Read this -- if you don't want to read

There is a thing called reader’s block. It is not the same as writer’s block. In fact, reader’s block is a phenomenon partly explained as a reader’s all-too-understandable response to so many writers not having writer’s block.

It is often said that everybody has a novel in them. The current problem is that so many of us bring that novel out of ourselves and get it published. It would help cure reader’s block if lots of people resolved not to. But that is not what is happening. Instead, we are made so anxious by the accelerating onrush of books, especially novels, that we say: “Enough! I can’t—I won’t—read the winner of the Orange prize, whatever anyone says.”

But not, unfortunately, before we have bought a copy of said book and put it on our groaning in-pile. What is worrying is that the number of hours spent reading books is declining and the proportion who prefer examining the fluff in their belly button to spending face time with anything from Thomas Pynchon’s oeuvre is growing, possibly exponentially.

How long will this kind of madness go on? How much longer do we propose to carry on buying books that we do not read? The problem is that we do not realise the truth of what professor of English John Sutherland says in his book, How to Write a Novel —namely, “90% of them are crap”. But that exasperation with the publishing industry’s unstoppably dismal outpourings causes only one kind of reader’s block. There is another.

All of us want to better ourselves, show that we are cultured and demonstrate that we have better-functioning genitals than the next person. These, as Freud says somewhere, are good ways to get laid. Or at least we think they are. One consequence of this Freudian truth is that we are anxious about not having read the great works of literature. So we buy them to silence that anxiety.

But we only rarely overcome this anxiety. Hence reader’s block. We start (War and Peace, Joyce’s Ulysses, Proust, Goethe, Rushdie), but we don’t finish: we leave them on page 42 in the loo, a constant reminder of our lack of resolve. That, incidentally, is why there is a global shortage of bookmarks. Why don’t we complete the great works of literature? Our anxiety is big, but not big enough for us to read such a classic as Douglas Hofstadter’s mesmerising metaphorical fugue on minds and machines, Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. At least not during this lifetime.

Another possibility is that books per se are not especially interesting, despite what writers (who have a vested interest in suggesting otherwise) say. How can books be interesting when respondents to surveys give such pathetic answers when asked what they do rather than reading books? According to Teletext’s 2007 study of 4 000 Britons’ reading habits, the top reasons for not reading are: too tired (48%); watch TV instead (46%); play computer games (26%); work late (21%).

A lot of respondents say that they do not have time to read books except when they go on holiday and then, because they are so unfamiliar with the literary world, many of them find it not just difficult to know what to read but (there is no nice way to say this) also how to turn the pages. No respondent cited the more plausible reason for not reading, namely the want of application and total spinelessness that is common in the modern age.

According to the United Kingdom’s Office for National Statistics, a third of Britons read “challenging literature” in order to seem well-read even though they could not follow what the book was about. It has always been thus: “challenging literature” is an eternal mystery. Such, as readers, is our fate.

What should we do? The former editor of the humorous Punch magazine, Basil Boothroyd, was once on a train. A fellow passenger was sighing over a book. “Something wrong?” he inquired. “Oh, it’s nothing. I just can’t get on with this,” the woman replied. “I’ve been struggling with it for hours!” Boothroyd asked if he could look at the book. He took it, turned it over and then threw it out of the window. “There,” he said. “That’s better, isn’t it?”

But there is nothing wrong with abandoning a book halfway through. I consulted the UK National Literacy Trust’s director, Jonathan Douglas, to get his tips for overcoming reader’s block. Giving up on a book you are not enjoying was his first recommendation. Here are all six:

1. To read for pleasure you have got to be in charge of your reading and that means knowing that it’s OK to stop reading if it gets boring. Lots of books drop off halfway through. For me, that includes Brideshead Revisited and Wuthering Heights.

2. Talk about books and ask friends for recommendations but avoid getting trapped in a tyrannical reading group for literary point-scorers. Life is too short to read books you do not like.

3. Have a varied reading diet. After a satisfying course of Philip Pullman, cleanse your palate with a sorbet of Heat or Grazia.

4. Make sure that the book you have got fits the time you have got to read. If your life is a frantic race and you only get to read on five-minute tube journeys or among the suds in the bath, do not start War and Peace. Grab one of the fantastic Quick Reads series that celebrity authors are now penning, or try a poetry anthology.

5. Read aloud. Importantly, 76% of mothers and 42% of fathers read bedtime stories to their children, but sharing a book is a wonderful way for anyone to spend time.

6. Try listening to a good book on tape or eavesdrop on Book at Bedtime on BBC radio.

All good points; not all books deserve to be finished. As the great Elizabethan philosopher Francis Bacon wrote in a book that hardly anybody reads nowadays: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.”

The problem with readers: we aim too high. Ultimately, reader’s block is caused by the great “is-ought dilemma”. You know you should, but you probably won’t. But there is an answer that the National Literacy Trust recommendations fail to consider. Don’t bother reading “challenging literature”, just pretend you have and kick back on the beach with the latest Katie Price. This, to an extent, was the suggestion of Professor Pierre Bayard who, in How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, suggests that you might as well watch something unremittingly stupefying on telly (golf is always a good bet) instead of reading a book or, if you’re reading a book, it doesn’t have to be great literature. As you will guess, I haven’t read Bayard’s book, but I feel I have a right to talk about its central thesis as if I had.

This is not a new idea. In The Post-Modernist Always Rings Twice, the cultural theorist Gilbert Adair distinguishes between art and culture. The former is the thing (a painting, novel, CD etc); the latter is talk about the thing. Adair’s liberating thesis is that you don’t need to have experienced the former to do the latter. This ultimately is the best way to overcome reader’s block. Talk about something as though you’ve actually done it. You’ll find your anxiety about reading disappears.

Of course, Douglas argues that we must fight against the scourge of reader’s block and that efforts to do so will be repaid. “Taking pleasure in reading supports cognitive and emotional development, broadens perspectives and develops empathy,” he says. “It’s also fabulous fun.”

True, but it’s also fun to pretend that you have read a book that you haven’t. It’s fun to talk loudly about the fin-de-siecle crisis of Habsburg society manifested in Robert Musil’s A Man Without Qualities on the basis of the crib notes you find on Wikipedia rather than on the basis of having spent months enduring the book. The great thing about this is that you will have lots of free time for staring into space as you relax over cocktails in your Tenby hot tub in a soothingly book-free environment. You may never read again, but you will be happy about it. Which is as good as it gets in this life.—

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