Have you read Modiano? No, but I know a lot of other things...



PARIS, FRANCE, Franck Iovene- With the Internet taking over modern reading habits, do you still have to have read Proust, Balzac... or Modiano to be considered cultivated in France? The answer, according to some experts, is 'not necessarily'.
With e-books, online blogs, Twitter and multiple other sources now available, the bedrock of the French intellectual tradition -- the literary book -- is being challenged as never before.



French Culture Minister Fleur Pellerin caused consternation last month when she appeared to be the embodiment of this shift when she admitted she hadn't read a single book in two years.
"I admit without any problem that I have had no time to read over the past two years," the minister told a television programme.
"I read a lot of notes, I read a lot legislative documents, I read a lot of news... But I read (books) very little," she said by way of explanation.
Adding insult to injury, in the eyes of some, she was then unable to name her favourite book by French author Patrick Modiano -- only two weeks after he won the Nobel prize for literature.
It was a bold admission for the culture minister of a nation that prides itself on its ability to produce Nobel laureates.
France has won 15 times, more than any other country.
Swiss philosopher and literature professor Yves Citton, however, cautions against too much hand wringing.
"The Internet has wiped out the barrier between low and high culture, which is a good thing," he said.
"The explosion over the last 20 years of ways to access information and the rise of the Internet should be seen as an opportunity, even for the French cultural tradition," he said.
- 'Low and high culture' -
For historian Michel Winock, the rise of the Internet and the challenge to the printed form is a watershed.
"We are witnessing the end of the masters like the great writers of the 19th century or (Jean-Paul) Sartre and (Francois) Mauriac in the 20th century," he said.
In its place, he said, there was an evolution of reading habits that was giving rise to greater individualism.
"Each of us today has his opinion and is able to give it. There are no reins any more", he added.
The situation is neither a cause for regret nor congratulation, according to Citton.
Instead, he advises readers in the modern age to do a bit of both, sampling the new cultural offerings available via the Internet as well as stopping from time to time to read "a poem or a work of 500 pages".
France remains proud of its Nobel laureates, second only in number to the US which has produced 12.
But even in this nation of book lovers, reading is undeniably on the wane, according to a study by the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE).
A 2011 survey showed that the time people dedicated to reading -- including on the Internet -- had fallen by a third since 1986.
- 'Collective intelligence' -
Linguist Alain Bentolila is among those who is worried by such findings.
"The fact that one does not read any more is regrettable but more concerning still is the fact that we do not memorise anything any more," he said.
"The risk is that we no longer have any literature in common and eventually that we see our collective intelligence disappear."
A staunch defender of the written word, he is critical of reading via computers and other electronic devices especially in schools.
"For a fickle student, the illusion of being able to access everything is so strong that they can end up by getting nowhere and keeping track of nothing," he said.
The Internet is a good tool -- but only for those who know how to use it, according another literature professor, Pierre Bayard.
Bayard, the author of the 2007 polemic "How to Talk About Books that One Has Not Read" said he recommended a creative approach.
"There's a path, commonly taught, which consists of reading a book from the first to last page," he said.
"But there are others ways -- speed reading, flicking through, the book that one starts and that one does not finish.
"It's this creativity that we will have to teach more of," he said.
Citton, too, agrees on the need to be less rigid.
With a little flexibility, he said, cultural traditions could yet survive unscathed.
"If young people don't read Flaubert any more, perhaps they are reading something else which is worth being integrated into what is called literature," he said.
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Tuesday, November 11th 2014
Franck Iovene
           


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