Print v iPads: books win!

The speed race, at least. Books are faster and ‘more relaxing’ to read, but iPads and Kindles are ‘more satisfying’, finds new study

E-book readers might be heralded as the future of literature but a new report shows that it’s still quicker to read the old-fashioned print version of a book.

The study, by Jakob Nielsen from the Nielsen Norman Group, gave 24 people a short story by Ernest Hemingway to read – chosen because “his work is pleasant and engaging to read, and yet not so complicated that it would be above the heads of users”.

Each participant read their story using four different devices – a printed book, a PC, an iPad and a Kindle. While on average the stories took 17 minutes and 20 seconds to read, the Kindle experience was 10.7% slower than print, and the iPad was 6.2% slower.

The readers were also asked to rate their satisfaction of the four experiences on a one-to-seven scale: the iPad was top at 5.8, followed by the Kindle at 5.7 and the printed book at 5.6. The PC came in last, with “an abysmal 3.6”.

“They disliked that the iPad was so heavy and that the Kindle featured less-crisp, grey-on-grey letters. People also disliked the lack of true pagination and preferred the way the iPad (actually, the iBook app) indicated the amount of text left in a chapter,” said Nielsen. He added that “less predictable” comments included participants saying that the book was “more relaxing” to use than the electronic devices. “And they felt uncomfortable with the PC because it reminded them of work.” © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Box office hit Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix ‘lost $167m’

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is still deeply in the red despite being the ninth-highest grossing film of all time, according to industry blog

A hint of the true extent of Hollywood’s current financial travails has emerged after it was claimed that a film which racked up almost $1bn at the worldwide box office in 2007 still lost money for the studio that made it.

The industry blog Deadline yesterday published a leaked net profit statement for the blockbuster film Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which stands at number nine in the all-time global box office chart, with a gross profit of $938.2m (£619m). If genuine, the statement suggests that Warner Bros is still yet to recoup $167m (£110m) of the film’s total budget.

The report suggests that Hollywood may be in a far more precarious position than previously thought – it is already well known that studios are struggling to find funding in the wake of the credit crunch and interest payments on loans and other calculations are not normally factored into a film’s official production budget. Order of the Phoenix is listed with costs of just $150m on the Box Office Mojo website.

The statement unearthed by Deadline suggests that Warner Bros incurred interest payments of $57m (£38m) on loans it took out to pay for the film to be made, more than a third of the official production budget. The extra costs may be due to distribution fees and adverts.

It also casts into doubt the efficacy of stars making deals that give them a share of net profits on top of their wages. On the evidence of Order of the Phoenix, few films can be delivering particularly large sums to those who sign up to such contracts. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Robin Ince’s top 10 truly bad books

From Sign of the Speculum to How to Marry the Man of your Choice, Robin Ince picks the best of the truly bad books he’s salvaged from jumble sales and skips up and down the country

Robin Ince is one of the UK’s most accomplished, versatile comedians with a string of awards and media appearances to his name. He was the Chortle award winner in 2009 and won the Time Out award for Outstanding Achievement in Comedy for his show The Book Club, which was also nominated for a British Comedy award and hailed by the Observer as “the outstanding literary event of the Edinburgh Festival”.

“Life on the road has taken me the length and breadth of the country and has allowed me to spend many an afternoon scouring second-hand bookshops, turning the yellowed pages of classics such as What would Jesus Eat?, rummaging through jumble sales, and even the odd skip, constantly on the search for the best of the truly bad. Over the last five years, my love of misguided guides and peripheral poetry pamphlets has bordered on obsession, in fact my tattered collection of “killer crab” novels currently stands taller than my child. This is my top 10 today, tomorrow it might include Mills & Boon’s Rash Intruder or God is for Real, Man.”

1. Sign of the Speculum by Jessica Russell Gaver

First, this is one of the most enigmatic titles on my bookshelf, at first suggesting a sequel to David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers. Actually, it is a romantic fiction that is also an ethical guide. What should you do if you are a Christian in love with your gynaecologist? The gynaecologist love story is one of the smaller genres in the broad world of romantic fiction.

2. Temptation in a Private Zoo by Anthony Dekker

This goes in the top 10 predominantly for its fantastic title. It is a spy thriller with a little bit of bear-baiting and a brief critique on how to spoil a dinner party by offering after-dinner mints. It was found in the compendium Man’s Book – books especially compiled for “the rugged reading tastes of men”.

3. Major Major by Terry Major-Ball

This is the delightful autobiography of John Major’s older brother. It is an image of an England seen predominantly in Ealing films. Terry fears women and Butlins, though comes to like them both. He knows how to make a cooked breakfast in the microwave too and he’ll tell you how. Remember to prick the egg yolk before microwaving though, or it will explode.

4. The Twentieth Plane: A Psychic Revelation by Albert Durrant Watson

An early 20th-century psychic, with the help of his deceased mother, has some conversations with Edgar Allan Poe, Byron, Shelley and other dead notables. This is non-fiction.

5. Crabs on the Rampage (and the other five) by Guy N Smith

Guy N Smith has written many horror books, but he is best known for his crabs series, chronicling the pipe-smoking crustacean adventures of Cliff Davenport, on the Welsh coast. A lurid mix of gore, some sex and moral lessons.

Moral lesson number one, don’t go swimming with your mistress: your adultery will lead to death by claw.

6. The Book of the Netherland Dwarf by Denise Cumpsty

A petcare guide book which has the reputation of a mystical tome created by HP Lovecraft that may open a portal to hell, populated by very small rabbits. Contains the most idiosyncratic drawings of the human hand holding scared rabbits.

7. Elvis: His Life and Times in Poetry and Lines by Joan B West

Who couldn’t love a slim collection of poems about Elvis from one of his brethren? What it lacks in traditional poetic skill it more than makes up for in passion for its subject. A strange beauty, enhanced by the delightful painting of Elvis on the cover.

8. Godless by Ann Coulter

If you want to know just how misguided anti-evolutionists can be and how determined to be stupid they are, Ann is a good start as she mulls on why, if evolution does exist, a worm doesn’t evolve into a beagle and how there aren’t any transitional fossils (apart from the ever-increasing collection of them). A magnificent view of what happens to your mind if you never let facts get in the way of it.

9. The Secrets of Picking up Sexy Girls by ??

A guide for the frustrated man who just can’t seem to pick up a sexy girl. Find out the advantages and disadvantages of rutting in a railway siding, why lesbians and OAPs are the same thing, how to spot a wig and why bras are bad.

10. How to Marry the Man of your Choice by Margaret Kent

The other side of The Secrets of Picking up Sexy Girls, Margaret will help women find a man to marry by persuading them to work in shoe sales or boat repair and reminding us that long fingernails “do not appeal to men”. Long fingernails suggest to a man that the woman is “unwilling to do household chores and is unavailable for recreational activities”. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

The News Where You Are by Catherine O’Flynn |Book review

Fay Weldon applauds a second novel that fulfils the promise of its predecessor

Writing a second novel is a nervy business for a writer, especially when the first one has been unexpectedly and wonderfully successful, as was Catherine O’Flynn’s debut What Was Lost, which went on to win the 2008 Costa first novel and a cluster of other awards. But O’Flynn need not be nervous. Her second novel, The News Where You Are, establishes her as, let’s say, the JG Ballard of Birmingham. As Ballard dealt with the landscape of the motorway and made it his own, so O’Flynn deals with her particular city, finding poetry and meaning where others see merely boredom and dereliction. It is a most moving book. Lightly flinging a joke or two in the reader’s direction, a snatch or so of knowledgeable brightness, O’Flynn comes across as the mistress of compassion. To better sing the song of the normally unsung she deals in subtext, in the irony of events, in the archetypal, to great effect, so that the book gains a kind of driving energy, as if the lonely dead of the city’s past and present were determined to be heard.

O’Flynn is particularly good on old age and the consolations of helplessness. “His hearing aid is invisible, his need to piss every half hour easily covered up, but his hands dangle there at the end of his arms for all to see [. . .] He wonders why cosmetic surgery is never offered for hands. He stares at them until they seem entirely alien to him; two lumps of bone and gristle lying on a purple velvet cushion.”

O’Flynn’s protagonist is Frank, a presenter of Midlands TV regional news, noted for his bad jokes and lack of ambition. It is his habit to attend the funerals, often as the sole mourner, of those who have died alone and lain undiscovered for days, weeks, even months, but who win by their deaths a brief mention in the local news. He feels it is his duty to note their passing, even if no one else will. He is a good man, content to be one of the “future people” envisaged in his father’s architectural drawings, dotted about in paradisiacal landscapes, figures with featureless faces. Lego people.

Frank’s father was an architect who neglected his family to build the new Jerusalem in Birmingham, which the ungrateful city now tears down, just as in his turn Frank’s father once demolished the city’s Victorian heritage. “The past has gone, the future is yet to come, and what remains is a stalled present,” Frank observes, as he sees schemes for new developments redrawn or scrapped altogether as grand designs for the future are whittled away, dreams always defeated by cold reality.

There are vivid portraits here: the failed joke-writer, Frank’s trusting daughter, the female TV presenters, obsessed by age. Most strikingly Frank’s mother, meanly urging her dutiful son not to visit, as he stubbornly insists on doing. And on a visit to a tea shop:

“What anyone else might consider heart warming, the sight of an elderly couple enjoying each other’s company and a slice of fruit cake, would invite scorn from Maureen. ‘Look at them! Bored out of their minds. Nothing to say [. . .] Why aren’t they screaming?'”

There is a plot of sorts – who killed Frank’s predecessor, the famous one, whom old age was about to conquer had not a hit-and-run driver got him just in time? – but it’s a wispy kind of plot, and suspense hardly matters in this blend of Dickens and Alan Bennett, written in the kind of stripped-down, flat style that so suits its time and place. I loved it, and am haunted by it. While What Was Lost benefited from the existence of an actual child ghost, forever vanishing round the corners of a shopping mall – which was the reality, that product of the human imagination the mall, or the ghost? – this book is set in a less metaphorical, less fanciful world, but it has equal power. If you can write two good novels you can write another and another and another: I am sure O’Flynn will and I look forward to them.

Fay Weldon’s Chalcot Crescent is published by Corvus. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Back to the Hugos: Ringworld by Larry Niven | Sam Jordison

Larry Niven’s blend of wild imagination and hard science is positively intoxicating

Larry Niven’s 1970 Hugo award winner, Ringworld, is arguably one of the most influential science fiction novels of the past 50 years. As well as having had a huge impact on nearly all subsequent space operas (Iain M Banks’ Culture series and Alastair Reynolds’ House of Suns are just two), the book has helped generate a multi-billion-dollar industry. The Ringworld of the book’s title is a direct ancestor of the Halo system that in turn provided the name for the Xbox killer app. Niven’s ideas have played a part in the lives of millions of people and helped console games on the way to being among the most important and impressive cultural artefacts of our time.

The Ringworld in question is not whatever filthy thought came to your mind when you first registered the book’s naive title but one of science fiction’s most successful Big Dumb Objects. It’s an advanced form of a Dyson sphere: a huge, ring-shaped planet built by design rather than nature. The thing is supposedly a million miles wide, 93 million miles in radius and thus around 600m miles long. It provides its own gravity by spinning; it gets energy from the star it orbits; it has walls thousands of miles high at each rim to hold in air … I could provide endless statistics and facts about this creation and many have, most notably in this interactive map (complete with soothing music in case all the number-crunching makes your brain ache). The important point for the purposes of this blog, however, is that it’s awesome. Niven serves up a blend of wild imagination and hard science that’s positively intoxicating.

A measure of how seriously people take the science of the Ringworld – and how daft it has driven them – comes in a story from the 1971 World Science Fiction Convention, when excited students from MIT apparently crowded out the venue chanting: “The Ringworld is unstable!” Apparently, the Ringworld would need giant thrusters to maintain orbit around its sun (a problem that Niven addressed in a follow-up 10 years later). The significant thing isn’t that Niven was wrong but that people took so much of the rest of his science seriously enough to worry about such matters. His ideas have traction. The Ringworld is splendidly improbable but perhaps not impossible.

So much for the science. The fiction is a similar mix of the wobbly and the earth-shaking. The book kicks off as a fairly pedestrian pastiche of the frequent Hugo winner Robert A Heinlein, complete with that Heinlein standard, an ageing wise-cracker – Louis Wu – who has a talent for seducing younger women, daft 1960s party scenes transmuted to the space age and invented hep slang (most notably the swear word “tanj”, an acronym of the Heinlein complaint “there ain’t no justice”).

In this slow beginning, there’s a lot of jargon, heavy technological exposition and background, the latter particularly relating to the intergalactic status quo and the aliens who feature in the story: a race of “cowards” called Puppeteers who have two heads and brains in their belly, and a race of “warriors” called Kzinti, who have leonine features and brains more traditionally led by their balls. There’s some curiosity value to these pages, a few half-good jokes from Louis Wu and a smattering of intrigue relating to the lead Puppeteer’s attempts to convince Wu (together with a Kzinti and unsurprisingly attractive girl called Teela Brown) to travel on a dangerous mission into the unknown. Mainly, however, it is dull. If I weren’t expected to blog about it, I might even have put the novel aside, which makes me all the more glad that I’m doing this series. Because when the Ringworld finally hoved into view, it was little short of marvellous.

The planet is rendered in superbly detailed 3D with just enough information given to make it seem convincing but enough held back to enable us to share the mystery that greets Louis Wu and friends. How was Ringworld made? What was it made from? How and why did its civilisation disappear? These become questions of real fascination. Travelling over the planet, meanwhile, with its vast oceans, lost cities, floating castles and tribes of people slowly reverting to barbarism and religion as they lose their grasp on the knowledge of their ancestors, is a visual and imaginative feast.

OK, I still had a few quibbles. There remained absurdities and unsuccessful plot strands. Teela Brown, in particular, made for a boring love interest, and there was a singularly unconvincing back story about her having been bred to optimise her luckiness. Yet so impressive was the rest that any such problems were easy to forgive and forget. It’s clear that Ringworld hasn’t just become a cultural staple because it’s a good idea: its inspirational power comes from Niven’s success in bringing it to life. The sense of scale and wonder is joyful. I challenge you to read it without feeling awestruck. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Thomas Carnacki, king of the supernatural detectives

Through the character of Thomas Carnacki, ghost-finder, William Hope Hodgson – who celebrates his centenary this year – shows us that detective fiction and the occult can be a perfect match

Publishing trends have ebbed and flowed over the past century, but two genres have consistently flourished: tales of the supernatural and detective fiction. Put them together and you have, at least for me, a winning formula. What’s not to like about a character with the foibles of a Holmes or a Poirot bringing their mighty powers of deduction to bear on creatures of the night? The sub-genre is at once a perfect fit (mooching about in dark, unsavoury places is second nature to the detective) and interestingly discordant (detectives deal in logic and facts, and ghosts, by their nature, move outside such things).

Sherlock Holmes did, of course, dabble in occult cases, his most famous being The Hound of the Baskervilles. But reason generally won out in the end and his supernatural mysteries usually turned out – like Scooby-Doo and the gang’s adventures – to have a rational, criminal explanation. But there are plenty of detectives whose investigations don’t return such earthbound conclusions, and for me the greatest is Thomas Carnacki.

Carnacki wasn’t the first supernatural detective – that honour probably goes to Dr Martin Hesselius, created by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu in the 1870s. But Carnacki, who first appeared in the Idler magazine in 1910, has all the elements in such perfect proportions that he deserves to be crowned king of the occult ‘tecs – especially in this, his centenary year.

Carnacki was the creation of William Hope Hodgson, an author who had already gained literary renown for The Boats of the Glen Carrig and The House On the Borderland. The Carnacki stories always follow the same format: the great detective (I’m sure Holmes will excuse me appropriating his title for Carnacki in this instance) issues invitations to a group of friends to attend a dinner at his home at 427 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea. After a repast during which nothing is said of the story to come, Carnacki gathers them round to relate his latest adventure. The stories are narrated, Watson-like, by one of the crew: Dodgson, a man so close in name to the author that we can safely assume Hodgson was inserting himself into the stories.

The series appears under the name Carnacki the Ghost-Finder, and that’s pretty much what he does. His reputation leads him to be invited to the rambling family piles of influential and moneyed types, to sort out the hauntings. What’s especially refreshing is that, despite his experience, Carnacki is often as much of a scaredy-cat as the rest of us. In his first adventure, The Gateway of the Monster, he positively bottles it at going into a haunted room after dark.

And not all his cases turn out to be the work of the supernatural. Sometimes, just to keep things grounded, Hodgson throws in a pedestrian explanation – crooks trying to scare yokels away from a big house, for example. But when the case proves undeniably otherwordly, Carnacki finds cause to fight fire with fire: he draws himself and his helpers into pentacles and sigils to protect them against demonic incursions (see the truly terrifying sequence in The House Among the Laurels for a fine example).

The editors of the Idler obviously knew they’d struck gold with Carnacki, and on his third adventure, in their March 1910 edition, they printed a disclaimer with relish: “Complaints continue to reach us from all parts of the country to the effect that Mr W Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki stories are producing a widespread epidemic of nervous prostration! So, far from being able to reassure or calm our nervous readers, we are compelled to warn them that The Whistling Room, which we publish this month, is worse than ever. Our advertising manager had to go to bed for two days after reading the advance sheets; a proofreader has sent in his resignation; and, worst of all, our smartest office boy … but this is no place to bewail or seek for sympathy!”

Carnacki’s success spawned many more occult detectives, most notably Seabury Quinn’s Jules de Grandin who appeared in Weird Tales for most of the second quarter of the last century. But who are the supernatural sleuths who deserve Carnacki’s crown in the modern era? Urban fantasy is a flourishing sub-genre at the moment, and the private eye with one (gum)shoe in the grave is big business – Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books have made the leap to TV, and F Paul Wilson’s Repairman Jack has appeared in more than a dozen novels and even a series of spin-off Young Adult novels charting his teenage adventures.

For my money, though, the best of the current crop is Felix Castor, Mike Carey’s trenchcoat-wearing exorcist who comes with a strong pedigree: Carey wrote the adventures of the comic world’s greatest occult investigator, John Constantine. And just to prove that not all supernatural detectives are hard-boiled tough guys, the undisputed queens of the genre have to be Brenda and Effie, the women of a certain age who populate Paul Magrs’ eye-popping version of Whitby.

Now, in the words with which Carnacki always brought his post-dinner tales to a close … out you go! © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Tarzan set to swing into 21st century with new series of novels

Edgar Rice Burroughs estate backs new series of children’s books by author Andy Briggs, designed to bring the bare-chested jungle hero up to date

Jane has an iPod and Tarzan is facing up to environmental catastrophe: following literary excursions into the childhoods of James Bond and Sherlock Holmes, readers are now set to venture into the teenage years of a 21st-century Lord of the Jungle.

Tarzan first swung onto the page in 1912 in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan of the Apes. After his parents Lord and Lady Greystoke, marooned in west Africa, were killed, their baby was adopted by a great ape and raised as one of them, before falling for another castaway, Jane Porter. The star of 24 books by Burroughs, the bestselling story of the “brown, sweat-streaked, muscular” Tarzan has also been adapted for film, comics, television and radio.

Now the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate has backed a new children’s series about the bare-chested hero, set in modern Africa and aimed at nine to 11-year-olds. By Andy Briggs, author of the and books, the series is promising to “bring Tarzan the Eco Warrior to the PlayStation generation” as an “edgier and more feral” character. Briggs, a long-time fan of Tarzan, believes the character is ripe for a reboot. “I think now more than ever Tarzan is a relevant character,” he said this morning. “He was the first eco-warrior, and I wanted to hold on to that.”

Set in and around the Congo, the Tarzan of the new books will be aged around 17 or 18, while Jane, whose father is part of an illegal logging expedition, gets lost in the jungle at around 14 years old. “The original Jane is a classic character, but she’s not a modern woman,” said Briggs. “I wanted her to be tough, to be Tarzan’s equal. Not physically – she’s not jungle savvy – but I wanted her to be a tough kid. She’s had a very hard life but she’s been brought up with technology – she’s part of the Facebook generation, she owns an iPod. But as she goes deeper into the jungle, she sees its beauty.” The first book in the new series, Tarzan: The Greystoke Legacy, will

be published by Faber & Faber in 2011, followed by the second in 2012, during official Tarzan centenary celebrations.

“I didn’t want to steamroll all over classic characters,” said Briggs. “I think fans of the original books will be pleased – I’m not just straying off and doing something completely different, it’s a nod to the original. It’s the same action adventure but with a more modern storyline, and hopefully feels fresh and new.”

Tarzan’s new adventures follow the successful launch of Charlie Higson’s Young Bond series in 2005 by Puffin, and the first outing this month for a 14-year-old Sherlock Holmes in Andrew Lane’s Death Cloud. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

To Kill a Mockingbird: the backlash | Hadley Freeman

The backlash against Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is as inevitable as it is stupid. It’s payback for her being so reclusive

Hey, England soccerball fans, turn those frowns upside down! This summer isn’t a total washout. Sure your boys might have lost both their pants and their game thingummyjig but the best is yet to come, something that will absolutely have you rehanging your bunting, repainting your cheek and rechanting those songs that rely more on slurred sentiment than coherent lyrics. You know what I’m talking about: it’s the 50th anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird! High five, boys, don’t leave me hanging!

More than 50 vuvuzela-free anniversary celebrations are scheduled across the US this 11 July for Harper Lee’s glorious tale about a young girl named Scout, her father Atticus Finch and a creepy neighbour called Boo Radley. From such oddly named seeds, true flowers bloom, a moral that those of us with similarly strange names find deeply heartening.

Yet with a predictability that verges on the sophomoric, a backlash against the book and its author has been building. Lee has managed to live in a state of carefully maintained seclusion for the past half century, and yet in the last few months has been attacked by the likes of both Malcolm Gladwell and the Mail on Sunday, which, in terms of learning about the modern world, is like that moment in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure when Joan of Arc finds herself trapped in a phone booth with two slackers from California (with apologies to Bill and Ted for comparing them to Gladwell and the Mail on Sunday).

It was in an article in the New Yorker that Gladwell complained about what he saw as Finch’s simplistic explanation of the Ku Klux Klan to Scout: “Finch does not want to deal with the existence of antisemitism. He wants to believe in the fantasy of Sam Levy down the street, giving the Klan a good scolding.” Funnily enough, this argument, which was echoed last week by the Wall Street Journal, is similar to one my fourth-grade teacher used, and even then I knew she was – to use 1980s fourth-grader parlance – a total loser. As the American website suggested quite rightly, perhaps the reason Atticus’s explanation is a little soft is because he is talking to his six-year-old daughter, whom he does not want to have nightmares about lynchings. This, as Gladwell may or may not understand, is what is known as fiction, when there are a variety of subtle voices contained within the narrative, as opposed to, say, one monotonously smug one that owes more to linguistic razzle-dazzle than to logic.

Then the Mail on Sunday, reliably, managed to scale new heights of inanity on this topic. Having apparently exhausted the stores of sneering it could direct at Christine Bleakley last weekend, this “news”-paper turned to its next obvious target, Harper Lee, essentially doorstepping the 84-year-old recluse. The paper then duly trumpeted that it had scored an interview with her, even though that interview consisted of precisely five sentences. It then conducted a masterclass in its usual method of padding, by spewing out utterly unproven rumours about the author while coyly denying them in the same sentence.

If sneering at TKAM is fashionable then backlashes have long been more so, which makes much of this hoo-hah inevitable. Another factor here is undoubtedly Lee’s reclusiveness, given that she is, by definition, not going to defend her book. Reclusive celebrities always attract both fascination and cynicism, as proven by the ghoulish reports of JD Salinger’s death in January, most of which – Mail-style – rehashed unproven rumours about his personal life. But this just reflects what is expected of the famous these days. Yesterday, Forbes published its inexplicably vaunted annual Celebrity Power List, which features such crucial players as Britney Spears and Simon Cowell. Forbes, you see, compiles its list by adding up the celebrities’ earnings, media exposure and presence on Twitter and Facebook, all of which is a bit like deciding who is important according to how often they are photographed coming out of the Groucho. But it is unlikely anyone will be marking the 50th anniversary of The X Factor. Go Harper.

News that Steve Carell is to leave The Office is hard to take
But it’s not all good this summer. Insert ominous music – Steve Carell is leaving The Office; insert zooming closeup of everyone in the world making a collective wail of despair! 30 Rock is currently the US sitcom to love, but that generally only makes one smile, whereas The Office still makes me laugh out loud all alone like a loon. Carell has said the show will continue without him and, true, some sitcoms live on after the departure of their celebrity star (A Different World actually improved once Lisa Bonet left), but most do not. Nor is that even the point.

The US version of The Office is about a zillion times better than the original UK one and this is largely down to Carell, who is not just a better comedian than Ricky Gervais but, crucially, a more generous one. In the US version, every minor character is given a real role whereas only the truly obsessive can remember anyone from the UK Office other than Tim, Dawn and Gareth. And for that alone, this weekly opportunity to watch a rare comedian who is not all-consumed by his own ego, Carell’s departure is very, very hard to take and, as his character Michael Scott would say, that’s what she said. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Tough tomes: are challenging books worth the effort?

Do you avoid difficult reads, or seek them out? Which tomes are worth the pain, and which are best left on the shelf?

On my last trip to the library I took an unexpected turn and, facing a series of alarmingly engorged spines, realised I’d strayed into the “Literary Novels” section. Primly distinct from “General Fiction”, these consisted of books from many distinguished pens with one thing in common: they were all difficult reads. Nary a one without a complex and duplicitous prose style, baffling haemorrhage of a plot or an approach to dialogue that was, as Obi Wan said, presumably in reference to Finnegans Wake, “as if millions of voices cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced”.

What was the purpose of this strange act of bookish apartheid? Perhaps to keep the other shelves safe for easily frightened readers. Or, perhaps, a siren’s call and challenge? “You, bold reader, step forth and read the Chosen Tomes – pluck them from the shelf and you shall inherit the Kingdom of Books.”

Whatever the intention, I was struck by my lack of inclination to pounce on these indisputably great works of literature. I was happier with the modest bundle of slenderer fare already in my bookbag. How lazy I’d become! There was a time when I would have seen it as morally imperative to devote my reading time to the difficult and challenging. I remember an awfully unselfaware conversation in the terminally unselfaware years of teenagedom, during which I asked a similarly earnest friend why “people ever bother to write bad books?” He didn’t know. More in pity than in anger, we shook our heads and re-opened our novels, returning, slightly mystified, to the frustrated longing of Russian peasants. We read books that were clearly quite brilliant, if only we could understand them. They might, as we never admitted to each other, baffle us now, but hopefully we’d come out the other side stronger, better people for the experience. Maybe one day we’d even impress some girls.

Nowadays I wonder how I could have read so many books that were such heavy going and which I so clearly disliked. It only shows what a cowardly, deferential youth I was. Rather than find my own tastes, my own pleasures, I tortured myself by slavishly emulating someone else’s idea of a good time. Now I know that while I find Don Quixote hilarious, other readers may think of it as an overlong Monty Python sketch. To my wife, Jane Eyre is a tear-jerking source of perennial inspiration – to me, it’s a 19th-century Dawson’s Creek. But that’s all OK. We don’t have to upset our mental digestions, devouring books we find unpalatable just because other people love them. It’s no skin off anyone’s nose, least of all the dead authors’ – they don’t have skin any more. The only people who’ll be upset are a dwindling number of old-school Eng Lit academics who still think there’s a straight line of good reading from Boccaccio onwards. And we don’t even have to tell them, either.

But still people seem to feel obliged to toil up the mountain, not for pleasure but in the dry pursuit of worth. There’s a number of online guides explaining how one goes about reading difficult books. Largely humourless, they provide tips as to how mortal readers can prepare themselves for the challenge of entering the minds of the truly great. One guide offers a list of what you’ll need that includes time, patience, a dictionary and a highlighter. Another explains that a single read will not be enough: prepare yourself for many laps through the tome if your puny brain is to have a hope of understanding it. It’s enough to make you long for illiteracy.

But perhaps I’m just making up reasons to excuse my own laziness, using an anti-canonical argument to justify not bothering to read anything mind-widening. Am I ignoring the challenging books that I know would bore me, or just ignoring anything that challenges? Anything truly innovative requires an adjustment of taste from its audience. If I hadn’t been a wide-eyed, hideously pretentious teenager then I’d have never realised the music of Xenakis wasn’t just noise. I’d have never taken the time to adjust my head to Middle English and been able to enjoy Chaucer.

There’s a line somewhere between the peaceful harbour of enjoying your own individual taste, and wallowing, too conservatively satisfied, in an increasingly stagnant pool of the same old same old. But where is it to be drawn? I don’t know, but there must be some books that challenged you but which you found more than worthwhile. Or that you still spit in disgust at having wasted so much of your life on. Please, get me experimenting – recommend and warn away! © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Deathly Hallows trailer: time to potter back to Harry? | Ben Child

The trailer for the latest Harry Potter film suggests it will be suitably dark and intense. Is the JK Rowling-inspired series finding its stride as it hits the home straight?

Judging from the rather histrionic tone of the first trailer for the final, two-part instalment of the Harry Potter series, you’d think we were about to witness the second coming of Dumbledore, rather than the finale of an extremely hit and miss series which, for me, has rarely succeeded in capturing the magic of the books. David Yates has done a reasonable, if workmanlike job of the last two Potter films, but the high point was surely Alfonso Cuarón’s stylish Prisoner of Azkaban, and it’s unlikely that anything’s going to change that now that the series is into its final straight.

Nevertheless, Deathly Hallows looks intense and dark in tone, fittingly for a film that takes place after the death of Potter’s mentor, and mostly outside the usual comforting surroundings of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. I remember that being the strangest part of reading JK Rowling’s book – like an instalment of EastEnders that doesn’t take place in Albert Square.

It’s the old “jump the shark” rule again, isn’t it? Yet funnily enough, it might just be that Hallows benefits from escaping its usual surroundings in a way in which Fonzie et al famously did not. Part of the problem with the Potter series on film is that it has been too safe, too restricted by the spectacular success of its source material, and too fearful of upsetting the legions of fans by deviating from it. Maybe now that the familiar formula has been dispensed with, Yates can conjure up a brace of films with some genuine identity to them. As it nears its finale, is it time to give the series one more chance? © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds