophane available. Even before the curtains rose he'd started: clearly these sweets were difficult to access. A long period of unwrapping was followed by noisy mastication, accompanied by the aroma of caramel, mint, chocolate, and once, banana. I wanted him to stop. But I am British, so I didn't say anything. Instead I gave him pained looks to indicate my irritation, but he was enjoying himself too much to take any notice. I began fantasising about his coming across a particularly sticky piece of toffee that would clamp his teeth firmly together until the end. While I squirmed in my seat so my husband sat, no more relaxed, in his: the blind man was now snoring, and dribbling onto my husband's shoulder. By the time the interval came we decided we'd had enough and left.

You could say we were not engaged. Although this is an extreme example it illustrates why live performances like these are inferior to the experience of reading a book. You are forced to sit next to irritating strangers. But this is not the whole problem. The medium of the stage and the film cannot convince like a book. It has to tell too much. It has scenery, props, a set. A film tries to be as realistic as possible. It depicts rather than evokes, and can leave little to the imagination.

Reading, in contrast, requires effort, and this is the reason that reading is thought to stave off dementia. The brain is kept lithe through exercise; a diet of film-watching, in contrast, cause brain-flabbiness. By the time I am through a few pages of a book I have invested so much effort that I now have a vested interest in making the rest of the book work. I have suspended disbelief and been drawn in, as the saying goes. I have entered a private world and I feel privileged. Later, when I have finished, I can compare the experience to others that have read it and feel part of a club. So when I read I am not troubled by distractions. I can sit in the nosiest carriage of a train and still be engrossed. I can be taken to other planets, other times, other dimensions. I can enter the main character's head in a way I cannot in a film or the theatre. Because I am so involved I am happy to be fed information and learn a lot about other countries, other ideas and other lifestyles. A book can be just as much a window to another real world as it is to a fantastic one.

A film or play has to tell its story more quickly. An audiobook lasts around fifteen hours at least; a film or play just three. There is more opportunity for detail, explanation and expansion in a book, which is impossible in film or in a play. A play or film has to be faster paced than a novel, but a novel can be more leisured; it can afford to take its time and play around with ideas, language and character, voice, metaphor and simile - all of which increase the depth of the experience. For all these reasons people are often disappointed with the film of the book; they have developed their own response to the characters. It is a unique thing - different in each reader.

Last week I was on a train reading a book. I was, of course, not disturbing anyone. However, I soon became aware of an irritating tinny sound of canned laughter and discovered the person next to me was watching a film on a small piece of plastic. She had not bothered with earphones since that would no doubt detract from her experience, and interfere with inalienable right to be entertained exactly as she wished. The rest of us would just have to put up with it or complain. As we were all British we of course contented ourselves with contemptuous looks and tutting, and waited for the guard to say something, but he disappointed us all and didn't. Disconsolately I turned back to my book and cheered myself with thoughts about its superiority. Maybe soon her battery would give out; but my book would still be going strong. That is another benefit of a book: unlike a website or a film it requires no power or special equipment or anything else. With brail it can have universal appeal. It is self-contained and easily stored. It can be read in private, even in secret, and is small enough, quite often to be secreted anywhere. Unlike watching a play or a film, even with earphones, it disturbs no one.

A book is also flexible. When I put it aside on the train for a cup of coffee it was easy to pick up again and follow the thread. This can be repeated as often as the reader desires. I have found that I can put a book away for quite a few days or months and still pick up the thread by flicking through a few pages that I've read to remind myself of the gist. This is more difficult with the website and the film - and impossible for a play. Furthermore I have discovered that even when I put a book aside it can keep living with me. I find myself thinking about the characters and the setting and wondering what will happen next. By reading slowly and pausing frequently to put the book aside, I can make this pleasure last for days. I can also expand this process by looking things up and seeking further explanation. A hyperlink serves the same purpose of course but this can interrupt the flow and is in any case imposed. There are other things I can do too, which cannot so easily done with a film or a play. I can appreciate the language by reading and rereading. I can commit it to memory. I can refer to it later and tell others. I can underline for them to see exactly what I mean. I can even give them the book to keep as a gift. With a film or a play this is more difficult.

Furthermore a book is cheap, but can easily be made more valuable and exclusive. A second-hand book can range from something disposable to be read once and given away, to a collector's item. In either case it has value. Films, plays and websites are more expensive - and, generally, less sought-after and desirable. Some of my books are my most treasured items. At least a couple are heirlooms, passed through at least five generations with the names inscribed on the flyleaf. A book is a physical thing that can be shared at leisure. A name plate can be added and it can make an attractive and traditional gift. It has many forms : hardback, paperback, ribboned, end pages decorated, ends of the book marbled, leather bound, limited edition, acid-free paper, a rare and sought after cover - the possibilities are numerous. Not so the play or film. A novelty book, like a pop-up book, can be one of the most cherished items of childhood, the infant's dentition preserved in the cover. It can be put on display in a way that a play or a film cannot. This brings me to another point. Books can tell the world a little about you, an aspect of your personality, just as much as your choice of clothing, and in a much more finely-tuned way than a film or a play. Maybe you like romance, but not Mills and Boon romances, but sweeping epics; or maybe you like adventure books set in the Arctic and in the nineteenth century, written by Americans. Your book becomes like a badge of a very select sect. And once you have established your taste you can join others who have a similar taste and compare recommendations. You can find yourself part of a world-wide group of science-fiction lovers, and from that find companionship and conversation. There is conversation to be gleaned from watching films and plays too - but it is not as wide-ranging or intense. It also has less scope.

So a book can be a badge, an heirloom, a gift, and a way of passing the time; but most of all, for me, it is a way of entering another world: a world of greater depth and scope than any offered on the stage or film. It is complete immersion, and one from which even the nosiest sweet-wrapper cannot disturb me.'

I'd never done this sort of thing before, or even been to a debate, and although I won, Diana Morgan, who was opposing me, was so convincing and passionate that if I had been able to vote I think I would have voted for her. The people on the floor made some excellent points too.


Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I see where you’re coming from and I’ve also had unpleasant experiences in group settings like that, the worst being the one and only rock concert I’ve ever been to where a guy my age at the time (mid-forties) insisted on jumping up and down like a fourteen-year-old in front of me. We also left mid-set.

I find reading hard. I get distracted very easily. I rarely read for more than an hour at a time. I think part of the problem is I want to rewrite everything I read. I’m not a filmmaker and so don’t usually have many suggestions as to how the thing could have been put together better. As regards experiences go what can I say? They’re different. One of my all time favourite books is Billy Liar. I’ve only read it twice though. I’ve seen the film three or four times most recently this week when I was reminded by my wife that she’d never seen it. So we sat down the next night and watched it. At the end I actually had a wee cry, I related so strongly to the end of the film. I know some people cry when reading books – I know one woman who cried reading my first novel both times she read it – but I never have. There are several films though that have reduced me to tears.

The most I’ve read any book is four times (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich) – I’ve also seen the film, coincidentally also starring Tom Courtney, and thought it was a wonderful adaptation – yet there are films I’ve seen six or more times: Blade Runner is probably top of the list (I would guess maybe eight times) but I’ve seen most of Woody Allen’s films at least three times. I never tire of them.

I bothers me that I’m not a voracious reader but more these days because at my age other people expect me to have read more than I have. One of the reasons I started doing book reviews was to make myself read a book a week. I’m big on duty. People have got used to me posting a review and week and so that commitment keeps me going. And then, every now and then but not nearly as often as I’d like, I make contact with a book that was really worth reading.

Wed Oct 27, 11:58:00 am  
Blogger Jan said...

Bearing in mind very bright personages mentioned recently...you have added yet another fabulous string to your already-groaning( not right word!) bow.. You clearly made a hit in a long established Cestrian society... and have you read Die Booth's fabulous piece re your talk this week..!
Im so sorry I couldnt make it .

Wed Oct 27, 04:05:00 pm  
Blogger Paul said...

Brilliant piece! I really enjoyed the points you made. Your theatre experience reminds me of a concert we went to last summer in which I made the mistake of buying "cheap seats." The spaces in front of the seats were so narrow we literally couldn't fit our knees into the available room. Then there was an intoxicated person in front of us who kept turning around and making comments. But at least nobody was unwrapping sweets or leaning on us.

Wed Oct 27, 08:11:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Thanks Jim, I think making a commitment to read a book a week is very impressive. Some books takes me far longer than that, so I think you're doing extremely well (in anyone's book(heh)). Yes, I agree films can be equally moving...and as for plays...well, just one word... Shakespeare. So yes, good points either way.

Thanks Jan, and thanks for letting me know about Die's piece - and don't worry about not making it! You've been doing an awful lot recently, you can't do everything.

Thanks Paul, that concert sounds dreadful too - maybe we need to experience some of these irritating events to fully appreciate the rest. I find this hard to bear in mind at the time, though.

Thu Oct 28, 07:59:00 am  

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