Letter to the Bookworms book club in Stockholm prior to a discussion of Steven Hawking's A Brief History of time:
Greetings one and all from afar.
I wonder whether you know in which country people read the most? According to an annual survey of reading and literacy, the list is topped by India, with an average of 10.42 hours per person spent reading each week, which is surprising considering so many of its 1.3 billion people live below the poverty line and literacy is probably far from universal. (In the world as a whole, only 86 per cent are said to be literate - 90% for boys, 83% for girls. By comparison, a hundred years ago only 12% could read and write.)
In second place is Thailand with a weekly average of 9.24 hours, while China is third with eight hours. Sweden comes in seventh with 7.06 hours. How these statistics are compiled, I've no idea. China is the country which publishes most books, a staggering 440,000 in a year, but I haven't seen anything to indicate what kind of books they are. One-third of all books published in the world, however, are in the ‘romance genre’, (which the Bookworms have been mercifully spared from.) The average age of people who read ‘romance’ books is 42. The vast majority are women; 16% are men.
The second most prolific book-publishing nation is the United States, with 304,912 in the past year. The UK comes third with 184,000. One table is topped by the Swedes. It is headed ‘News Junkies’. 85% of the population are said to read the news more than once a day. Again, what kind of ‘news’ is not specified. I trust that Facebook pages and Twitter feeds are not included.
Finally, let us all take comfort from the list of benefits claimed for reading. They include reducing stress levels, developing stronger analytical skills, improving memory and concentration, reducing the likelihood of certain diseases, expanding your vocabulary and improving you writing skills. So read away!
Which brings me to Steven Hawking and his Brief History, in trying to read which most of the benefits I am supposed to gain suddenly evaporated. Unable to concentrate on such a vast amount of information for more than half a chapter at a time, unable to remember much of what had come previously (as one who has not studied physics), increasingly stressed as my appalling ignorance became clearer with every page, I eventually gave up for the time being, but have promised myself I will return and try to read at least half a chapter a week, (or perhaps a month), as soon as I have recovered sufficiently to do so.
As so often, however, a majority of the online reviewers are much more at home with the book than I am, but then very many of them are extremely familiar with the subject and at least one of those I have seen admits to being a physics Ph.D. When I looked, both the Amazon US and UK sites had 186 virtually identical ‘global’ reviews with an average rating of 4.7. Goodreads, which counts ratings and reviews separately, had 307,896 ratings and 9,029 reviews.
“Purchased for my son for his birthday,” writes one of the 5-star people. “He is a physics fanatic, and although Stephen Hawking is not his favourite scientist, I figured every budding scientist should have read A Brief History in Time.” Unfortunately, I have never been a budding scientist. “Isn't it amazing,” writes another reviewer, “that a person can read a book like A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking and come away feeling both smarter and dumber than before he started?” Where I am concerned, it is definitely not both, just dumber.
“It’s quite short and generally a quick read,” writes a third member of the 5-star brigade. Quick for him maybe, but not the likes of me. “Not every page is filled with mind-blowing/numbing theories and brain-busting equations,” he continues. “Some of it is just history, say on Newton and such. However, there were a few pages worth of passages where my wee brain felt like it was getting sucked into a black hole...mainly during the black hole segment.” I would unfortunately have to replace the words ‘a few...’ with ‘many if not most’.
To put me further to shame someone else states, “This is an absolutely magical book, both objectively and for me specifically. I first read it when I was about 9 or 10.” That was from the gentleman with a Ph.D in physics. I was puzzled by this person though when he wrote, “It's such a concise, understandable introduction to the field that I’m determined to get my girlfriend (a linguist with no real interest in physics) to read it. Not just because I think she’ll understand it, but because I think she will enjoy it!” Can you really enjoy something like that without understanding it?
Come down to the 3-star level and here is someone I can agree with. “...at times it is very clear that the reader needs a certain level of knowledge to understand what he’s talking about. As such, Hawking makes certain assumptions as he shifts from concept to concept which left me a little confused.” And another 3-star reviewer writes, “Stephen Hawking’s book is easy to read, but harder to comprehend. In every chapter came a point where my brain couldn’t hold another permutation of a theory...” Easy to read, but harder to comprehend?
A two-star person wrote, “I probably understood half of what I read, which I’m happy with. If I could fully grasp the whole book I’d probably have a better job and be much richer.”
Someone else pointed out that the book tops the list of ‘bought but not read’.
Now that I can fully understand.