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October 12, 2010

11

This book made me feel…?? 20 Questions to ask of Novels

by quaesitor

I was in Waterstones the other day – and I didn’t buy anything! A remarkable feat. But that’s not because there were no temptations. Whole shelves of lovely books to read one day…

One of the nice things Waterstones has done for years, even before it became seriously commercial and gigantic, is to give staff the chance to write little blurbs on their favourite books. I can’t recall if this is what the little cards have always said but I was stirred somewhat by these – under each recommendation, the card asks the plugger to explain what “this book made me feel…”

Hmmm.

I suppose it struck me because I was in the middle of a little project for an online media engagement project, run by the great Lars Dahle of Gimlekollen. He wanted me to write a list of questions to ask when reading any novel, with a view to engaging with it in an integrated and thoughtful way. I’m going to be doing one on how to listen to albums next.

Of course feelings are a key, if not fundamental, factor in why we read. And I concede that it is hard to come up with one, catch-all question to plug books – after all, there’s only a few centimetres that you can fit between shelves. But I really don’t think that this is the ideal approach. Something like ‘why should you read this book…?’ would be much better… The plugger can then reply with the book’s emotional effect if that’s the main thing that struck him or her. But there could be other, perfectly good reasons for reading it.

The question is quite a revealing one, though, and says a lot about our cultural climate. It seems to me that our whole approach to life, from primary school up, is based on emotional response. Probably because we’ve given up on the possibility of truth – not necessarily out of a partisan, ideological antagonism (although that’s true of some). More because of a despair at previous failed attempts.

As a result in western culture, we learn to feel, we don’t learn to think. And narratives are one of the means to engaging our emotions… and thus we get hooked. Why else do advertisers spend so much time on creating ‘product narratives’? More worryingly, why else do campaigners put so much effort in creating a ‘political narrative’ for their electioneering candidates?

Anyway, for what it’s worth, here is my list. I’m sure there are lots of other things one should ask and include – but this was a start…

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