Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 15 Oct 2019

A surfeit of bile

From Ancient Greece to Europe in the mid-Eighteenth Century, medicine and philosophy was dominated by the theory of ‘humours’. The body and mind, it was thought, was governed by the balance of humour fluids in the body - blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile - with character and temperament determined by the predominance of any of these individual humours. A surfeit of black bile was held to be responsible for melancholy and general grouchiness.

We now use the word humour in quite a different way but its old usage is oddly apt here because it could be argued that I am indeed suffering from an excess of black bile that comes over me when I stumble across certain types of so-called books.

I’ve written elsewhere on this site about the fact that I can’t abide ‘funny’ books. By which I don’t mean those that are witty and elegantly written in the humour genre but the sort of dreck that starts hitting the bookshops around Christmas and which come with the imprimatur of the latest numbskull celebrity who almost certainly had absolutely nothing to do with writing the dreadful tosh that goes under their name. Whether the fact that their fingerprints aren’t to be found on this stuff and that its actually written by a corporate ‘ghost’ is to their credit or not seems something of a moot point.

Gritting your teeth and battling your way past this pointless truckload of stuff that’s almost certainly doomed to be pulped after Christmas is something I’ve learned to do as I’ve got older, showing a remarkable zen-like indifference and rejecting the obvious alternative of going wild with a match and lighter-fuel.

Whilst I can understand (but not forgive) the fact that people buy these things as ‘stocking fillers’ - a variation on the usual theme of pointless toiletries - what has started to puzzle me a whole lot more is that these ‘funny books’ have now invaded the bookshop all year round. I say it puzzles me but actually I’m lying – this new generation of printed Ebola has infected bookshops in a way that makes me FURIOUS! 

It’s time to be specific I think. The books that drive me into this state of righteous froth are those books usually described as ‘parodies’ of classic titles – usually children’s classics – that have been repurposed and retitled to be a supposedly amusing collection of puns and world weary observations for a knowing adult audience. Try, ‘We’re Going on a Bar Hunt’ (hohoho) or ‘The Very Hungover Caterpillar’ (hilarious) or ‘The Teenager Who Came To Tea’ (guffaw). There’s also lots that reference The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings but I’m way too queasy to type out the titles of any more of them.

What gets up my nose is the wink wink, nudge nudge nature of the ‘humour’. I’m assuming that the ultimate target audience for these books is predominantly men who think that there’s something inherently amusing about drink and excessive drinking. It’s the humour of the pub bar supposedly stepped up a respectable cultural notch – a middle class development of the cruder (and more honestly intentioned) book of obscene rugby songs.

But don’t think that my animosity is based on some puritanical killjoy impulse. It’s not just the elbow-nudging knowingness about drink that really narks me – it’s the smugness. What is really irksome is that both writers and readers of these ‘books’ think they’re clever. Maybe the authors are just cynical and write this stuff because it’s better than going to work but the people who buy it must have other motives. I assume someone looks at these and thinks “Ooh, look. How clever and funny. It’s like that famous children’s book but they’ve changed it to be about (drinking, puking, children rearing...insert your own title here). I bet (Toby, John, Oliver…insert whatever name is appropriate) would love that because he’s always reading it to his kids.”

So these are, I bet, books brought as presents for people who ‘don’t really have time’ for real books. They’re opened on gift-giving day, collectively laughed over, tossed to one side and find their way in droves to the charity shops. A nasty little by-product of the publishing industry, they’re built-in landfill or recycling.

I’m sure that there will be people who might read this and conclude that I’m just a sourface who is taking this stuff way too seriously. To them I tip my hat and acknowledge that they take a different view but the truth remains that these books disfigure the world for me. Every time I see them stacked on a bookshop table or individually on a charity bookshop shelf my heart sinks and I get a whiff of sulphur in my nostrils. I have no evidence for this but I suspect every time a copy of one of these books is sold and a till rings, a book fairy somewhere dies.


Terry Potter

October 2019