How to read

Nick Hornby has a great article on the Telegraph’s website on reading – and quitting – books.

If reading books is to survive as a leisure activity – and there are statistics that show that this is by no means assured – then we have to promote the joys of reading, rather than the (dubious) benefits.

I would never attempt to dissuade anyone from reading a book. But please, if you’re reading a book that’s killing you, put it down and read something else, just as you would reach for the remote if you weren’t enjoying a television programme.

Your failure to enjoy a highly rated novel doesn’t mean you’re dim – you may find that Graham Greene is more to your taste, or Stephen Hawking, or Iris Murdoch, or Ian Rankin. Dickens, Stephen King, whoever.

All of this rises from his monthly The Believer column – “Stuff I’ve Been Reading.” We buy books, but we don’t necessarily read them all. But sometimes we feel the need to trudge through a book just because we’re supposed to, or because we’ve paid for it and don’t want the knowledge to go to waste.

I know this well – Kerrie and I have a series of non-fiction books that touch upon a single subject: Rats, Salt, Tea, Cod, etc. They describe how the title-item changed the world. They go on for 200-300 pages, describing every known historical aspect of the title-item. They seem incredibly interesting. For some reason, however, I can never get into them, no matter how hard I try.

Am I a failed reader? No. I don’t have to finish a book if I’m not into it at that time. I’ve realized this more and more after starting my own “What I’ve Been Reading” column, both on this site and in Prime Magazine. I have a lot of books to get through, and there should be no shame in putting a book down if it’s not catching my interest.

Additionally, there should be even less shame in reading books that aren’t critically acclaimed. No one is going to call Bill Bryson a literary genius, especially with much higher-vocabulary travel writers like H.V. Morton, Paul Theroux, and V.S. Naipaul clogging up the shelves. But he’s funny. And he’s easy to read. And if that serves the lowest common denominator side of me, then fine. Bill Bryson is one of the most influential writers in my life. I don’t care if he’s nominated for a Booker Prize.

While I find myself going for critic’s picks more often than not, I’m also not afraid to say that I enjoyed The Da Vinci Code. Kerrie reads Janet Evanovich. I have a lot of respect for Stephen King. I’ve never read Dickens, or Morrison, or Dostoyevsky. But I’ve read a lot of “pedestrian” stuff. And I don’t care.

Read what you like. The only important thing is that you’re actually reading.

This was lovingly handwritten on August 25th, 2006