Eight ways not to read a book
Eight Ways Not to Read a Book … or The Eight Great Book Reading Myths
Anyone who is reading this probably assumes that they can read a book. But have you been doing it all wrong? (Bad grammar intentional. Words and I are in an intimate relationship, and so can take liberties with each other.)
Worse, are you setting a bad example to your kids, and then wondering why they prefer even boring shows on TV to something with pages?
It is time book myths were sternly sat upon, or composted, along with out-of-date packets of weevil-infested pasta, stale biscuits and mouldy cheese.
Myth Number 1
The best way to find a good book is to choose the most prestigious award winners then let them pile up beside your bed, providing a refuge for silverfish and a reminder that you really prefer books that feature either cricketer’s sex lives or happy endings.
Useful tip: If you somehow never have time to finish that pile of books, then you are choosing the wrong books. If you want to prove to the world, or your own subconscious, that you are truly an intellectual, remember that Wittgenstein’s ‘down time’ was spent watching westerns. Einstein preferred bodice-ripper romances. (One of these claims is true. Or, just possibly, both.).
Myth Number 2
You must finish that book or the scissor man will snip your toes off. Read every single page. Also eat all your broccoli or you’ll get no dessert.
Useful tip: Think of the most enormous delicious pizza in the universe. Imagine you eat one piece, another and another, and then think, ‘That was sublime, but I’ve had enough’.
Do you really need to eat the entire pizza, no matter how delicious it is?
Books are only paper. If electronic, not even that. It is acceptable to read two thirds of a book, adore every single page, then think, ‘I have had enough’.
Turn to the final chapter and see what happens in the end.
Myth number 3
It is imperative that you start at the beginning of each book and read in an orderly linear fashion until the end.
Useful tip: I am suspicious of any book that ends depressingly. According to the late Ruth Parke : ‘These are ‘books to cut your wrists by’. It is easy to move a reader to tears by creating a sympathetic character then killing them, amputating all limbs, or have a heart attack just s they glimpse the lost love of their life again. Moving a reader to tears with laughter, compassion, empathy or a new understanding of humankind or even the dog next door is harder. Never feel you must admire books that leave you thinking: ‘I feel like there is no meaning left within my universe. That must be a brilliant book.’
It’s not. The author has merely used the easiest technique in a writer’s toolbox: kill off whatever the reader values most. All lives this planet and the universe, will end, but book ends where the writer chooses to finish it. I, therefore, read the last chapter of every book first.
It is also quite acceptable to dip in and out of a book whenever you feel like it, just as you might enjoy a dip now and then in a swimming pool.
Myth Number Four
You must read all the classics, even if they are written by Russian depressives without therapy or medication.
Useful tip: Don’t get me wrong. Some of my best friends-made-of-paper are classics. Including The Brothers Karamazov, despite the concerns about depressing books described above, Hamlet, ditto, The House at Pooh Corner, and The Last of the Mohicans which I never finished because I want to know that on some future, wonderful day I can reward myself by reading the last page.
If you really enjoy Kafka I suggest a therapist. If you read Kafka only because he’s a writer of classic literature, you and Kafka deserve each other.
Myth Number Five
Reading literary masterpieces will improve your mind.
Useful tip: Well, they might. If you finish them before the silverfish do. But reading twenty books you actually enjoy will do the job better. There are masterpieces in every genre, including some that belong to several genres at once or are so original they are genre-less.
Books are not like broccoli. You don’t consume literary masterpieces because they are good for you. But, like broccoli, books can also be delicious as well as good for you. But ensure you only choose the delicious, in books as well as veg.
Myth Number Six
It is a sin to turn down the pages of a book, write comments in the margins or leave watermelon stains.
I love second hand books because of those comments and watermelon stains. They link me to a community of readers over the last three thousand or so years. I love books that have been so preloved they are falling apart, because that is a good clue I may adore them too. I also love the smell of a new book. A good personal library has both kinds.
Myth Number Seven
Books that cover large themes, with deep intellectual discussions are more worthy than ones that are mostly plot or contain circuit diagrams.
Useful tip: Actually I prefer books with large themes and where the characters have deep introspective discussions, preferably over a cup of tea and a plate of something tasty. I am not terribly interested in plots, though I don’t mind if the author wriggles one in between the conversations or self analysis. In other words, I have never read a Patrick O’Brien, or a Patrick Robinson.
I have, however, bought every Patrick Robinson within days of its release for my husband, who chuckles at books of circuit diagrams in bed. He says PR’s books are ‘accurate’, his highest accolade. My son says people talk too much in my books. He’s probably right. Which brings me to….
Myth number 8
A good book is a good book.
The perfect book depends on the reader’s personality, and emotional state, as well as time and place. The more
books you read, the more skilled you will become at matching ‘now’ with exactly the book you need.
The cure for those who still feel ineradicably indoctrinated by book myths?
Imagine the aliens are going to carry you, all alone, in a small book-lined pod, away from a meteor-struck earth. (The aliens haven’t invented a multi-person intergalactic rescue pods yet). It will be twenty years you will meet humanity again. Your books will spontaneously combust providing the landing fuel, so no one will know or judge what you have been reading. (Don’t worry. The aliens will also send a pod containing the entire literary heritage of humanity, which will be waiting for you.)
Which books will you take to be your companions on that twenty year journey, the ones you truly deeply adore and no one will ever see? (The aliens will order them online, anonymously and, anyway, earth will vaporize before anyone reads the invoice.)
I’ve already made my choice. There are about 300 of them, carefully cached in the bottom shelves of the book room, ready to grab for emergency trips to hospital or any journey that will probably involve at least one flight delayed for nine hours.
Every one of them is a masterpiece – it needs to be to carry me through a long endurance test of a hospital waiting room. Every one is profound, even if some are also light, funny and I’ll feel a lot cheerier for having read them. Those will not be the same books that I will pick up when I have brain space to spare, nor the ones that presently sit next to the phone for those interminable ‘your call is important to us’ waits.
But each one is a friend, and will remain so. Once you discover the friendship books can give- the right books, the ones that you truly want to read, in whatever way you want to read them, it is impossible not to seek out another and another, whether you are six or ninety-four.