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Six Ways Not to Read a Book … or the Six Great Literary Myths

Anyone who is reading this probably assumes they can read a book. But have you been doing it wrong? (Bad grammar intentional. Words and I are on intimate terms and can take liberties with each other.)

Worse, are you setting a bad example to your kids, teaching them the worst ways to consume a book 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It is time book myths were sternly sat upon or composted along with out-of-date packages of weevil-infested pasta, stale biscuits and (accidentally) mouldy cheese.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 beside your bed, a palace for silverfish and a reminder that you really prefer books that feature either cricketers’ sex lives or happy endings.

Useful tip: If you somehow never have time to finish that pile of books, you are choosing the wrong ones. 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 and Einstein preferred bodice-ripper romances (one of these claims is true).

Myth number 2

You must finish that book or the scissor man will come and snip your toes off. Read every single page, just like Mummy said, ‘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 it all, no matter how delicious it is?

Books are only paper. If they are in an electronic format, not even that. It is acceptable to read two thirds of a book, adore every single page, but think, I have had enough.

Then turn to the final chapter and see what happens in the end.

Myth number 3

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. Ruth Park described than as books to cut your wrists by. Moving a reader to tears with laughter, compassion, empathy or a new understanding of humankind or even the dog next door is far harder. Never be tempted to think after the last page: ‘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 on a writer’s palette: kill off whatever the reader values most. 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 a swimming pool.

Myth Number 4

Read classics because they are classics. EVERYONE needs to read 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 friend 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 distant 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 it’s a classic, you and Kafka deserve each other.

Myth Number 5

Reading literary masterpieces will improve your mind.

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, they can also be delicious, as well as good for you. But ensure you only go for the delicious, in books as well as veg.

Myth Number 6

Books that cover large themes, with deep intellectual discussions are more worthy than ones with plots, characters or circuit diagrams.

Actually I like books with large themes and deep intellectual discussions. I am not terribly interested in plots, though I don’t mind if the author wriggles one in between the interesting discussions, nor have I ever read past page 1 of a book limited by its genre. In other words, I have never read a a Patrick Robertson. I have, however, bought every Patrick Robinson within days of its release for my husband, who also chuckles at books of circuit diagrams in bed. He says PR’s books are ‘accurate’, his highest accolade.

The cure for those who still feel indelibly indoctrinated by book myths? Imagine the aliens are carrying you, alone in a small book-lined pod from a meteor-struck Earth (they haven’t invented multi-person intergalactic rescue pods yet). In twenty years you will meet some members of humanity again. Your books will spontaneously combust to provide the landing fuel.

Which books will you take? The ones you truly deeply adore and no one will ever see? (The aliens will order them online, anonymously and, anyway, the Earth will vaporize before anyone reads the invoices.)

I’ve already made my choice. There are about three hundred of them, carefully cached in the bottom shelves of of the book room, ready to grab for emergency trips to hospital and for any journey that will probably involve at least one flight delayed for nine hours.

Every one of them is a masterpiece – they need to be to carry me through a long endurance test in a hospital waiting room. Each one will be profound, even if they are also light, funny and I feel a lot better for having read them. They will not be the same books that I will pick up when I have brain space to spare, nor the ones next to the phone for those ‘Your call is important to us’ waits. Perhaps that needs to be

Myth Number 7, for there is no one kind of book for any of us.

The perfect book depends on time, place, emotional and brain capacity.

But they will be friends. And once you discover the friendship books can give, it is impossible not to seek out another and another, whether you be six or ninety-four years old.

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