Monday, 20 May 2013

Pragmatism, postmodernism and economics

by Vivienne Smith
I am enjoying reading Goblins and Dwarves, by Philip Reeve.
It is the second volume of a trilogy. First there was Goblins. In this Skarper –the only goblin who has ever learned to read is thrown out of his home (literally: by catapult!) because he is too clever by half and therefore irritating to the everyday sort of goblin thug. He meets  Henwyn, a heroic, but not very bright cheesemaker;  Ned, an aging and engagingly sensible princess who bakes scones; a giant; a troll;  three charlatan magicians; some sulky cloud maidens  and some  magical twiggy creatures. In an unlikely but entertaining romp they overthrow the cross-dressing Goblin king, and settle down to live happily ever after.  But of course they don’t. Goblins and Dwarves, continues their adventures, and the third volume, when it is published, will continue them still.

I am not a great fan of fantasy adventures. On the whole, I can do without elves and hobbits and their high-minded quests. I don’t want to read about Evil Overlords. I prefer domesticity and in these books, Reeve provides it.  Amidst the (mostly incompetent) questing, the magic, the pull of power and the battles are cups of tea and buttered scones, and cheesemaking.  Princess Ned’s common sense gently brings into focus the absurdity of the tropes of fantasy fiction and fairy tale, but the adventure is still there, fast and funny. Reeve, as ever, is clever, witty and entertaining.  And, of course, his prose is faultless.
But, for the Reading Fictions Project, it is the bookishness of these books that interests me. In Goblins, Skarper’s ability to read is a major engine of the plot, and the denouement, when it comes is achieved because of what he had read. Despite the jokes and the silliness, reading really matters here. In Goblins and Dwarves there is less reading, but more books. Dr Quesney Prong, 'the Voice of Reason'  is an academic. He has spent his life proving beyond doubt that magic does not exist. It is unfortunate for him that in the very week his great book on the subject is published, magic floods back into the city. Of course no-one buys it. Of course he is ruined. We meet Dr Prong subsisting in a shack by the river. The shack is built from his unsold books.
It made me laugh. It made me imagine a similar fate for Richard Dawkins. And it made me think that what we say about books in books for children has moved on again. Here are books as objects: they are things you can build with. They are not precious and they are not special. They lack authority.  They are not containers of truth and they will not make you clever or wise. They can be wrong.  Perhaps even more interestingly,  they are commercial entities. They can make your fortune and they can ruin you. They are part of the economy.
 Pragmatism, postmodernism and economics. Is this what books are for in the twenty-first century?

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