This week Guardian Online offered, as customary, several bite-size features to distract readers from the tedium of their daily work. They were reasonably well-written and informative; there were pictures and hyperlinks, and critical opinion of course. A picture of the novelist Jeannette Winterson took me to the Top Ten feminist books ; art critic Jonathan Jones's blog showcased the Top Ten beaches in Art (really); you can catch up with William Atkins's Top Ten books about moors , a celebratory promotion of his latest title; and the Weekend feature on authors' choices for GCSE set texts appeared online to continue the previous week's arguments about Michael Gove banishing American texts from the syllabus.
All except the last were blog posts, and we must recognise the essential light-heartedness and transitory qualities of this online medium. Entertainment's the purpose. There is no reason why recreational reading can't be accurate and informative. The posts reach a large audience of readers, new and old, and help to spread cultural awareness. What could be wrong with that?
We can object on the grounds of format and content. As fascinating as the material may be, top ten lists in online newspapers serve one chief purpose: to be reproduced in social media platforms. Friends Tweet their friends, the friends reTweet, and the numbers of hits rises gratifyingly; newspapers find a way to attract readers in the post-print age. Busy lecturers, teachers and educators use them as a resource to create interest and to engage people beyond the classroom. Some use them for blog posts, as I do here. This is all fine as long as we recognise that information disseminated through social media requires skills quite different from reading a book or following a complex argument or narrative.
Content needs to be highly condensed, with instant appeal. The criteria for a 'top ten' list of great books are unexplained and subjective, though the best ones are spiced with just enough of the unexpected to make the article stand out (see the Top Ten feminist book list above, for instance). Again, we can make up our own minds about quality. However, we should remember that the conditions of production create readerships and the work's interpretive grounds. Jerome J. McGann reminds us that 'the method of printing or publishing a literary work carries with it enormous cultural and aesthetic significance for the work itself.'* In other words, culture produces (a) 'the work itself' and (b) the reader.
Thinking in terms of 'top ten' lists diminishes art and impoverishes our experience. Social media have already changed the way we look at the world. Our collective attention span has shrunk. Many of us now struggle to read a twenty-page scholarly essay without our minds wandering. We are not less intelligent but we are simply not used to giving our undivided attention to a long task. Besides, there's no time. We've got to check emails. And it's easier to read a critic's two-line assessment of a novel than to read the book and decide for ourselves. We can always read books when we retire.
We ought to be able to harness social media's tremendous power to communicate and connect, to increase education, knowledge and awareness. But let us acknowledge that like all media, it produces its own conditions of consumption. We don't have to think in lists. Hilary Mantel declined to give a list of texts she would like to see on the A level syllabus and instead commented on how our school system quantifies and institutionalises reading:
Should we play the Gove game, by setting up opposing lists? Or should we ask, which Gradgrind thought up the idea of set texts in the first place? Why should students be condemned to thrash to death a novel or a corpus of poetry, week after week, month after month? No novel was ever penned to puzzle and punish the young. Plays are meant to be played at. Poetry is not written for Paxmanites. Literature is a creative discipline, not just for writer but for reader. Is the exam hall its correct context? We educate our children not as if we love them but as if we need to control and coerce them, bullying them over obstacles and drilling them like squaddies; and even the most inspired and loving teachers have to serve the system. We have laws against physical abuse. We can try to legislate against emotional abuse. So why do we think it's fine to abuse the imagination, and on an industrial scale? What would serve children is a love of reading, and the habit of it. I wonder if the present system creates either.*
The Guardian got its revenge by publishing Mantel's remarks only in the paper's online edition.
*References: Jerome J. McGann, The Beauty of Inflections: Literary Investigations in Historical Methods and Theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), p. 117. Guardian Online Friday 6 June 2014 (as hyperlink); print edition, Review, Saturday 7 June 2014, pp. 2-4.
Photo: Annie Nightingale, the BBC's first woman DJ, 1970. Annie is still broadcasting and she doesn't do Top Ten lists. Image: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio1/established1967/galleries/2432/3/ [accessed 14 June 2014]