What to read? (Part 7) Readability
What makes the difference between those books you just can’t tear yourself away from, and the ones that take a lot of time and determination to finish?
“It was a real page-turner…I just couldn’t put it down…it kept me up long past my bedtime.” You’ve heard people spout these clichéd phrases time and again, as evidence that a book was terrific. But is having read a book obsessively and at breakneck speed really the best proof of its quality? There are some books that just cannot be read quickly: their complexity, their sadness, or, ironically enough, the beauty of their prose means they must not be rushed. It takes time to let them sink in.
However, sometimes the fact that reading a book is taking you forever – and tackling even a few pages feels like facing an interminably dull lecture or a root canal – should be a signal to you that it’s time to give up. With the help of a few of my book gurus, I’d like to consider some questions of time and effort in relation to reading: Is a book only worth reading when it races along? How do you decide when to persist and when to abandon a book partway? If, as Harold Bloom maintains, reading is a “difficult pleasure,” how can readers strike the right balance between books that are pure enjoyment and books that are challenging but rewarding in the end?
Take your time
It may be that most readers plow through books far too quickly. Indeed, in her essay collection Artful, Scottish novelist Ali Smith proposes that readers slow down and allow a book to unfold at its own pace:
“Books themselves take time, more time than most of us are used to giving them…they go at their own speed regardless of the cultural speed or slowness of their readers’ zeitgeists. Plus they’re tangible pieces of time in our hands. We hold them for the time it takes to read them and we move through them and measure time passing by how far through them we’ve got.”
Using books as markers of the passing of time allows them to take up a certain iconic status in your memory: for example, it was on a languorous summer boating trip in 2006 that I devoured Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and it was on a long ferry ride to France in 2009 that I barreled through Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White. Books can be your companions through particular events or, equally, through whole seasons of life.
By rushing through a book, however, you may be taking several risks: firstly, you might not properly understand what you are reading; secondly, you might not fully appreciate its merit; and, lastly and most importantly, you are unlikely to remember its details even a few days or weeks later. Resolving to take a book more slowly increases your chances of imprinting it on your mind. In his second collection of reading diaries, Housekeeping vs. the Dirt, Nick Hornby recalls such a painstaking reading experience, with a Marilynne Robinson novel:
“It took me for ever to read Housekeeping, but it’s not possible to read this short book quickly…I’m glad I wasn’t able to race through it, too, because the time I spent with it means that it lives with me still…If you are so gripped by a book that you want to read it in the mythical single sitting, what chance has it got of making it all the way through the long march to your soul?”
The more time you spend savoring a book, the better you will be able to engage with the author’s voice and characters and assimilate the book’s message – and the more likely you are to remember it.
When it all comes together (or not)
I’ve mentioned before that serendipitous moment when you meet just the right book at just the right time; something clicks, and you’re off, plunging headlong into a delightful reading experience. In his wonderful The End of Your Life Book Club, Will Schwalbe recalls just such instances, when “the magical thing occurred that happens only with the very best books: I became absorbed and obsessed and entered the ‘Can’t you see I’m reading?’ mode.” Nora Ephron described this intense absorption in a book as a kind of ecstasy, always sought after but rarely achieved: “the state of rapture I experience when I read a wonderful book is one of the main reasons I read” (from her essay “On Rapture,” collected in I Feel Bad About My Neck).
Hornby notes that choosing the right book can spark a sort of chain reaction, in which you move seamlessly from one book to the next, often building on an interest in a particular subject or an author: “when reading is going well, one book leads to another and to another, a paper trail of theme and meaning.” Yet, on the other hand, “when it’s going badly, when books don’t stick or take, when your mood and the mood of the book are fighting like cats, you’d rather do anything than attempt the next paragraph, or reread the last one for the tenth.”
So for every time you come across a book you just can’t put down, you may have an equally strong but opposite reaction to a different book – it might bore you so much you’d rather be reading almost anything else. Both Hornby and Nancy Pearl, two of my go-to experts on readership, suggest that when this happens, you should not be ashamed to leave a book unread. Indeed, Hornby pleads with readers:
“please, if you’re reading a book that’s killing you, put it down and read something else…Your failure to enjoy a highly rated novel doesn’t mean you’re dim…It doesn’t matter. All I know is that you can get very little from a book that is making you weep with the effort of reading it. You won’t remember it, and you’ll learn nothing from it.”
Trust him: life is too short to force yourself through books you just aren’t enjoying. David Shields makes the case even more vehemently, in How Literature Saved My Life: “I don’t want to read out of duty. There are hundreds of books in the history of the world that I love to death. I’m trying to stay awake and not bored and not rote. I’m trying to save my life.”
Pearl agrees that there’s no point in pushing yourself through a book that isn’t working for you: “Trust me on this, you’re not going to get any points in heaven by slogging through a book you don’t like. Any book you aren’t enjoying is not the right book for you at that time.” She has even formulated a helpful equation, called the Rule of 50, for figuring out how long to persist with a book before deciding whether to give up. You should always read at least the first 50 pages; however, for those aged over 50, “subtract your age from 100 – the result is the number of pages you should read before deciding whether or not to quit. If you’re 100 or over you get to judge the book by its cover” (from Book Lust).
That 50-page allowance is quite generous, if you ask me. I usually know within 20 pages whether I am going to get on with the style or not. In Write (a compilation of writers’ tips, published by the Guardian newspaper), Kate Mosse perfectly describes that instant sense of connection with or disconnection from a writer’s voice: “I know very quickly whether or not I will enjoy a novel. There’s an attractive conviction to the writing of authors that I trust – I know they won’t waste my time.”
Was it worth it?
I think I have gotten marginally better at abandoning books I don’t think will be worth my time, but it’s not always the case. If I stall partway through a book and put it down in favor of something different, this to me is a bad sign – my mind might be telling me I should persevere, but I know my heart’s just not in it. (I had this experience recently with Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, which I debate this week with Joanne P. of Booklover Book Reviews.) Sometimes timing really is all.
If you do persist with a challenging book – even if you find every page a huge effort – will it be worth it in the end? Perhaps. But in my experience, forcing yourself to finish a book you don’t care about only makes you resent it – and Hornby is right, you won’t remember anything about it in the end, except for the bitter struggle (perhaps also a fleeting sense of achievement at having defeated a beast). With only a small twinge of guilt, I admit that Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie, is my bête noire. I started it in 2006 and abandoned it after 40 pages; four years later I returned to it, forced myself to finish it on the second attempt, and decided it hadn’t been worth it – I don’t remember a thing about the book beyond what you’d find on a back cover description, and I certainly don’t feel I have read one of the best books of the past 25 years (as the UK voting public decided when they chose it as the “Best of the Booker” in 2008).
Who knows – perhaps if I pick up Midnight’s Children a decade from now, it’ll be just the right book for me, and I’ll finally appreciate its fêted magical realist brilliance. For now, though, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that, for me, Rushdie simply isn’t “readable.”
A Case Study: the 2011 Booker Prize
“Readability” was a big buzz word in the run-up to the 2011 Man Booker Prize. The Booker Prize has been awarded annually, since 1969, to the best novel by an author from the United Kingdom or part of the Commonwealth (former British colonies). It is the UK’s highest-profile literary prize, roughly equivalent to the Pulitzer Prize in America.
In recent years I have followed the Booker race closely, attempting to read most of the longlist ahead of the awards. In 2011 I took a particular interest because I happened to win a ticket to a pre-award event with five of the nominated authors, who gave readings from their work and discussed the state of fiction. It was a controversial year because it seemed as if the Booker judges were deliberately highlighting the kind of books that don’t normally make it onto such high-profile prize lists.
The chair of the 2011 judging panel, Dame Stella Rimington, was once head of British security service MI5, and is also a spy novelist in her own right. Another government alumnus and Booker judge, Chris Mullin (a former Member of Parliament), got the whole group into hot water when he publicly declared that what he wanted from the 130-plus nominated novels was stories that “zip along.” Rimington confirmed that the judges valued readability above all other criteria: “We wanted people to buy these books and read them. Not buy them and admire them.”
Many received the shortlist with disappointment, noting that the judges had effectively set up a false dichotomy between, as former UK poet laureate Andrew Motion explained, “what is high end and what is readable, as if they are somehow in opposition to one other, which is patently not true.” Was quality literature being relegated to the realms of the unreadable? Were unworthy page-turners being celebrated? Well, no. But the judges’ favorites did look rather different from the normal Booker fodder.
The 2011 shortlist included: The Sisters Brothers, Patrick deWitt’s hilariously deadpan tale of two blundering cowboy-assassins; A.D. Miller’s Snowdrops, a gripping, well-written Russian crime thriller; Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English, an ambitious but sentimental story of the dangers of London knife crime; Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie, a deceptively light – but ultimately harrowing – tale of Victorian seafaring adventure; and Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues, about Afro-German jazz musicians around the start of World War II. Of these, three were first-time novelists; two were Canadians and three were English. Everyone agreed that these books represented a significant deviation from the usual stereotype of Booker material: self-important, po-faced literature for snobs.
Rounding out the half-dozen nominees was Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, which was more standard Booker fare (and ended up winning): a spare but superb meditation on youth, death, and the unreliability of memory. Julian Barnes is one of my favorite novelists, but awarding him the Booker in 2011 seemed suspiciously like a consolation prize. He had been nominated three times previously, for better books, and lost – leading him to bitterly liken the Booker Prize to “posh Bingo” – a matter of luck amongst Britain’s literary élite. Barnes certainly deserved a Booker, but his win in these circumstances reminded me of the Lord of the Rings trilogy winning what was essentially a cumulative Best Picture Oscar after The Return of the King – it was as if he was being given recognition for a body of work rather than for one discrete product.
So Barnes finally got his due. But were the other books of the 2011 Booker shortlist somehow of lesser value because they were “easy to read”? Nominee Kelman insisted “I don’t get the idea that readability and quality should be mutually exclusive…If it’s making literature as a concept more acceptable to more people, then surely that’s an overwhelmingly good thing and should be encouraged and celebrated.”
No more of these false divisions between readability and quality when it comes to literary fiction, then: the best books are excellent literature but also make for stimulating reading. They might just take a little more time and effort.
Not your cup of tea?
Just as you don’t always hit it off with someone you meet in the real world, you won’t always get on with an author’s voice: it doesn’t engage you or entertain you; you two just don’t see the world in the same way. For instance, I have always loved Thomas Hardy’s scathing description of Henry James’s style: “a ponderously warm manner of saying nothing in infinite sentences.” I share that inability to appreciate James, even though he is generally considered the best prose stylist the English language has ever known. And, as mentioned above, I never hit it off with Midnight’s Children. Some literary matches just aren’t meant to be.
On the other hand, some books work perfectly for you and become what Italo Calvino calls “your classics” – books you love instantly, though you might find it difficult to explain how and why. As Roland Barthes once said, “On échoue toujours à parler de ce qu’on aime” – we always fail when we try to talk about what we love. Setting aside questions of ‘readability,’ whether they are difficult but rewarding or the purest pleasure, the books we love become an indelible part of us.
Next time: The books everyone should read, and the books everyone does read. How to deal with reader’s guilt about everything you haven’t yet read, plus what stance to take towards bestsellers.