First a little history.
All contemporary categories of writing are descended from an original, single category of book which existed when the printing press was invented around 1440 – the Bible, or books about the Bible. In 1440, very few people could read, and books were prohibitively expensive. The word author – derived from the word authority – is very much a hang over from the time when ‘divinity’ was, in effect, literature’s only genre. The ultimate author was considered the writer of the Bible, which reached people almost entirely through the authority of the Church.
One of the great social schisms of Western culture occurred in the sixteenth century, when improved printing presses, and some increase in literacy, allowed people to start reading the Bible for themselves. This widening readership was actually the beginning of a shift away from the idea that one book was relevant to everyone. Individual viewpoints started to become more important.
Centuries continued to pass, literacy rates crept up, and advancing printing technology made headway in reducing book prices. Academic Jeremiah Dittmar estimates that by 1700, there were around eighty basic varieties of book serving an enlarged, but still modest, book market, where divinity continued to account for half of all sales. Through the next three hundred years, the rate of change gathered pace, so that today, literacy is almost universal, and digital publication offers reduced book prices, and an opportunity for anyone to publish their work. As a result, genre varieties have exploded. The current situation in publishing is a mirror image of what it once was in 1440. Whereas in the fifteenth century everyone shared the same book, in the twenty first century it’s almost as though everyone can have their own book, unique to their own part of life. The bewildering variety of genres reflects the fact that today almost everyone is a potential reader, all these different people with varied tastes, interests and experiences, looking for books in which they see themselves.
And yet, perhaps there are new difficulties in the way culture has become fragmented, with people tending to live in their own bubbles. You might say that Sally Rooney’s novel Beautiful World, Where Are You, published in 2021, is about this situation.
The book sets up a kind of Notting Hill scenario where a famous celebrity writer called Alice starts a relationship with an ‘ordinary’ man, not a bookshop owner in this case, but a warehouse worker called Felix. Felix would not read Alice’s books. In fact he doesn’t seem to read at all. The first chapter describes Alice and Felix going on a very awkward date, where they seem not so much different people, as representatives of different species. There cannot possibly be books appealing to both of them. And yet, as time goes by, we begin to see common ground emerging. For example, they share problems with mental health. Alice’s difficulty is described in expressive terms of anger and not coping. Meanwhile, Felix gives a manly account of “a few months where I was seriously not bothered about it – getting up and going to work and all that”. But you feel these two experiences are essentially similar. This forms the basis for a relationship between Alice and Felix.
The book continues from there, tending to dissolve categories of identity in favour of what people share. One particularly interesting example of this occurs in the back and forth of emails between Alice and her friend Eileen. They discuss something called the Late Bronze Age Collapse, which occurred between 1200 and 1150BC – cities in the eastern Mediterranean were destroyed or abandoned, advanced writing systems disappeared and trade systems fell apart. Now I know that people chit chatting about the Bronze Age via email might seem unlikely, and could represent a shoehorning of ideas into the book in a rather forced way. But apart from the conversation actually being fitting for the characters, I did think a historical crisis of 1200BC had a peculiar resonance for our present situation. One theory explaining what happened suggests that at a certain point, social complexity and specialisation go beyond what is sustainable, followed by disintegration, loss of cultural identity, and recovery at a simpler level. This is called general systems collapse. The suggestion is that our present society is also vulnerable to such crisis. Beautiful World, Where Are You is a general systems collapse all of its own, where following a period of painful turbulence, characters’ complex lives become simpler, their situations less separate and isolated.
In this sense I found the book very interesting and timely. Yes, it did sometimes make me feel like a warehouse worker out on a date with the wrong person. The last third – long, blocky, sparsely punctuated paragraphs of emotional arguments and self analysis – did occasionally have me yearning for the sanctuary of a warehouse staff room, offering a strong mug of builders’ tea. Nevertheless I put down my builders’ tea and kept on reading. Was this a book for everyone? Well, no. Absolutely not. It wasn’t a book for me in some ways. But it did look beyond contemporary divisions, complexity, break down and chaos, to something that might be more humane and peaceful. You could say that even if a book for everyone is no longer possible, this was at least a suggestion of a book for everyone; and that, I would say, constitutes something of a landmark.