Readersforum's Blog

September 2, 2012

Beyond a joke: the truth about why we laugh

‘Women couldn’t care less whether their ideal male partner laughs or not – they want a male who makes them laugh.’ Photograph by Getty

Plato and Aristotle saw it as a tool to topple the mighty. It often accompanies gruesome acts of cruelty. Most of us will use it more routinely – to win friendship and love. So what lies behind the apparent spontaneity of laughter?

By Robert Provine

Consider the bizarre events of the 1962 outbreak of contagious laughter in Tanganyika (now Tanzania). What began as an isolated fit of laughter in a group of 12-to 18-year-old schoolgirls rapidly rose to epidemic proportions. Contagious laughter propagated from one individual to the next, eventually infecting adjacent communities. Like an influenza outbreak, the laughter epidemic was so severe that it required the closing of at least 14 schools and afflicted about 1,000 people. Fluctuating in intensity, it lasted for around two and a half years. A psychogenic, hysterical origin of the epidemic was established after excluding alternatives such as toxic reaction and encephalitis.

Laughter epidemics, big and small, are universal. Contagious laughter in some Pentecostal and related charismatic Christian churches is a kind of speaking in tongues (glossolalia), a sign that worshippers have been filled with the Holy Spirit. Before looking askance at this practice, consider that it was present at the historic Cane Ridge revival of 1801, in Kentucky, and part of an exuberant religious tradition in which the Shakers actually shook and the Quakers quaked. Even John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church, did some of his own quaking and shaking. Those experiencing the blessing of holy laughter spread it back to their home congregations, creating a national and international wave of contagious laughter. Contrast, now, the similarity between the propagation of such religious anointings and what was called the “laughing malady puzzle in Africa”. They are strikingly similar, tap the same social trait, and are an extreme form of the commonplace, not pathology.

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January 28, 2012

Salman Rushdie case shows importance of book festivals

Sir Salman Rushdie has been told he is the target of Mumbai assassins Photo: GETTY

After this week’s Salman Rushdie controversy, Hay director Peter Florence asks: who should literary festivals give a voice to?

There are two sides to what happened in Rajasthan last week, when Salman Rushdie pulled out of the Jaipur literary festival, after death threats that turned out to be dubious – and both sides are true. On the one hand, almost everything everybody did made an ugly situation worse. The nadir was reached when the decision was made that Rushdie could not appear even onscreen as a moving image. The next logical step would be to ban cartoons of him.

The flipside is that everyone involved won something. Nobody died, and in a country of extreme volatility the police will regard this as a blessed relief. Rushdie is now much more famous in India than he was this time last week. The government can say that they respect the values of the Muslim community in an electoral battleground where they need to win. And festival organiser Sanjoy Roy’s team can enjoy the notion that people across the world have now heard of a literary festival in Jaipur. Even the Imam and his extremist followers can claim they prevented a writer from visiting his homeland…

So is this the end of freedom of speech in the world’s largest democracy? Should India hang its head in shame? Follow the hashtags. The overwhelming response from the wry, unbullyable and free-thinking Indian tweeters is, more or less: It’s about time I got round to reading The Satanic Verses – if it gets people so engaged, it must be worth looking at.

Banning books doesn’t work. Not if you want people not to read them. It has never worked. Lady Chatterley, Madame Bovary, Harry Potter, The Golden Compass, Animal Farm, The Lorax, The Da Vinci Code, Catcher in the Rye… There’s a pattern here, and it’s a mystery that politicians are too stupid to see it.

Would it have been different at the Hay festival? Maybe. I hope so.

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November 17, 2011

Are any writers always brilliant?

William Shakespeare: Hamlet's OK, but have you read King John? Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty

Martin Amis claims that ‘when we say we love a writer’s work, what we really mean is that we love about half of it’. Is he right?

Posted bySarah Crown

Martin Amis opens his (excellent) review of Don DeLillo’s first short story collection, The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories, with a thought-provoking suggestion. “When we say that we love a writer’s work,” he begins, “we are always stretching the truth: what we really mean is that we love about half of it.”

Joyce’s reputation, he says, rests entirely on Ulysses “with a little help from Dubliners”. All you need to read of George Eliot is Middlemarch. Three out of Austen’s six novels are sub-par. Dickens, Kafka, Coleridge, even Shakespeare – all “succumb to this law” (“Run your eye down the contents page and feel the slackness of your urge to reread the comedies (As You Like It is not as we like it); and who would voluntarily curl up with King John or Henry VI, Part III?”). In the end, Amis suggests, there are only two true exceptions to the rule: Homer and Harper Lee. “I stubbornly suspect”, he concludes, “that only the cultist, or the academic, is capable of swallowing an author whole. Writers are peculiar, readers are particular: it is just the way we are.”

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September 28, 2011

Alarm bells and whistles: Toddler book apps

A toddler using a digital tablet. Photograph: Tooga/Getty

Interactive versions of books for very young children are becoming mainstream. Are they enhancing early reading experience – or diminishing it?

By Melissa McClements

Toddler book apps are moving towards the mainstream. Several big-name British publishers have digitalised picture books – boosting the original story with voiceovers, moving imagery and interactive games. Eric Hill’s Spot and Topsy and Tim are already available as apps. And Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit is coming to an iPad near you in November.

This bothers me. I love huddling over books with my daughter – sharing words, stories and ideas. The relationship between adult narrator, child and book is complex. I just don’t see how there can be an app for that. Am I deluded? Is the digitalisation of picture books inevitable?

Children’s laureate Julia Donaldson certainly doesn’t think so. She vetoed an ebook of her bestselling The Gruffalo, because she thinks interactive book apps for the very young are a bad idea. Her opinion is shared by children’s librarian Ferelith Hordon, who chairs the judging panel for this year’s Kate Greenaway and Carnegie medals.

“I have concerns about how such apps are presented,” Hordon says. “I don’t think that they’re the book, and I think that that should be made very clear. They are great fun and they have their place. But on the whole, they distract from the reading experience. For very small children there is something very special – and something that needs to be treasured – in listening to the parent’s voice reading.

“If you start putting pop-ups and twiddles and voices into the picture book experience, where is the difference between that and a film or a game? In this world in which there is so much noise and movement is there no value in promoting stillness and thought?”

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September 9, 2011

Outcry over Hamlet novel casting old king as gay paedophile

Laurence Olivier's rather more conventional 1948 film of Hamlet: with Eileen Herlie (left) as Gertrude, Olivier as the prince, and Basil Sydney as Claudius. Photograph: Universal Studios/Getty

Publisher showered with complaints over Orson Scott Card’s Hamlet’s Father.

By Alison Flood

A small American press has been swamped with complaints after publishing a version of Hamlet by the science fiction author Orson Scott Card in which King Hamlet is a gay paedophile.

Hymned by the publisher Subterranean Press as a “revelatory” retelling which shows “what’s really going on” in Shakespeare’s play, the story suggests Hamlet’s father wasn’t murdered by his brother Claudius, but Horatio, in revenge for being molested by him as a child.

The book is not a new release, having been published twice before, for the first time in 2008, but an explosive review at the Rain Taxi Review of Books has unleashed a wave of criticism.

“Here’s the punch line: Old King Hamlet was an inadequate king because he was gay, an evil person because he was gay, and, ultimately, a demonic and ghostly father of lies who convinces young Hamlet to exact imaginary revenge on innocent people,” writes William Alexander. “The old king was actually murdered by Horatio, in revenge for molesting him as a young boy – along with Laertes, and Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern, thereby turning all of them gay … Hamlet is damned for all the needless death he inflicts, and Dead Gay Dad will now do gay things to him for the rest of eternity: ‘Welcome to Hell, my beautiful son. At last we’ll be together as I always longed for us to be.'”

Subterranean produced its limited edition, signed, 1,000-copy run of the book this spring, with the release largely falling under the radar, apart from a damning review from trade journal Publishers Weekly which said that its focus was “primarily on linking homosexuality with the life-destroying horrors of paedophilia, a focus most fans of possibly bisexual Shakespeare are unlikely to appreciate”.

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September 8, 2011

Albanian children ‘more like to read than pupils in UK’

British children are less likely to read for pleasure than those in other countries, according to the OECD. Photo: GETTY

Children in the UK are significantly less likely to read for pleasure than in nations such as Kazakhstan, Albania, Indonesia and Peru according to international research.

By Graeme Paton

The UK was ranked 47th out of 65 nations in a table based on the number of teenagers who pick up a book, newspaper or magazine on a daily basis.

In all, around four-in-10 teenagers in this country fail to read for enjoyment outside school.

Across the developed world, boys are significantly less likely to read daily than girls.

The disclosure – in data published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development – comes despite warnings from researchers of a “strong link” between childhood reading and improved adult literacy skills.

It follows claims from Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, that the academic demands placed on schoolchildren have been “too low for too long”.

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August 25, 2011

Warning as children shun books in favour of Facebook

One in six children is failing to read books as they spend an increasing amount of time text messaging friends, sending emails and browsing social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, a study has found.

Children who fail to read at a young age risk turning into illiterate adults, said the National Literacy Trust. Photo: GETTY

By Graeme Paton

Schoolchildren are significantly more likely to be exposed to mobile phones and computers in the home than novels, according to researchers. They also found that reading frequency declined sharply with age, with 14 to 16 year–olds being more than 10 times as likely to avoid books altogether as those in primary education.

The findings, in a study by the National Literacy Trust, follow the publication of an international league table last year that showed reading standards among children in Britain had slipped from 17th to 25th in the world.

Jonathan Douglas, the trust’s director, warned that people who failed to read books at a young age often suffered serious literacy problems in adulthood. “We are worried that they will grow up to be the one in six adults who struggle with literacy to the extent that they read to the level expected of an 11 year–old or below,” he said.

“Getting these children reading and helping them to love reading is the way to turn their lives around and give them new opportunities and aspirations.” The trust surveyed more than 18,000 children aged eight to 17. It found that 13 per cent of children failed to read a single book in the previous month.

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August 23, 2011

Dickens statue planned for Portsmouth

Charles Dickens photographed circa 1860. Photograph: London Stereoscopic Company/Getty

Monument by sculptor Martin Jennings scheduled for bicentenary in 2012.

By Alison Flood

Charles Dickens might have written that he wanted no “monument, memorial, or testimonial whatsoever” to be erected in his name, but the UK’s first ever statue of the great author is nonetheless set to be created next year to mark the bicentenary of his birth.

Designed by sculptor Martin Jennings, known for his bronzes of John Betjeman in St Pancras and of Philip Larkin in Hull, the statue will be placed in Guildhall Square in Portsmouth, the town of Dickens’s birth. The great writer will be seated in a chair next to a pile of books in the statue, said Jennings. “I wanted people to be able to walk up to it, which they wouldn’t be able to do if it was on a high platform. He’s sitting in a chair next to a pile of books which are threatening to topple over.”

Jennings is a fan of the writer’s work. “Who isn’t?” said the sculptor. “He is the great storyteller – a towering figure. No one can understand how he managed to achieve what he did in only 58 years.”

The statue is the project of the Dickens Fellowship’s Portsmouth branch, which is currently working to raise the £100,000 necessary for its completion, and has the support of Dickens’s great great grandson, Ian Dickens.

“It’s the first statue of Charles Dickens in the UK, and what [Jennings’s design] conveys is his energy, creativity, wit and passion,” said Dickens.

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June 30, 2011

Worn-out words

Filed under: Lists — Tags: , , , — Bookblurb @ 1:16 pm

Thinking inside the box ... a careless cliche user reflects on their usage while trying to escape Adam Horovitz's cardboard punishment. Photograph: Getty

Last year Ledbury poetry festival asked poets to name their most hated words. For this year’s festival – running from 1 to 10 July – they’ve asked for the expressions that have become such cliches that they have lost all meaning. Here are their responses:

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