A Matsuri for books

01.07.06 Publication:

In recent years, especially in Europe and America there has been a common lament, at least among the older and literate sort of people. It is that modern life is no longer cultured, that standards of thinking and writing among the young have fallen, and that the combined technological forces of television and the internet are turning people into passive consumers of simple entertainment rather than informed and educated citizens. The English term for this that has become widely used is “dumbing down”: in other words, the idea that the media, and information in general, is getting steadily more dumb, or stupid.

But is this true? For an antidote, I went to the border area between England and Wales, on a beautifully sunny weekend at the beginning of June. In that area there is a small town called Hay-on-Wye, the Wye being a lovely river that runs through the town. In that town 34 years ago a passionate man called Richard Booth opened a second-hand bookshop in a partly-ruined castle, which he then promoted and expanded to much larger premises. Through his energies, Hay became famous as a centre for second-hand books of all kinds, and many other dealers opened stores there. And from that fame as “the town of books” came another idea: that of holding an annual festival of books. It is now known as the Hay Festival, and it takes place over two weeks in late May and early June every year.

A book festival does not sound like much fun: unlike a normal Matsuri it does not sound as if it would involve enjoyable things like music, dancing, colourful costumes or alcohol. It would just be people sitting around talking about books. So surely few people would attend such a thing, in today´s world of “dumbing down”. Yet that is wrong. More than 80,000 people attended this year´s festival.

In fact, those 80,000 people do get some music, dancing and alcohol: alongside the book festival there are concerts, a circus and of course countless English and Welsh pubs. The Hay festival is as much a social event as an intellectual one. Nevertheless, the core attraction is books, or rather their authors. What the attendees get is the chance to hear talks or discussions by and involving authors of the whole range of types of books, from philosophy to gardening, from foreign affairs to crime thrillers, from history to science fiction.

       Nor, in Britain at least, is the Hay festival unique. Since it became successful during the past decade or so, dozens of other literary festivals have been launched, in other towns and cities all over the country: other examples include Bath, Oxford, Cheltenham, Aldeburgh (a village on England´s eastern coast which also has a big annual classical music festival) and Edinburgh (Scotland´s capital, which also has a theatrical festival). Other countries have such festivals too, but not in such large quantity.

       So why do so many Britons and visiting tourists go to these events, in this era of “dumbing down”, or TV game shows, video games and internet chat rooms? Part of the answer, I think, is precisely a reaction to that era: mass communication is no longer satisfying enough, so people interested in ideas and books search for some other way to learn more about them. Another part of the answer is that, despite “dumbing down”, television has also made many authors into celebrities. Historians, gardening experts, cooks and even philosophers now have the chance to be more famous than they would have been in the past, so people become interested in seeing them in the flesh, in hearing their words directly. For a certain type of person, it is the same emotion as that felt by a movie-goer when they see their favourite movie star walking down the street. They have the chance to see them on the screen all the time, but seeing them in the flesh is something extra, something special.

       Something special: that, in essence, is what the festival-attendees were seeking. In an era of mass communication, people want something extra, something beyond the common experience. Everyone likes to feel they can, in some way or other, reach beyond the mass experience and have something special of their own. All their friends have seen the TV cookery programme or history documentary: only they have actually seen the author and perhaps even asked him or her a question.

       That, I think, is the main explanation. Towns and cities have realised, also, that by establishing literary festivals they can attract quite affluent visitors, who will spend lots of money in local shops, hotels and restaurants. But there is another, wider explanation, one that casts light on trends in the media all around the globe and in our cultural development.

        The wider explanation is that at the same time as mass media have lowered their standards in order to reach the largest possible number of people, general standards of education have in fact been rising. In all our countries, more young people study in universities and colleges than ever before. Today´s generation is much likelier to go to university than was even my generation in the 1970s, and certainly far likelier than the generations that became adult in the 1950s and 1960s. As a result, more books are bought and even read than was the case in the past; books matter more now, to more people, than ever before.

So why the dumbing down? The reason is that the media is changing, not the readers or the audience. It has become harder to reach a mass audience and to attract advertisers for those mass audiences: there is more competition, and more ways in which readers or viewers can find information or entertainment. So, if you want to keep or build a mass audience, you tend to dumb down in order to find more people with the time to read your paper or watch your programme.

But at the same time, another trend is happening. The media is fragmenting, with more specialised products seeking to reach more targeted audiences. High quality, sophisticated publications can find more potential readers than before, thanks to better education. An example of that “niche” approach is the Hay festival itself: 80,000 well-targeted visitors. You don´t need to dumb down to reach such people: you need to smarten up.