Among the many Monty Python sketches (though it's been used other places, memorably with Marty Feldman in the Graham Chapman Role) that I feel get forgotten is this gem – The Bookshop Sketch. Yes, I know it is a bit of a risk to use the punchline for the title of the post as if it might give something away, but the whole sketch contains a large kernel of truth as to not only how we relate to books, but how different we all can be in relating to them. It also got me thinking about my own reading process and how I relate to the books I read.
Slightly different version to get a sense of the sketch:
I recently undertook the task of attempting to read two books as objectively as I could manage. The first book was one I went into with the expectation of extreme displeasure and near dread; the other gave me a sense of sheer joy just to hold it and expected to love it. Instead of allowing those feelings to drive the experience of reading each book, though, I tried to experience them with a bit of distance. The results of the experiment is, well, not entirely surprising.
Pure objectivity is impossible. We all bring bias into our reading, which is why my results are not wholly surprising. There are schools of criticism which attempt to remove the reader completely from the process and plenty that bring the reader to the center of the reading process, but neither is what I was aiming for. I was not reading with an eye to a specific criticism but rather an eye toward not letting my predisposition toward each book completely influence my reading of them.
By not focusing entirely on the parts I loved or hated, I found that each book had problems, one more than the other in my opinion, but the point of the exercise was not about comparison either. Rather, the exercise was about the experience of being as neutral in my approach to reading each book. Had I allowed myself to be blinded in the process, driven by whatever expectation I had coming into each, I would have been like the bookseller in the sketch – making assumptions about what the customer. In fact, the reasons I downgraded or upgraded my assessment of each book were for somewhat unexpected purposes that could best be classified as quirks of each author's writing style. In the case of book I wanted to hate, I found there were redeeming qualities in characterization from time to time. Likewise, book I wanted to love required me to get past an overhyped sense of drama in order to be completely in love with it. I was able to focus on the clever turns of phrases, depth of characterization, and leaps of logic or suspense that worked and didn’t work in each book and came out a bit more, well, neutral. I wasn't so neutral as to completely change my assessment of either book completely, however.
So, about that sketch. I’ve always connected to Bookshop Sketch because of the growing absurdity of the customer’s requests and the fact that John Cleese so brilliantly plays the quick to anger bookseller. What I didn’t quite connect to until I looked at it from the angle of a reference librarian was the fact that it truly is about the customer’s inability to read. The level of innocence, despite the customer’s occasional use of big words and referenced literary classics, is something that we lose over time because of our reading experiences which is why objective reading, after a time, is near impossible. It’s a convoluted mess, as difficult as finding '‘Stickwick Stapers’ by Farles Wickens with four M’s and a silent Q' one might even suggest. If we’re reading with an eye to understand a book and not automatically disparage it for whatever reason, well, we might just find a lot more to like.