Monday, March 31, 2008

So I guess maybe today I'll write about reputations.

How important is a book's reputation? Let's have a couple of telling anecdotes and see what conclusions we can draw, eh?

So, once upon a time about ten or so years ago Yours Truly went to the local library. Back in the days when she was pretty unsure about what she wanted to read because there are so few decent kids' books out there, and tended to borrow pretty much at random, unless there was a Cassie at the Ballet School book hanging around, or alternatively Put a Sock in it, Percy! that she could read for the umpteenth time.

And this fine day, she borrowed a book with a red cover and a picture of a bemused-looking boy with what was supposed to be tousled black hair, glasses and a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead, standing in front of a red steam engine (keep in mind that editions from different countries have different covers). Have you guessed which book it was yet? Let me assure you that I had no idea at the time what a phenomenon Harry Potter was going to become. I had never heard of J. K. Rowling, Albus Dumbledore, or indeed Marie Curie. I borrowed the book totally at random (I don't even remember reading the blurb) and returned it a couple of weeks later without having opened it. I used to do that a lot - just not be bothered reading books I borrowed because of laziness or they looked too stupid or just for no particular reason at all. How much times have changed!

For some reason, this book that I didn't even read stuck in my head somehow and when I was about eleven or something I walked into my school library and pulled HP3 off the rack, thinking vaguely to myself 'This book's supposed to be good'. This was not long before the Harry Potter thing really took off, so I suppose it's not surprising that I recognised it. This time I actually started reading it, and continued reading it all the way through my ballet show, instead of playing cards and dancing and eating junk food like I usually did. It was very gripping, and not knowing who Neville Longbottom was really didn't matter for very long.

So I suppose this means I can claim to be one of the 'original', non-bandwagon jumping onto HP fans, even if my instinct for a good book failed me on the first occasion I came across it. But look what reputation does! Reputation turned Harry Potter from just another drop in the ocean to something that was practically an ocean itself. Reputation turned what was (for the first three books) a nice, decently characterised and written children's series into a behemoth of gargantuan lack of literary merit and an entire industry's worth of merchandise and spinoffs. It also enticed people, children and adults alike, who hadn't picked up a book in years to start reading. And maybe some of them continued. I don't really know, I never had that problem. But maybe for some J. K. Rowling is my Yves Klein. I certainly hope so.

There's no doubt that reputation is a pretty powerful thing. It can both make and break a concept, simultaneously in HP's case.

A caveat: I'm talking about reputation as a vague, nebulous thing that sort of hangs in the air and permeates peoples' brains without them even realising (as HP did to me).

Going again by this amorphous thing loosely termed 'reputation', I'm currently reading Neil Gaiman's American Gods. I just kept hearing his name everywhere, including from sources I deemed vaguely respectable, and I thought I should see what all the fuss is about (incidentally, read it here for free!). So far I'm disappointed. Page 70 and it has shown no signs of being anything other than a common or garden thriller. And I dislike thrillers at the best of times.

I suppose what I might be trying to say is that I don't have a huge amount of confidence in reputation's taste. In almost every case, reputation's choices disappoint me. I think this is generally because reputation likes thrillers much more than I do; but that's a topic for another post. Refusing to read books with reputation (or roundly condemning them before even having read them) is just as bad as only reading or making opinions from reputation. In the end, anything that gets people reading is a good thing in my book (haha hilarious pun). As I've said before, extremes are bad.

I read by reputation partly from curiosity and partly from a sense of social enquiry. It's fascinating to wonder why reputation amasses around some things with such a hugeness of volume (such as Harry Potter) but virtually ignores other things that on first glance seem to have the same potential. I don't understand why just yet, but rest assured that I'll let you know as soon as I work it out.

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