There is always something appealing about the promotion of reading in the Netherlands. But making literature pathetic doesn’t work.

It is striking, says a Dutch acquaintance in Paris, “you really see people with a book everywhere here. In the Netherlands, no one reads anymore.”

Exaggerated, perhaps; many books have been sold during the pandemic. What seems to be crumbling in the Netherlands is the culture of reading. The physical bookstore is experiencing difficult times. The book supplements have shrunk. With the launch of Crashed at sea the last program on literature has also disappeared from television. The CPNB list of the sixty best-selling books contains, with few exceptions, mainly pamphlets, usually linked to television or celebrities.

As for young people: everywhere boys read less than girls, but Dutch boys read much less than boys in most other countries. Dutch girls read, no one is surprised, always less than most boys abroad.

Classical literature is dismissed as a hopeless cause. This summer, CPNB director Eveline Aendekerk had to sift through the dust after she said that The bitter herb by Marga Minco is fatal for young people’s ‘joy of reading’: ‘If you don’t read much and you have to The bitter herb reading, all your preconceptions about reading will be confirmed. Then the joy of reading is quite skilfully rewarded.” Condescending, too blunt for words – literary Holland on the back foot. Aendekerk apologized, even to Minco’s family.

I understood what she was saying: if you’re outside the culture of reading, you’re unlikely to convert when forced to be served a classic. But what is annoying is the suggestion that “reading pleasure” is something that requires no mental effort, that what you read must be directly related to what is already known. You’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Dumped lover

Reading and cultural promotion always have something in the Netherlands begging. It’s the begging of the dumped lover hoping to sleep with his ex one last time. I know you don’t like me anymore, but I do what you want.

Do not force anything, especially no one compulsionthen they immediately fall out. Therefore, the role model is always used. If Famke Louise struggles through a book, she might skip it, you never know.

How do you keep a literary culture alive in the media age? IN NRC the same Aendeweg recently lamented the disappearance of Crashed at sea. This time, she was more careful with her words: “Lesser-known writers, translators and illustrators also deserve opportunities and appreciation, not so much for their own sake, but for the sake of our culture, which otherwise becomes stiff and atrophied.”

Nice generalities. But it mostly sounds like most writers are a little pathetic. Aendeweg uses the word ‘vulnerable’. It is about unknown souls that we must “protect”, just because otherwise our culture will “harden and impoverish”.

Such a thing does not impress envoy Frans Klein, under whose leadership Crashed at sea the neck was turned. He owes his entire career to a culture that is frozen and impoverished.

Don’t make literature and writers pathetic. Traditional literary culture is dying, but there is hardly any creative thought on how to shape it in a new context

Don’t make literature and writers pathetic. Traditional literary culture is dying, but there is hardly any creative thought on how to shape it in a new context. Ten years ago, a group of young “untrained” readers spontaneously organized a monthly magazine Literature festival – every time there were such four hundred young people for a festive evening about books. Well-known and lesser-known authors shared their enthusiasm for the work of other authors with the audience; I remember Donna Tartt’s impassioned plea for Dickens’s work. Those evenings have never really had a sequel, although there are podcasts and Booktok. Readers like to talk about books with each other, share their experiences with each other. I would like a place, in the spirit of Literature festivalto make a case for novels that moved me, e.g You are mine by Peter Middendorp, a novel about impotence and anger that is sure to become a modern classic. Or the very funny one Golden days by Berend Sommer, where young characters passionately search for an authentic lifestyle, but can only express themselves in an empty, fashionable language.

And those unreadable classics? During a guest writing assignment at the Paris Sorbonne, I was asked to speak to a group of Dutch youth whose parents worked in France about Louis Couperus. To set the mood, I asked: who among you ever reads a novel?

Three hands of the approximately 40 present went up. I still had two hours about Couperus Godbetter, a writer who is now being translated because he is no longer understandable.

Still, it was fun as far as a teacher can judge. We talked about what Couperus’ novels have to do with our own lives. Are his characters really that far removed from us? Often – I mention Eline Vere and Constance van der Welcke, the protagonist of the novel cycle The books of the little souls – it’s about people who realize that the life they live is without real meaning.

How should you live if you have to figure it out all by yourself? It’s not a question we left behind in the early 1900s. And then there is the Dutch colonialist Otto van Oudijck, main character The silent powerwho wants to be fair to the Indonesian people in everything, but in the end is blind to what is happening in front of him because he thinks in terms of rules and principles.


very alive

Next year is Couperu’s year, he has been dead for a hundred years. Is something organized? I don’t mean to reveal another image, or nostalgic, fast-paced stuff, or Hague vibes about the city that was often enough hell on earth for the writer. I mean attention to the living themes of this great work. It’s about how our imagination, which we need to live, can easily become fantasy and leave us in one rabbit hole of total insanity. It’s about how sex is the undercurrent in our lives, about how fluid our identity and gender are, about our little obsessions with boxes and spaces in a universe that doesn’t care about our existence.

Let the reader loose on this work, let him introduce his own themes, his own feelings, his desires and fears. These novels are ours, they are very much alive, but we need to be brought back into contact with them. That is the task.

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