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At Frankfurt Book Fair, Politics Loom Large

11 October 2017

From The New York Times:

“Books are the best weapons,” President Emmanuel Macron of France said at the opening of the Frankfurt Book Fair, addressing the unifying power of literature and language. “Without culture, there is no Europe.”

The French leader, who joined Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany at the opening ceremony of the world’s oldest book fair Tuesday night, spoke of culture’s crucial role in Europe, and of how it can be a unifying force at a time of rising nationalism. France is the guest of honor this year, and more than 7,000 exhibitors from over 100 countries are expected to attend.

“Identity of language lives through the confrontations with other languages,” Mr. Macron said.

. . . .

The European leaders’ speeches underpinned a political undercurrent at this year’s book fair, which opened to the public on Wednesday and runs through Sunday. Both have been forced to deal with challenges from the far-right in elections this year.

. . . .

“The presence of Chancellor Merkel and President Macron at the opening of the Frankfurter Buchmesse symbolizes the close relationship between Germany and France and their commitment to a strong, unified Europe,” Jürgen Boos, the fair’s director, said in a statement last week.

“In times when poisonous narratives have become popular and the spreading of fear and hatred have once again become socially acceptable, we liberal, democratically minded bibliophiles must respond with attractive counterarguments,” Mr. Boos said at a news conference at the fair’s opening.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

PG suggests that at least some readers may not be interested in having their books liberally seasoned with fashionable politics and are not inclined to purchase a new weapon for their bookshelves.

It struck PG that, for readers who seek to signal their virtue through books, it would be interesting to compare the books on their bookshelves with the less-visible books on their tablets, phones or ereaders.

He is reminded of a number of articles he has read about bestselling books that are started, but not finished by large numbers of readers. If you Google books started not finished, you’ll see a selection of such articles.

A few years ago, a mathematics professor used public data from Amazon to provide a list of bestselling books that were purchased and read together with books purchased but perhaps not read.

Here’s an excerpt from his article in the Wall Street Journal:

Amazon’s “Popular Highlights” feature provides one quick and dirty measure. Every book’s Kindle page lists the five passages most highlighted by readers. If every reader is getting to the end, those highlights could be scattered throughout the length of the book. If nobody has made it past the introduction, the popular highlights will be clustered at the beginning.

Thus, the Hawking Index (HI): Take the page numbers of a book’s five top highlights, average them, and divide by the number of pages in the whole book. The higher the number, the more of the book we’re guessing most people are likely to have read. (Disclaimer: This is not remotely scientific and is for entertainment purposes only!)

. . . .

“The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt : 98.5%
This seems like exactly the kind of long, impressive literary novel that people would carry around ostentatiously for a while and never finish. But it’s just the opposite. All five top highlights come from the final 20 pages, where the narrative falls away and Ms. Tartt spells out her themes in a cascade of ringing, straight-out assertions.

. . . .

“A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking: 6.6%
The original avatar backs up its reputation pretty well. But it’s outpaced by one more recent entrant—which brings us to our champion, the most unread book of this year (and perhaps any other). Ladies and gentlemen, I present:

“Capital in the Twenty-First Century” by Thomas Piketty : 2.4%
Yes, it came out just three months ago. But the contest isn’t even close. Mr. Piketty’s book is almost 700 pages long, and the last of the top five popular highlights appears on page 26. Stephen Hawking is off the hook; from now on, this measure should be known as the Piketty Index.

 

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11 Comments to “At Frankfurt Book Fair, Politics Loom Large”

  1. “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” by Thomas Piketty : 2.4%

    I don’t think I made it that far.

  2. “…at least some readers may not be interested in having their books liberally seasoned with fashionable politics…”

    I’d say MOST readers fall into this category.

  3. That “study” is beyond unscientific by a “researcher” who has no more data than that available from his kindle reader (popular highlights). If good number of people read to or skip to the end of a horribly long book, then the “study” assumes the book was read fully by the masses. His results fail the smell test. I will bet the study author any amount of money, and give him generous odds, that LESS THAN 98.5% of readers finished The Goldfinch. Oh, wait, Kobo has its own reader data and calculated that 44.4% of readers finished The Goldfinch. Hey, I win the bet!

    The WSJ used to be a great paper with great reporters and fact checkers. Yeah, I’m not paying to get past the WSJ paywall when the publish carp like that.

  4. I don’t think the issue here is so much that too many books are “liberally seasoned with fashionable politics” (can’t tell if you used the word “liberally” accidentally or not, LOL!) and that too many readers “seek to signal their virtue through books”, as that it’s almost impossible to write a wholly apolitical work of fiction.

    Our “politics”, at the bottom, refers to what each of us values, how we view the world, what we admire and what we despise, what we long for and what we fear, what we see as problems and what we see as the solutions.

    Merely showing certain kinds of people as existing, and being well-rounded, sympathetic characters (much less prominent or heroic ones), is to express a political opinion; presenting a world devoid of certain kinds of people, or wherein they are stereotypical and unsympathetic, is to express another.

    Writing what may seem to be a straightforward, fast-paced, purely entertaining thriller about Threat A from one source, rather than Threat B from another, reveals something of the author’s politics; so do the methods by which various characters propose to deal with that threat, whether those methods succeed or fail, what must be sacrificed along the way, and whether that sacrifice is shown to be justified.

    While there is unquestionably such a thing as an overly heavy-handed political message…one that comes across as clunky and unsubtle, and takes the reader out of the fictional world…it seems to me that no matter how subtly and skillfully (or unsubtly and unskillfully) the author works their message in, whether or not the reader will find the book “too political!” depends largely upon how closely the author’s politics align with their own.

    • We can employ eisegesis in reading anything, but that tells us about the reader, not the author.

    • How do I like a comment here.

    • I don’t agree. I think there are plenty of stories out there that aren’t political at all, and reading them as such, as Terrence says, says more about the reader than the author. People will read all sorts of things into stories that were never intended by their author.

      I don’t agree that portraying a certain type of character in a sympathetic or three dimensional way is a political statement. That’s just good writing. Portraying such a character as a one dimensional stereotype is bad writing. That’s all.

      • Agreed. Case in point, the Gul Dukat character in Star Trek: DS9. He’s a Cardassian who was high up in the occupation regime of the planet Bajor. The writers intended for the Cardassians to be a stand-in for Nazis, and the Bajoran occupation as a stand-in for the Holocaust. The writers didn’t make Dukat a mustache twirler; at one point he’s revealed to be a loving father. They still had another Cardassian (Garak, the tailor/spy) who sided with the good guys.

        The writers were not intending to imply that Nazis were good by writing these characters. Interviews with them indicate exactly the opposite. They just wanted more rounded characters and complex plots, which is hard to get if you make characters cartoonish. In fact, they reveled in being able to have more three-dimensional characters and plots on DS9 than Roddenberry had allowed in the other Star Trek shows.

        And, one of the writers said that when some viewers began to think Dukat might be a nice guy, the show made a point of reminding them (via plot) that he’s actually evil. Affable, but evil.

        • Heh. That’s probably why the Cardassians are my favorite Star Trek aliens. I have both a Garak and a Dukat phone case. Garak is my favorite secondary Star Trek character, and Dukat, as I recently realized, is one of the very, very few examples of a villain that make me understand the phrase “love to hate”.

          Dang, I need to rewatch that show. It really was very good.

  5. I have a habit of reading the end of any book that I don’t finish – just to see if I made the right decision to stop reading.

    Maybe those who highlighted things at the end of such novels as The Goldfinch did the same – got to the end by skipping a lot, and highlighted something there because it caught their eye.

    Doesn’t mean they read the whole thing.

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