Look Through

Original source material

Bookshelves as Windows

In ‘Annie Hall’ there is a scene where Alvy Singer meets his first wife to be Alison. After asking her a little about herself, he launches into a nerves-driven verbal portrait of how he perceives her background.  Her beautifully languid response is ‘I love being reduced to a cultural stereotype.’  Alvy then concedes he’s ‘A bigot but for the left.’  This is something I feel is true about myself, I have my prejudices but I feel they are justified because they come from rampant liberalism.

Which leads me to one of my most favourite ways to judge complete strangers – their bookshelves. It’s a kind of acceptable voyeurism, for there is still an intimacy in looking at what a person chooses to read but like photographs on display, it is an acceptable kind of intrusion.

At the weekend we visited a friend who is house sitting for a couple who  live in the kind of  typically lavish house one has come to expect from development work here in Zambia.  Pool? Check.  Huge lawn? Check.  2 massive living rooms with expensive bespoke furniture? Check and check.  To try and get a sense of who this people are I did what I always do which is look at their bookshelf, worrying that there was only one and that wasn’t even full.  I was unsurprised by the selection – the usual obligatory tomes you find in Zambia from ex-pats features large – ‘King Leopold’s Ghost’ and ‘Scramble for Africa’ for example, as well as biographies or left-wing politicians such as Hilary Clinton.  Very few novels.

This is a trend in this part of the world I find, a lack of interest in fiction or interest in pulp or pretty lame fiction.  Some years back a fellow who worked for Peace Corps proudly proclaimed that he never read fiction, as if to do so was some kind of frivolous undertaking.  Of course non-fiction is broad and rich and full of insight and info and blah, blah, blah.  But fiction, fiction takes you someplace else.  It can do what non-fiction does and can also go further, asking  uncomfortable questions, demonstrating new perspectives and exploring the human condition with far more subtlety than a great deal of non-fiction or journalism.

I think an issue with how fiction is regarded by many is that it is seen as a recreational activity, or people read such dross that they fail to see the value.  For the love of God, if you’re 35 and still reading Harry Potter, no wonder you look down on fiction.  Next time you reach for a novel, my suggestion is to stay away from the Anita Shreves and the Dan Pattersons, the literary equivalents of a big mac and fries and go for something with more nutrition: Haruki Murakami, say, or Don DeLillo.  And don’t get all puffed up just because you read ‘The God of Small Things’ – all travelers have – big whoop.


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This entry was posted on October 26, 2010 by in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , .


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Copyright: Elizabeth Watkin

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