Reading Culture Clash by Karen Rudin

Returning books to my local library (Michael Connelly! William Boyd!) and picking up new ones (Michael Ondaatje! Alice Hoffman!) I overheard a conversation between the librarian and another patron. “May I bring in books at anytime for the second-hand sale?” inquired the other book-lover. “Anytime, ” the librarian assured her, “but they must be in good condition.” Of course, I thought, no missing pages, reasonably intact cover, no signs of having been dunked in the bath or a puddle of cocoa. But the librarian was continuing, “The edges of the pages should not be yellowed, or people won’t buy them.”

Never in my life have I even noticed whether the page edges were yellow, white or pink and green striped. I’m not reading the edges. Not for the first time, I thought how different is the leisure reading culture in different societies.

Brits and Amis scarf books. The food for the brain and the spirit is important; the vessel in which it is served up is not. New or used, pristine or a trifle tattered, it’s all the same to us. Our books make the rounds of friends’ mailboxes, are schlepped onto the train and gently steamed in the bath; they acquire the marks of loving handling. We snap them up at sales, loan them out to our social circle. Even the small-town library enjoys the same opening hours as the grocery store and the gas station. Book clubs and reading circles abound.

Compare this with the approach to reading of a Dutch friend. There are no dog-eared paperbacks lying about on her coffee table. But when a philosopher appearing on television impressed her, she went to the bookstore and bought one of his books, in the original German. Hardback, full price. She read it with absorption, then placed it reverently on her bookshelf with a few other such treasures, some also in German, some in Dutch, some in English.

And here is the other side of the reading culture clash: do we Anglos check out media in German? Do we read Durrenmatt, Hesse, Luise Rinser and Martin Suter at all – never mind in the original? Rather few of us, I fear. Something about our way of life makes us cling to the language and literature of our homelands. Something about European society, by contrast, opens its citizens not only to the cultures but also the language across the English Channel, the Atlantic Ocean and in the antipodes.

An article appearing in a Zurich newspaper a few years ago mused on just this topic. The author opined that English language literature weaves the most profound life lessons into the good read and the whodunit, whereas German-language literature, for example, is either serious and heavy, on the one hand or just for fun, on the other. The two seldom mix. Perhaps this is why so many of the titles on the German and Swiss best-seller lists are translations from the English. Perhaps it is why my local library features a bookcase and a half of English-language paperbacks. It’s not only we Anglo expats who read them; they are popular among the Swiss as well.

For an Ami living in Switzerland this makes for stimulating contemplation, and I muse about it from time to time as I go about my expat life. But now I must do a resorting of the paperbacks I plan to take to the library sale. I’m afraid a great many of them have yellow page edges, alas.

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