Religion for atheists

September 30, 2012

Communism, psychoanalysis, free market capitalism, nationalism, tourism and consumerism have all been compared to religion. I am sure you will have heard some of these comparisons before. Shopping malls are the new cathedrals. Give us this day our daily discount outlet merchandise, sang Billy Joel. Tourists are modern-day pilgrims with the souvenirs as relics and the guidebooks devotional aids. We talk about the cult of celebrity. The cult of personality created in North Korea has a population which seems to worship the Kim family as if they were gods. In this post I want to give a brief history of the attempts to import religious practices into secular institutions.

The French Revolution is the archetypal example of the creation of a secular religion. The revolutionaries had banned Catholicism in 1792, but they knew that the people would need to be given an alternative. That is how an atheistic belief system known as The Cult of Reason was born. The Cult had places of worship, fiery sermons and a calendar of festivities, the most important of which was the Festival of Reason of November 1793. Churches across France were renamed “Temples of Reason”. The most famous rebranding was that of Notre Dame Cathedral.

Notre Dame was rededicated to the Cult of Reason. Christian statues and paintings were removed and sold off to finance the revolution. The statue of the Virgin Mary was replaced by Lady Liberty, also called the Goddess Reason. The statues of the biblical kings of Judah, which the revolutionaries mistakenly thought were French kings, were beheaded. The altar was replaced with a model mountain, on top of which stood a mini Greek temple dedicated “To Philosophy”. Beside it burnt the Torch of Truth.  After a lengthy ceremony Sophie Momoro, wife of the radical printer Antoine-François Momoro*, appeared clad in red, white and blue embodying the Goddess of Reason. The Cult proved to be short-lived, and as the revolution consumed itself, Catholicism gradually asserted itself in France once again.

The Bible has also been subject to secularising intentions. One of my favourites is the Jefferson Bible of 1804. With a pair of scissors and some glue the founding father eliminated all the supernatural aspects of the New Testament. He also got rid of what he saw as incorrect interpretations by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Last year the neo-atheist AC Grayling published his Good Book, a secular bible whose format is the same as the King James Bible. Here is the first chapter of Genesis Grayling style.

1. In the garden stands a tree. In springtime it bears flowers; in the autumn, fruit.

   2. Its fruit is knowledge, teaching the good gardener how to understand the world.

   3. From it he learns how the tree grows from seed to sapling, from sapling to maturity, at last ready to offer more life;

  4. And from maturity to age and sleep, whence it returns to the elements of things.

  5. The elements in turn feed new births; such is nature’s method, and its parallel with the course of humankind.

  6. It was from the fall of a fruit from such a tree that new inspiration came for inquiry into the nature of things,

  7. When Newton sat in his garden, and saw what no one had seen before: that an apple draws the earth to itself, and the earth the apple,

  8. Through a mutual force of nature that holds all things, from the planets to the stars, in unifying embrace.

  9. So all things are gathered into one thing: the universe of nature, in which there are many worlds: the orbs of light in an immensity of space and time,

10. And among them their satellites, on one of which is a part of nature that mirrors nature in itself,

11. And can ponder its beauty and significance, and seek to understand it: this is humankind.

12. All other things, in their cycles and rhythms, exist in and of themselves;

13. But in humankind there is experience also, which is what makes good and its opposite,

14. In both of which humankind seeks to grasp the meaning of things.

Today I want to talk about Alain De Botton’s Religion for Atheists, which I read over the summer. I am a De Botton fan. I can recommend titles like The Art of Travel, Status Anxiety and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. His latest work is summed up by a question from his website – even if religion isn’t true, can’t we enjoy the best bits? He comes up with a number of ideas, some of them surely tongue-in-cheek, about how secular society could borrow from the world’s great religions, primarily Christianity and to a lesser extent Judaism and Buddhism.

In education he feels that university have lost their vocation for improving people. He believes that universities should be about more than just implanting data in our brains.  He also makes the case for more repetition. An idea cannot be assimilated by hearing it just once. Religions are very good at implanting their message by the use of repetition. A more whimsical suggestion is that for their lectures university professors could engage in that kind of call and response style typical of Southern Baptist churches. De Botton thinks that museums have lost their way. The idea that a work of art should be didactic and help us be better people has been lost. He has a novel suggestion for museums; they should organise their works by concepts. There would be separate rooms celebrating love, generosity, the beauty of simplicity or the curative powers of nature. From Judaism he recommends that we institute a day of atonement and from Buddhism he likes the idea of a festival of Tsukimi. In this festival, which honours the autumn moon, you read poems about the moon, the passage of time and the frailty of life.

This sense of perspective is also behind his most commented upon proposal the one to build a 46-metre tower in the heart of the City of London. Designed jointly by the architects Tom Greenall and Jordan Hodgson, the London Temple, will be a huge black obelisk situated among the skyscraper temples of Mammon in the capital’s Square Mile. The monument is a celebration of the entire history of life on Earth. Each centimetre of its height represents one million years of life. At its base, one metre from the ground will be a band of gold 1mm thick representing man’s time on Earth relative to the age of our planet. Inscribed into the exterior will be an interpretation of the human genome sequence. De Botton hopes this monument will give visitors a sense of perspective and act as an antidote for modern egotism and navel-gazing.

The reaction to the book has been varied with De Botton receiving brickbats from believers and atheists alike. Of the former Terry Eagleton gave a very hostile review in The Guardian:

What the book does, in short, is hijack other people’s beliefs, empty them of content and redeploy them in the name of moral order, social consensus and aesthetic pleasure. Any book that irritates Mr. Eagleton like that must have something going for it. However the most vitriolic reaction comes from fellow atheists. Richard Dawkins believes that an atheist temple is a contradiction in terms. He suggested that the money be spent on science education.

I did enjoy this quirky book. I found it engaging, a breath of fresh air after the sterile Dawkins v Religion debates of the last few years. Dawkins is a wonderful science writer and when he is writing about the wonder of science it is beautiful. But I think the attacks on religion are counterproductive. Moreover I do think that we non-believers can learn from religions. Many of them have been around for thousands of years. They must be doing something right. However I am not ultimately convinced by De Botton’s ideas.  They are too artificial. They remind me of non-alcoholic beer, decaffeinated coffee or those vegetarian attempts to recreate meat dishes. I tend to agree with the political philosopher John Gray:

Rather than trying to invent another religion surrogate, open-minded atheists should appreciate the genuine religions that exist already. London is full of sites – churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship – that are evocative of something beyond the human world. Better spend the money that is being raised for the new temple on religious buildings that are in disrepair than waste it on a monument to a defunct version of unbelief.

______

*Momoro was the originator of the phrase Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, the motto of the French Republic.


Today is Shakespeare the 22nd

September 30, 2012

While researching this week’s article I came across the Positivist calendar, the brainchild of the nineteenth century French thinker, Auguste Comte, the founder of sociology. It was designed to be an alternative to the Gregorian calendar. It had 13 months of 28 days:

  1. Moses
  2. Homer
  3. Aristotle
  4. Archimedes
  5. Caesar
  6. Saint Paul
  7. Charlemagne
  8. Dante
  9. Gutenberg
  10. Shakespeare
  11. Descartes
  12. Frederic
  13. Bichat

That makes a total of 364 days so an additional festival day commemorating the dead was added. On leap years there is a festival day to celebrate holy women. Here is a link to the calendar.

Alas it never really took off. But you have to admit that Comte was a prolific thinker.  He actually created his own secular religion – the Religion of Humanity, whose adherents built chapels in France and Brazil. John Gray gives this description of Comte;

An obsessive and at times unbalanced personality, Comte – a fervent believer in phrenology, like many atheists at the time – developed an elaborate daily ritual that included tapping the forehead at the points where science had supposedly located the impulses of progress, altruism and order. He also created a “virgin mother of humanity”, based on a married woman whom he had fallen in love with. When she died, he appointed her grave a place of pilgrimage.


Ebonics: Is You Is or Is You Ain’t a Language?*

September 22, 2012

Ita girl name Shirley Jones live in Washington. Most everybody on her street like her, ’cause she a nice girl. Shirley treat all of them just like they was her sister and brother, but most of all she like one boy name Charles. But Shirley keep away from Charles most of the time, ’cause she start to liking him so much she be scared of him. So Charles, he don’t hardly say nothing to her neither. Still, that girl got to go ’round telling everybody Charles s’posed to be liking her.

But when Valentine Day start to come ’round, Shirley get to worrying. She worried ’cause she know the rest of them girls all going to get Valentine cards from they boyfriends. That Shirley, she so worried, she just don’t want to be with nobody.

When Shirley get home, her mother say ita letter for her on the table. Right away Shirley start to wondering who it could be from, ’cause she know don’ nobody s’posed to be sending her no kind of letter. So Shirley, she open the envelope up. And when she do, she can see it’s a Valentine card inside, and she see it have Charles name wrote on the bottom.

So now everything going be all right for Shirley, ’cause what she been telling everybody ’bout Charles being her boyfriend ain’t no story after all. It done come true!

Sample of Ebonics quoted by linguist John McWhorter in Word on the Street: Debunking the Myth of “Pure” Standard English.

_____

Welcome to the world of black speech – Ebonics, a portmanteau word which blends ebony and phonics. This term has an interesting history. It was in the 1960s when the first modern large-scale linguistic studies of African American speech-communities were carried out. In 1973 a group of black scholars who disliked the negative connotations of ‘Nonstandard Negro English‘ came up with Ebonics. However the term did not catch on with most linguists or the public at large. Indeed Ebonics is still not a term usually employed by linguists, who prefer “African American Vernacular English” (AAVE). However, I am going to use Ebonics because it is the shortest and the catchiest.

Ebonics hit the headlines in California in 1996 when the Oakland School Board recognized it as the ‘primary’ language of its majority African American students and resolved to use it in teaching Standard English. This decision provoked outrage in many circles. Faced with this backlash, the school board backed down. A couple of years ago Ebonics again came o the fore when the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, (DEA) solicited translators to interpret wiretapped conversations for their investigations. The DEA was looking for translators in over 100 languages and dialects. Among the positions available were for nine Ebonics translators. For some reason they were criticised for doing this. I think the was on drugs is a massive folly, but if you are engaged in combat it is helpful to know what the enemy is saying.

Is Ebonics a language, a dialect or simply broken English? In this article I intend to debunk some popular misperceptions. Ebonics is seen as one part slang and one part bad grammar. It does have slang, as does any language, but it also has a set of grammatical constructions that are systematic and rule-governed.  Although these structures are often regarded as mistakes by speakers of Standard English., Ebonics is not the result of random ‘error’. After the Oakland incident the Linguistic Society of America issued a resolution defending Ebonics. Here is a short extract:

The systematic and expressive nature of the grammar and pronunciation patterns of the African American vernacular has been established by numerous scientific studies over the past thirty years. Characterizations of Ebonics as “slang,” “mutant,” ” lazy,” “defective,” “ungrammatical,” or “broken English” are incorrect and demeaning.

So what are the grammatical, lexical and phonological features of Black English? Let’s look at some examples of how it works:

Part of the distinctive flavour of Ebonics is provided by what is omitted. It doesn’t have a marker for the third person singular present tense in verbs and auxiliaries. Nor does it have the past markers typical in Standard English. One of the most distinguishing features of Ebonics is the use of be to indicate that performance of the verb is of a habitual nature:

James happy = James is happy right now

James be happy = James is usually happy/a happy person

On seeing a pedestrian outside his window a black person would not exclaim “He be walkin’ by!” That would sound quite odd. It would be nothing less than incorrect Ebonics like all speech varieties, can be spoken wrong as well as right. Double negatives are another staple of Ebonics, and we are taught that those are terrible in English, yet they are used in other languages; Spaniards say No sé nada and the world doesn’t end. So they are not universally bad grammar.

To many people, the first examples of vocabulary that come to mind are slang terms such as homie, bling-bling and yo. This last word can be used at the beginning of a sentence and at the end. It can also replace your.

Ebonics pronunciation includes features like the omission of the final consonant in words like ‘past’ (pas’ ) and ‘hand’ (han’).The pronunciation of the th in ‘bath’ as t (bat) or f (baf), and the vowels in words like ‘ride’ is pronounced as a long ah (mah, rahd). And the th sound is pronounced d as in dem and dose: Of course many of these features are not confined to Ebonics.

Another important myth is that Ebonics is African in origin. The contribution of West African languages to Ebonics is insignificant. The consensus among linguists is a counterintuitive idea; Ebonics is actually a hybrid of regional dialects of Great Britain. The slaves brought to America were forced to work alongside the indentured servants who spoke those dialects. The habitual be is believed to have been picked up by interactions with Ulster immigrants.

We need to bear in mind that Ebonics was a created by adults rather than children, and so some streamlining took place.  This is analogous with what happened to Old English as it was transformed into Middle English with the wholesale loss of inflectional endings. The simplified English we speak today is partly the result of mistakes made by Viking Speakers. Mistakes are an important motor of linguistic change.

The difference between a language and a dialect is notoriously difficult to pin down, but I think Ebonics is not a separate language, but another dialect of English. McWhorter compares Ebonics and Standard English to Sicilian Italian and Standard Italian. Both can coexist. However, it is important that students be able to switch between codes. It is necessary to master Standard English if you want to be taken seriously. I do think we need to celebrate the diversity of human languages and dialects. I am not saying this to be politically correct, but because it is borne out by linguistics. I will finish with a quote from John McWhorter:

“In that light, we can see that the impression Black English has given many, of being an often cute, sometimes even thrilling, but ultimately Black English primitive bad habit is just that, an impression, which falls like a house of cards on scrutiny. The truth is that Black English is every bit as complex and subtle as Standard English and is nothing less, than a national treasure.”

_______

* I nicked the title from a chapter from John McWhorter’s book Word on the Street: Debunking the Myth of “Pure” Standard English. You can read the chapter online here.


2 comedians look at rap

September 22, 2012

Here are a couple of videos:


All the way to the Banksy

September 16, 2012

Some people become cops because they want to make the world a better place. Some people become vandals because they want to make the world a better looking place. Banksy, Wall and Piece

Here’s a mystery for you. Renegade urban graffiti artist Banksy is clearly a guffhead of massive proportions, yet he’s often feted as a genius straddling the bleeding edge of now. Why? Because his work looks dazzlingly clever to idiots. And apparently that’ll do. Charlie Brooker in the Guardian.

Banksy makes a crap picture about how people pay a lot of money for crap pictures, which someone then ends up paying a lot of money for. A portion of irony eating itself, anyone? Comment by blogger about Banksy’s Moron.

____

Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani saw graffiti as a symptom of urban decay, and set about eradicating it – especially on New York’s subway system. But his distaste is not universal. In 1974 Norman Mailer wrote The Faith of Graffiti, which argued that graffiti was not a blight, and that there was continuity with Matisse Picasso and Pollock. I have to say I am more in the Giuliani camp but I suppose there is graffiti and graffiti.

First it is necessary to give some linguistic and historical background. Graffiti comes from the Italian word graffiato (“scratched”). In art it refers to works produced by scratching a design onto a surface. On a pedantic note graffiti takes a plural verb, although in less formal contexts it may be considered a mass noun and thus be used with a singular verb.

The earliest forms of graffiti date go back to 30,000 BC, but the first known example of graffiti as we understand it comes from the ancient Greek city of Ephesus (in modern-day Turkey). Graffiti was also discovered in Ancient Rome. The eruption of Vesuvius preserved thousands of examples in Pompeii and Herculaneum, including ads, curses, magic spells, gossip, famous literary quotes declarations of love, jokes, political slogans and a lot of bawdy stuff. Studying graffiti has contributed to our understanding of life in Pompeii and Herculaneum and provided invaluable insights into the way citizens thought.

Now let’s fast forward to the twenty-first century. Without doubt the most famous street artist in the world is Banksy. Despite this fame, very little is known about who he really is. In 2008 he was outed by the Daily Mail. One Mail source named him as Robin Gunningham. He is not the product of a conflictive inner-city slum, but had a comfortable middle class childhood in a Bristol suburb. He attended Bristol Cathedral School, a public school with a pedigree of 1.000 years.

He began as a freehand graffiti artist in the 1990s in Bristol. In 2000 he had an epiphany and began using stencils after he realised how much less time it took to complete a piece. Banksy’s stencils feature striking and humorous images occasionally combined with slogans with a vaguely left-wing agenda – anti-war, anti-capitalist and anti-establishment. He is famous for his stunts:

  • In August 2004 produced a quantity of spoof British £10 notes substituting the picture of the Queen’s head with Diana, Princess of Wales’s head and replacing “Bank of England” with “Banksy of England.”
  • In August 2005 on a trip to the Palestinian territories, he created nine images on the Israeli West Bank wall. The images depicted a ladder going up and over the wall and children digging a hole.
  • In September 2006, he dressed an inflatable doll like a Guantanamo Bay detainee, in an orange jumpsuit, black hood, and handcuffs, He then placed the figure within the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride at the Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, California, where it is said to have remained for 90 minutes before the ride was shut down and the effigy removed.

This publicity led to Banksy becoming a sought-after artist, his works going for tens of thousands of pounds. The journalist Max Foster coined the phrase “the Banksy effect” to illustrate how interest in other street artists was growing in the slipstream of Banksy’s success. The Banksy brand has colonised galleries, auctions, bookshops and the cinema. In 2010  the artist directed a very entertaining documentary called Exit Through the Gift Shop, which introduced us to a new artist Thierry Guetta, aka Mr. Brainwash. When you are watching it you are never quite sure what is supposed to be real and what is a hoax. Indeed New York Times movie reviewer Jeannette Catsoulis coined a new term for this kind of film: prankumentary. I can certainly recommend it.

Despite “the Banksy effect”, many street artists do not appreciate him very much. This is reflected in another documentary, Graffiti Wars, which I saw the other day. His use of stencils is seen as cheating. And he has been accused of ripping off the work of Blek le Rat, creator of the life-sized stencil technique in early 1980s Paris.  However, it is his battle with King Robbo which gives the film its title. Robbo, a working class lad from the East end of London, is said to have tagged almost every single train in the city with his colourful tags in the 90s. Their feud began when Banksy painted over one of Robbo’s pieces. This is a cardinal sin in the world of graffiti artists, leading to a series of tit-for-tat incidents which have been going on since 2009. Robbo claims that in the nineties he had slapped Banksy for disrespecting him. Banksy denies this ever happened. The funny thing is that Banksy has now become an almost establishment figure with his works being protected by Perspex put up by councils to stop any graffiti vandals defacing them. Now this is an example of irony, Alanis Morissette.

And art critics chide Banksy for his conservatism. They seem to disapprove of his accessibility. The Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones is typical of these critics of Banksy:

He appeals to people who hate the Turner prize. It’s art for people who think that artists are charlatans. This is what most people think, so Banksy is truly a popular creation: a great British commonsense antidote to all that snobby pretentious art that real people can’t understand. Yet to put your painting in a public place and make this demand on attention while putting so little thought into it reveals a laziness in the roots of your being. After wallowing in this stuff for a while, I almost found myself hating Banksy’s fans. But actually, it’s fine to like him so long as you don’t kid yourself that this is ‘art’ … in Banksy the philistines are getting their revenge

I beg to differ. I do enjoy Banksy’s provocations and I think that he does bring art to a wider public. This is not art to last for centuries but I think the world would be an uglier place without the work of this enigmatic artist from Bristol.


QI: A selection #11

September 16, 2012

Here is another selection of trivia that I have picked from the QI column in the Telegraph:

Deserts make up about a third of the Earth’s land surface but only about 20 per cent of these deserts are covered in sand. Sandy deserts are known as ergs. The word desert is now usually used in a climatic sense, but it was originally used to describe a place with a sparse population, from the Latin word desertus, meaning “abandoned”. Today, 13 per cent of the world’s population live in deserts. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, desert hunter-gatherers need 500sq miles of land per person to survive.

All the numbers on a roulette wheel added together make 666.

Ninety-nine per cent of American prunes, and 70 per cent of all the prunes in the world, are produced in California. Rising labour costs in the early 20th century resulted in one grower importing 500 monkeys to the Santa Clara Valley from Panama. Organised into gangs of 50, each with a human foreman, the monkeys were set loose into the orchards. They scampered up the trees, harvested all the plums, and ate the lot.

The invention of spectacles towards the end of the 13th century added at least 15 years to the academic and scientific careers of men whose work depended on reading. In the 17th century, the philosopher Baruch Spinoza made his living as a lens-grinder; this enabled him to do his philosophy independently of patronage, but may have led to his early death from a lung illness in 1677. By the 17th century, European glass had become cheap enough for ordinary people to use it for window panes. This not only protected them from the elements, but also flooded their houses with light, initiating a great leap forward in hygiene. Dirt and vermin became visible, and living spaces clean and disease free. Partly as a result, plague was eliminated from most of Europe by the early 18th century.

The hand-held wireless BlackBerry got its name because the small keys looked like seeds.

The Japanese runner Shizo Kanakuri began the marathon at the 1912 Stockholm Games but, being exhausted after his 18-day journey to Sweden, stopped for a rest after nearly 19 miles and asked at a local house for a glass of water. Having drunk it, he fell asleep on the sofa and woke up the next morning. In 1967, aged 76, he was invited to return to the city and complete his run. His finishing time was therefore 54 years, eight months, six days, 32min and 20.3sec.

Communicating in water is a challenge. Smell is useless, sight limited and touch is tricky when you have fins rather than fingers. But sound waves travel four times faster under water, and whales have turned the ocean itself into a sophisticated communication system. Whale song is the loudest noise made by any single animal: some calls are so low in frequency they can be felt thousands of miles away. The half-hour songs of the humpback whale contain grammatical rules: sounds are combined into syntax, packing the song with millions of discrete units of information. Whales sing in different dialects depending on where they’re from, and sing different songs in different places at different time of the year. Whether these songs are satnav readouts, shipping forecasts, personal ads or epic poetry, we will never know. What we do know is that military sonar and general noise pollution in the sea has reduced their carrying range by 80 per cent – and many stranded whales are found to have severe inner ear damage.

There are about 14,000 racing camels in the UAE and until recently, the sport depended on the use of child jockeys, often taken from their parents and kept in dreadful living conditions. In 2005, the UAE and Qatar started using robot jockeys. They have two hands to control the reins and whip, GPS, and can monitor the camel’s heart rate. They are also dressed up with hats and sunglasses and given proper human-shaped heads, because in early experiments the inhuman robots spooked the camels.

It is often claimed that the cultures of the Americas didn’t invent the wheel. This isn’t quite true as there are wheeled children’s toys that date back to 1,500BC. The lack of wheeled vehicles in the archaeological record is usually explained by the lack of domesticated animals to pull them. They had no horses and the nearest thing to an ox (the bison) was never tamed. Llamas were – but they lived in the Andes, not a great area for moving carts and barrows.

Sandcastles are more dangerous than sharks. Since 1990, sandcastles have caused 16 fatalities, compared with the 12 killed in shark attacks. The main hazard is people falling into the holes they’ve dug. Myrtle Beach, Florida, holds the record for the longest sand sculpture and the tallest sand castle. The tallest sculpture towered almost 50ft in height, contained 4,800 cubic yards of sand and took 10 days to build; the longest stretched for over 16 miles.

If you want to supersize your beach experience, the world’s longest beaches are in Brazil and Texas. Praia do Cassino stretches from the southern Brazilian city of Rio Grande to the border with Uruguay, some 1,581 miles (2,545 km) or about as far as London to Moscow. Padre Island is the second largest island in the US (after Long Island) and is essentially a sandbar, 1 13 miles (182km) long, off the southern Texan coast in the Gulf of Mexico. Ninety Mile Beach in the North Island of New Zealand turns out to be only 55 miles (88km) long. This miscalculation probably dates back to the early missionaries who reckoned to travel 30 miles a day on horseback. Because the beach took three days to traverse, they assumed it was 90 miles long, but horses walk much more slowly in sand.

Domestic life isn’t good for cats: milk gives them diarrhoea, cat food rots their gums and central heating causes them to moult all year round, causing their fur to clog up their digestive system. Nevertheless, 35 per cent of American cat owners never allow their cat to go outside. Only a quarter of American cat “owners” say they deliberately went out to acquire a cat: in 75 per cent of cases, it was the cat that acquired them. Studies show that many more people claim to own a cat than there are cats. The British government makes itself responsible for feeding 100,000 cats to keep down mice on government property.


Did Charles Dickens ever write anything fun?: the strange things customers say

September 9, 2012

Since I bought my Sony e–reader I spend less time in bookshops than I used to. After reading Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops by Jen Campbell I think I should go more often. Here is a selection from the book:

CUSTOMER: Hi, I just wanted to ask: did Anne Frank ever write a sequel?

BOOKSELLER: ……..

CUSTOMER: I really enjoyed her first book.

BOOKSELLER: Her diary?

CUSTOMER: Yes, the diary.

BOOKSELLER: Her diary wasn’t fictional.

CUSTOMER: Really?

BOOKSELLER: Yes… She really dies at the end – that’s why the diary finishes. She was taken to a concentration camp.

CUSTOMER: Oh… that’s terrible.

BOOKSELLER: Yes, it was awful –

CUSTOMER: I mean, it’s such a shame, you know? She was such a good writer.

______

CUSTOMER (holding up a copy of a Harry Potter book): This doesn’t have anything weird in it… does it?

BOOKSELLER: You mean, like, werewolves?

CUSTOMER: No (whispers) – gays.

BOOKSELLER: . . . right.

______

(A child is playing with a book on the floor and rips it)

CHILD’S MOTHER: Oh, Stephen (she tuts in a non-serious way). Do be careful. (She takes the book off the child and puts it back on the shelf)

BOOKSELLER: Excuse me?

CHILD’S MOTHER: Yes?

BOOKSELLER: Your son just ripped the head off the tiger who came to tea.

CHILD’S MOTHER: I know. Children, ey?

BOOKSELLER: Yes, but we can’t sell that book now. It’s damaged.

CHILD’S MOTHER: Well I don’t know what you expect me to do about it.

______

CUSTOMER: Do you have any Robin Hood stories where he doesn’t steal from the rich? My husband’s called Robin and I’d like to buy him a copy for his birthday, but he’s a banker, so …

______

CUSTOMER: Do you have Agatha Christie’s Death in Denial?

______

CUSTOMER: Who wrote the Bible? I can’t remember.

CUSTOMER’S FRIEND: Jesus.

______

CUSTOMER: Do you have any books signed by Margaret Atwood?

BOOKSELLER: We have many Margaret Atwood books, but I’m afraid we don’t have any signed copies.

CUSTOMER: I’m looking for a birthday present for my wife. I know she’s really love a signed copy. You couldn’t fake a signature could you?

______

CUSTOMER: Do you have an LGBT fiction section?

BOOKSELLER: We don’t have a specific section, but we do have LGBT literature – Sarah Waters, Ali Smith, Jeanette Winterson, Christopher Isherwood etc. Which author were you looking for?

CUSTOMER: Don’t worry, I’ll have a look through the fiction section – thanks for your help.

OTHER CUSTOMER: Sorry, did I hear you right? Did you just say that all the homosexual books are in with the normal fiction.

BOOKSELLER: All our fiction is one section.

(Other Customer looks suspiciously at the book she’s holding and slides it back on the shelf)

______

CUSTOMER: These books are really stupid, aren’t they?

BOOKSELLER: Which ones?

CUSTOMER: You know, the ones where animals like cats and mice are best friends.

BOOKSELLER: I suppose they’re not very realistic, but then that’s fiction.

CUSTOMER: They’re more than unrealistic; they’re really stupid.

BOOKSELLER: Well, writers use that kind of thing to teach kids about accepting people different to themselves, you know?

CUSTOMER: Yeah, well, books shouldn’t pretend that different people get on like that and that everything is ‘la de da’ and wonderful, should they? Kids should learn that life’s a bitch, and the sooner the better.

______

Do you have any books in this shade of green, to match the wrapping paper I bought?

______

So . . . this Kindle. Are the books on that paperback or hardback?

______

CUSTOMER: Do you have this children’s book I’ve heard about? It’s supposed to be very good. It’s called ‘Lionel Richie and the Wardrobe.’

______

CUSTOMER: My children are just climbing your bookshelves. That’s ok, isn’t it? They won’t topple over, will they?

(Customer is reading a book from the shelf, pauses and folds the top of one of the pages over, then puts it back on the shelf)

BOOKSELLER: Excuse me, what are you doing?

CUSTOMER: I was just reading the first chapter of this book, but I’m going to be late meeting a friend for lunch. So, I’m just marking it and I’ll finish reading it when I stop by tomorrow.

______

CUSTOMER: I’m just going to nip to the supermarket to do the weekly shop. I’m going to leave my sons here, is that ok? They’re three and five. They’re no bother.

______

CUSTOMER (holding up a copy of Ulysses): Why is this book so long? Isn’t it supposed to be set in one day only? How can this many pages of things happen to one person in one day? I mean, I get up, have breakfast, go to work, come home… sometimes I might go out for a drink, and that’s it! And, I mean, that doesn’t fill a book, does it?

______

CUSTOMER: Can you point me to your military history section, please?

BOOKSELLER: I’m afraid we’re such a small shop that we don’t actually have one.

CUSTOMER: WHAT? No war section AT ALL? Have you no respect for the fallen?

BOOKSELLER: I can order in any title you’re after. Or you’ll find a decent selection of war poetry and novels inspired by war.

CUSTOMER (ignoring this): You mean to tell me you have no shelf on weaponry?

BOOKSELLER: I’m afraid not.

CUSTOMER: Are you a pacifist or something?

______

CUSTOMER: It’s amazing, isn’t it, how little we really know about writers’ lives? Especially the old ones.

BOOKSELLER: I guess the lives of writers have changed a lot.

CUSTOMER: Yes. And don’t forget about those women who used to write under male names.

BOOKSELLER: Yes, like George Eliot.

CUSTOMER: I always thought Charles Dickens was probably a woman.

BOOKSELLER: . . . I’m pretty sure Charles Dickens was a man.

CUSTOMER: But who’s to say?

BOOKSELLER: Well, he was pretty prominent in society; lots of people saw him.

CUSTOMER: But maybe that was all a show – maybe that was her brother, whilst Charlene was at home, writing.

BOOKSELLER: . .

______

CUSTOMER: I’m always on night shift at work.

BOOKSELLER (jokingly): Is that why you’re buying so many vampire novels?

CUSTOMER (seriously): You can never be too prepared.

______

CUSTOMER: I’d like to buy your heaviest book, please.

______

You know how they say that if you gave 1,000 monkeys typewriters, then they’d eventually churn out really good writing? Well, do you have any books by those monkeys?

______

Do you have any pop-up books on sex education?

______

CUSTOMER: I’m looking for a book for my son. He’s six.

BOOKSELLER: How about this one – it’s about—

CUSTOMER: Yeah, whatever, I’ll take it.

______

Did Charles Dickens ever write anything fun?

______

CUSTOMER: If I were to, say… meet the love of my life in this bookshop, what section do you think they would be standing in?

______

CUSTOMER: Do you have a section on religion?

BOOKSELLER: Sure, it’s just over here.

CUSTOMER: You’ve got Richard Dawkins’s books on here next to copies of the Bible.

BOOKSELLER: That section is for all kinds of books relating to religion.

CUSTOMER: I hope you know that’s a sin. And you will go to hell.

______

CUSTOMER:  Do you have any security cameras in here?

BOOKSELLER: Yes.

CUSTOMER:  Oh (CUSTOMER slides a book out from inside his jacket and places it back on the shelf).

______

CHILD: Mummy, can we buy this book?

MOTHER: Put that down, Benjamin. We’ve got quite enough books at home!

______

CUSTOMER: Have you read every single book in here?

BOOKSELLER: No, I can’t say I have.

CUSTOMER: Well you’re not very good at your job, are you?

______

Phone rings.

BOOKSELLER: Hello.

CUSTOMER: Hi. I was wondering if you could help me. I’m looking for a book for my niece. She’s six and I’ve no idea what to buy her.

BOOKSELLER: Sure. What kinds of things is she in to?

CUSTOMER: I don’t really know. I don’t see her very often – my sister lives abroad.

BOOKSELLER: OK, what’s her name?

CUSTOMER: Sophie.

BOOKSELLER: Ah, well, have you considered the Dick King Smith Sophie series? There’s even a book called Sophie’s Six.

CUSTOMER: OK, sure, that sounds like a good idea.

BOOKSELLER: Do you want me to double check that we have those in stock? I’m pretty sure we do.

CUSTOMER: No, it’s OK. I’m just going to order them online.

BOOKSELLER: But… we just gave you the recommendation.

CUSTOMER: I know, and I appreciate it. It’s a pain that Amazon don’t have a physical person I can ask about this sort of thing. Still, I can always rely on you guys for advice.

BOOKSELLER: …

______

CUSTOMER: What books could I buy to make guests look at my bookshelf and think: ‘Wow, that guy’s intelligent’?