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Published:October 9th, 2006 02:40 EST

Who was Shakespeare?

By Krzys Wasilewski

They are fat in the age of the cult of slim figure. They are pale while flashy and colorful are the adjectives that guarantee success. They are quiet in the world that understands only shriek. Books " once the closest friends, now a poignant pang of conscience. The fact that you are reading this article means that is not that bad. First, you have sacrificed your precious time to find out what this beginning journalist wanted to tell you. Second, you do not belong to the hundreds of millions of people around the world who do not even remember when their last contact with the written word was. Congratulations.

It is hard to imagine that only a century ago a man was judged by what books he read. If he wanted to mark his existence in the intellectual circles of London, New York or Paris, apart from extensive drinking and smoking, he had to read books. The works of Conrad, Dickens, Lawrence, Proust, or Flaubert, he knew, he read, he admired. Not only was he expected to read them all, but also be able to taste each word, each phrase, each passage that made a book his most trusted guide through the contemporary world. Only when he gained the basic knowledge - that is - when he got acquainted with a dozen or so of most contemporary works, could he begin his social life. If he were lucky and could brag about a few influential friends, the doors to all cafes were wide open to him. And these were completely unlike the places we visit today. Frequented by writers and their ardent fans (or critics), bohemian cafes witnessed literary duels, which, however bloodless, were no less fierce and engaging than basketball matches a hundred years later. In smoky rooms, to the accompaniment of cheerful music, men and women of all ages were arguing whether Flaubert`s Madame Bovary should be called a wh*re, or just a liberated woman; whether Conrad`s Heart of Darkness beat only in savages, or in every men, and, last but not least, whether Henry James was an American or Englishmen. Such was the talk of the city.

The London, New York and Paris of the 21st century differ a lot from the past. The quaint, tranquil streets have been replaced with asphalt roads; the small, dusty cafes have had to give in to glossy shopping centers with smoke free areas. The topic of conversations has also changed. Who would bother about Charles Dickens or Joseph Conrad? Who knows who they were! Naturally, no one will tear their hair out because of books, let alone passages or single words. Writers have been replaced by basketball and soccer players, whose literary skills are questionable to say the least. The Brazilian soccer star, known as Ronaldo, is not ashamed of admitting that throughout all his life he has never read a book. But people don`t love him for the variety of his language, or rather its lack. They love him for his unusual skills that are for his ability to kick a leather bladder into a net. If it is not a soccer game, it is the latest episode of the Big Brother and who was voted out and why. Few years ago, in the German version of the reality show, the winner gained people`s support when he said he had no idea who William Shakespeare was. Unexpectedly this uneducated, unemployed young man became an icon in the country of that boasts such poets as Goethe and Schiller. If you have stopped laughing at the naive Germans, look around you. That should wipe the grin off your face.

A soccer star earns dozens of millions of dollars every year although he has never read a book. A German stupid who thought Shakespeare was a hockey player achieves greater fame than any of the country`s poets. And to think that not so long ago Charles W. Eliot, Harvard`s long-time president, wrote: Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers. But maybe we don`t need teachers any more?

 

Please send comments to: krzys_wasilewski@yahoo.com