Books are Bad For You

It will probably not come as a surprise to anyone that I love reading books, and I know a lot of other people who also love reading books. Periodically, I see people sharing articles about how reading books is good for you. According to assorted studies, reading makes you smarter, healthier, and more empathetic.

Well. As a writer, I’m here to say, while I am obviously always in favour of more people reading more books, I don’t like these articles, and nor do I like the idea that reading is good for you.

These articles say that reading books (and it’s usually not just any books, it’s proper old-fashioned literary fiction, not those trashy thrillers and romances oh no) makes you a better person. But how many people have ever read one of these articles, thought, ‘Oh, in that case, I’d better go read some more books?’ and then immediately got stuck in to The Brothers Karamazov?

I don’t know, although I’m going to take a little bet that the number of such people is not substantially greater than zero. Because those articles aren’t aimed at, or read by, people who don’t read books. They are instead read by people who already read lots of books, and are probably already at least a little bit smug about it, who then think ‘Oh, if reading books makes you a better person, I must be an even betterer person than I previously thought!’ The whole thing smells of snobbery and smug self-congratulation.

Plus, even without the snobbery factor, talking about how books are good for you (especially, lbh, GCSE Eng-Lit type books) makes them sound like the boring stuff you don’t wanna do. Eat your vegetables! Drink some water! Read your Dickens! Do some exercise!

If you really want to get more people reading, I can’t help feeling that, instead of marketing books as the intellectual equivalent of steamed broccoli and 5-mile-runs, you should try pitching the illicit-pleasure angle (and not just for *that* type of books).

So, let’s bring back the moral panic of the 18th and 19th century: books are bad for you. They encourage you to sit indoors by yourself, isolated from family and friends and fresh air. They cause you to neglect your real-world duties. Many books contain dangerous ideas, and still more of them contain descriptions of disgusting depravities! Worst of all, they draw you in with their seductive tales of adventure and excitement, playing on your emotions and making you care about the fate of fictional characters as much as, or even more than, your actual life. They are, in short, a menace to public health and decency, and should be avoided at all costs.

How to Read 100 Books in a Year

Some of you may recall that last year I had a New Year’s resolution to read at least 50 books, which half-way through the year I amended to 100 books. How did I do? Well, I had a bit of a shaky autumn, but with a concerted late-December push, I got myself over the finish line, and read exactly 100. And yes, I was sufficiently nerdy to keep a spreadsheet recording the details every single book I read. And I can remember enough about pivot tables from my time working in an office so that I can now play around with my own reading statistics, and tell you that, for example, my preferred format (with 58% of total titles) was the paperback, that my favourite genres were fantasy and science fiction, and that, as a result of making a concerted effort to catch up with contemporary writing, I read 68 books from the 2010s but a mere 8 from the entire 20th century (and 6 from the 19th century).

When I tell people about my reading achievement, I get reactions ranging from dismissal (’only 100 books? Easy!’) to disbelief. One common response is a slightly awestruck wistfulness: an ‘I wish I could read more books but…’
Well, if that applies to you, fear not! I am here to share with you my secrets, and get you past that but.

1) ‘I wish I could read more books, but I don’t know where to start.’

I confess this one is a novel (see what I did there?) problem for me, because I always have dozens of books I want to read. However, help is at hand. The simplest approach is just to ask friends and family for their recommendations, and there’s always the good old-fashioned try-asking-in-your-local-bookshop method, but these days there are all kinds of electronic resources as well, from Goodreads to Amazon algorithms to countless book bloggers. The main thing, I think, is to accept that tastes differ and you’re not always going to enjoy something, however highly it comes recommended. If that happens, don’t give up: try the next thing. Sooner or later you’ll find the book for you, and then you can read everything by that author, seek out things in that ‘if you like x, you’ll love y!’ category, and delve into the fanfic. Discovering stuff you might want to read has never been easier.

2) ‘I wish I could read more books, but they’re expensive!’

They can be. But if you want to read, there’s no need to shell out on a load of brand-new hardbacks. I’m consistently astonished by how few people make use of libraries – they have hundreds of books! And you can borrow any of them for free! It’s amazing! And I can’t speak for all library systems, but the one in Derbyshire is pretty good (for now, at least) at keeping stock up-to-date and arranging inter-library loans for the princely sum of 45p if the title you want isn’t available locally.
If e-books are your thing, I’ve heard about (but not tried myself) something called Bookbub, which sends you emails recommending cheap or free books. There’s also Kindle Unlimited, although I personally found their selection of titles didn’t match up to my reading interests. And, while genuine second-hand bookshops are a rarity these days, there are charity shops a-plenty, not to mention millions of second-hand books being sold online, many for 1p+p+p. Getting hold of cheap books has never been easier.

3) ‘I wish I could read more books, but I don’t have the time!’

This is by far the commonest reason I hear why people can’t read more. My invariable answer is: audiobooks. Listen on long drives. Listen while you cook dinner. Listen while you exercise. Audiobooks let you read while you do that other stuff that keeps you busy. They’re great, and these days thousands of them are available via your phone (I use Audible and I swear by it). It’s never been easier to find books to listen to. Another idea: if you can’t find the time to commit to a full novel, try short stories. You can get a complete narrative in just twenty minutes or so. Perfect for the time-strapped.

In summary, it’s never been easier to find books you’ll want to read, in the format you want, at a price you can afford. In theory, it’s never been easier to read. So why do so many people seem to struggle to consume as many books as they say they’d like to? Well, the answer is obvious: because it’s also never been easier to get distracted. Just as thousands upon thousands of great books are now readily available, so are games and movies and TV shows and YouTube videos and web forums and blogs and cute cat pictures and every other thing you can possibly think of (and an awful lot more you can’t think of and probably don’t want to). And I feel like, behind 90% of those ‘buts’, the real reason is that the person would rather spend their spare time watching Netflix or playing World of Warcraft. Which is fine – I’m not going to get snobby about different forms of entertainment – but I have to say, if you really really want to read more, there’s ultimately only one way to do it: you need to put down the Internet and pick up a book.

5 Reasons Why Books Are Better Than Movies

At the writing club I run in Derby, we attempt to have discussions about literature. Sadly, these often slide – via such exchanges as ‘Who’s read The Hunger Games?’ ‘Well I’ve seen the movie’ – into discussions about movies.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love movies. I watch them quite often. They only take about two hours to get through and they do have that social/communal experience thing going for them which books nearly always lack. But I’m a novelist, not a screenwriter, and so I now humbly present to you 5 reasons Why Books Are Better Than Movies:

1) Unlimited budget. Books never have shots of run-down parts of Vancouver pretending to be more exciting locations. They never have cheesy CGI or obvious stock-footage inserts or men running round in unconvincing gorilla suits. In a book you can have whatever you want: magic floating cities, flocks of dragons, impossible geometries. In the land of literature, the accountants hold no sway.

2) Actors never ruin books. Ever watched a film and been less-than-impressed by one or more of the performances? Or found a transition between two actors playing the same character at different ages jarring? Or enjoyed the film but for the fact it’s got your least-favourite actor in it *cough* fat-face DiCaprio *cough*. It never happens in books, my friend. When you read a book, all the characters’ performances are always perfect.

3) Vagueness. Huh? Why is vagueness good? Well, because while films have to shove everything up on screen in a boringly literal way, books can leave things to your imagination, for horrifying and/or comedic effect. The monster can be so unspeakably terrifying any attempt to describe it leaves people gibberingly insane. The main character’s outfit can be so outrageous that it makes people faint with shock to even hear it described. Plus there are all the joys of the unreliable narrator.

4) Books go anywhere. Admittedly, the advance of technology is making this one less and less of a clear advantage, but still, you can read a book just about anywhere: in the bath (that one’s my personal favourite), up a mountain, in the park, on a crowded subway train. Thanks to audio books, you can even read them while doing yoga or household tasks. Or whatever you fancy. Ever tried watching a film while doing yoga? I don’t recommend it.

5) Books can get you right inside a character’s head. They can show you someone’s thoughts and feelings, their hopes and fears, all in intimate detail. The only way a film can get inside someone’s head is with clumsy devices like the voiceover. Or, depending on the type of film, a buzzsaw.

Reader Problems

Back in January, I described my 2016 Reading Challenge and said my aim was to read at least 50 books this year. Telling people about this challenge has resulted in responses ranging from wide-eyed astonishment and ‘gosh that’s a lot of books’ to a dismissive ‘50 books? That’s nothing. You can manage at least a hundred. A novel only takes me a day to read. Three days if it’s Russian.’ Personally, I figured a book a week was a decent, very achievable rate, considering I read fast and have plenty of free time, but didn’t want to burden myself with so much reading it started to feel like a chore. Nor did I want to put myself off tackling longer or more difficult books.

How’s it going? Well, we’re now 15 weeks into the year, and I’ve just polished off my 30th book (The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared). So, yeah, seems like two books a week is no problem – although I’ve only read one Russian novel thus far (War and Peace). Beyond the satisfaction of seeing the numbers clock up, it’s been great to get properly stuck into reading again, rediscovering the old pleasure of spending hours curled up in an armchair with a hot drink and a good book.

Books are great, and I’ve enjoyed nearly all of what I’ve read, from the lightly comedic to the dark and disturbing. And I’ve been connecting with people via literature more – being lent books by friends, and lending out books myself to share the joy. Of course, it hasn’t all been plain sailing and smooth reading. I’ve had to give up on two books (not counted in the 30): Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, which was just boring, and London by Edward Rutherfurd, which was so rapey and gross it left me feeling nauseated. And then there was Half Lost by Sally Green, the book I’d been most looking forward to reading this year and which I devoured in a single gulp on its day of publication. It was a colossal disappointment which left me feeling extremely angry at how the author chose to end it. But hey, I can treat such experiences as a valuable lesson in How Not to Write.

And to anyone looking for advice in how to read more books, I would say the following:
A) Try something different. Nothing wrong with having a favourite author slash genre (nearly half the books I’ve read this year have been fantasy) but there are good books in every genre, so put away those preconceptions and see if you can surprise yourself. My experience is that people are very willing to give you recommendations (and frequently lend you the actual books).

B) Don’t be afraid to give up on something that just isn’t doing it for you. Life’s too short to spend your time wading your way through hundreds of pages of boredom, when you could be reading something way better.

C) I’ve noticed that online advice often suggests reading in short bursts, fitted around your ‘today’s busy modern lifestyle’. Now if that’s the only time you can find to read, fair enough, but I’ve actually found that I enjoy a book more if I can get properly stuck in. An hour or so of dedicated reading time each afternoon, plus the aforementioned armchair and hot drink… that’s the kind of challenge I can really get behind.

My to-read shelf as of today

My to-read shelf as of today

UPDATE 22nd APRIL: I have now read 32 books, so I’m still on course. Emboldened by my success thus far, I’ve decided to tackle another long Russian novel, this time The Brothers Karamazov. And I can tell you, there’s nothing like reading a nineteenth-century novel with a 21st century attention span to really try your patience. ‘Get on with it, Fyodor! Enough babbling about Orthodox church politics of the 1860s, get to the sex and violence already!’

I should also add that another way I’ve managed to increase my novel consumption is by listening to audiobooks, which means I can be ‘reading’ at the same time as driving, exercising, or doing household chores. It’s a great way to read more if your life is too busy to sit down with a book very often, or if you struggle with the written word because of dyslexia, eyesight issues etc (I myself get sometimes get migraines or eye strain and have to be careful). And certain books – most notably so far Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys as read by Lenny Henry – are actually much better in audio form.

Second Draft Blues

Nearly two months ago, I finished the first draft of my new novel, The Silvergreen Sea. After a period of reflection, discussion with my agent, and a little help from my writing group, I’ve now started on the dreaded second draft.

Why dreaded? Well, because while the first draft can be spurted out quickly and relatively thoughtlessly, second (and subsequent) drafts take real work. It’s easy on the first draft to dash something off with a casual ‘it’s not great, but I’ll fix it later.’ Now, later’s come around, and you gotta get fixin’. At least this time round, unlike last time, I haven’t left any huge gaping holes in the story with ‘more plot to go here’ scrawled at the top of the document.

One of the difficulties with the second draft is that progress is hard to quantify, as you’re never quite sure in advance how much work will be needed on a given section. On the first draft, I had daily, weekly, and monthly word targets, and I could always see exactly how far along I was on that handy Scrivener progress bar. With the second draft, the first four or five scenes needed only a brief tidy-up so I zipped right through them in a morning: then I reached a scene which needed a complete re-write and had to spend two whole days on it. The ghost of my former project manager self wants to go through the first draft, calculate exactly what needs doing to each scene and how long it should take, and draw up a full plan of action: but my current, writer self, just wants to get on with it.

If you’ve never written a book yourself, you may be wondering what sort of thing typically changes between a first draft and a second, or a third… the answer is, as so often with writing, that it depends. One book may be almost ready to go after the first draft and just need a bit of polishing; another may be far too long and need extensive cuts; another may be skimpy and need extensive additions; another may be wildly incoherent and need a complete rethink. My book falls somewhere in the middle. Some bits need to be cut, others need to be added, others changed around. One character becomes more prominent; another character falls out of focus. Other characters warp and transform, changing gender or magical powers. The basic plot outline and central characters will remain, but a lot needs to be rewritten.

It’s not going to be easy, and I don’t know how long it will take. But hey, this is my job now, and nobody else is going to do it for me, so here I go. I’ll let you know when I’m done.

2014 Roundup

So, here we are, my last blog post of 2014. And what a year it’s been. At the start of the year, I was still suffering such terrible back problems I could barely sit at my computer for long enough to write a blog post. Now, I’ve managed to churn out 65,000 words (and counting) on my new work-in-progress fantasy novel, The Silvergreen Sea. Then, I was on extended sick leave from my job at Rolls-Royce. Now, I’ve quit the day job to devote myself to writing full-time. Then, I could barely get beyond a walking radius of my house, and gainful employment was a distant dream. Now, I’ve managed extended trips as far as visiting relatives on the South Coast, and day trips to London. I’ve also taken a temporary Christmas job selling books at Waterstone’s. Which is great when I get to hand-sell books by authors I enjoy, like Robin Hobb, Brandon Sanderson, or Ben Aaronovitch: and less great when I have to deal with customers who say things like ‘I’m looking for a book – I can’t remember the title, or the author, but it’s got a red cover.’ But overall, I love being able to spend lots of time surrounded by thousands of books, and it keeps me out of trouble. Mostly.

Money is a lot tighter now; only this morning I’ve had to turn down a posh Christmas dinner – something I would have said ‘yes’ to unthinkingly two years ago – because I simply can’t afford to go. But then, one year ago, I would have had to turn it down because I simply couldn’t have sat down for long enough for eat a seven-course meal. I know which situation I’d rather be in. And, let’s be honest, if I check my privilege, I know I’m still better-off financially than the majority of my fellow citizens, so I’ve really got nothing to complain about there.

It hasn’t been all good, of course. Efforts by me and my agent to find a publisher for either my first novel or the in-development second one have met with disappointment thus far. But hey, maybe 2015 will be the year that we crack it. And I’ve now got enough time available to write my books, so if the first one doesn’t make it, maybe the second one will, or the third, or even the fourth. One thing I’m certainly very, very rich in is ideas. So I’ll raise a glass of what a friend of mine refers to as ‘aggravated wine’ to the festive season and the end of another transformational year.

Cappuccino dreams

On the 8th of September, straight after returning from FantasyCon, I sat my ass down and started bashing out a new novel, The Silvergreen Sea. Now, just under four weeks later, I’ve passed the 20,000 words mark, and I’m confident at least half the time that at least 25% of what I’ve written isn’t total dross. So it’s going pretty well so far *crosses fingers and toes, backs up document*. Writing is not, of course, just a numbers game: it’s a voyage in your own imagination, a tour of your very own castle in the air. Even if nothing tangible ever comes of it, you can enjoy the ride. But most of the time, the reality of it is not terribly glamorous. It’s essentially sitting in front of a computer all day staring at words on the screen (or, worse, blank space), then tapping at the keyboard to make more appear, then deleting half of them, then going to make a cup of tea.

Sometimes, it’s good to remember why I’m doing it, to remind myself of what this dream I’m pursuing really is, why I’m getting up each morning and sitting at my desk. Now, it’s easy to fantasise about becoming ‘the next J.K. Rowling’, selling millions of copies, ascending the heights of the best-seller lists, getting a series of star-studded movie adaptations, sparking bitterly fought online shipping wars, being condemned by the Catholic Church. But there are other dreams, of slightly more attainable things, which I can indulge in with a sliver of hope that some day at least one of them might actually come to pass. Such as:

1. Seeing a book of mine, an actual book made of paper and glue, sitting on the actual shelf of an actual bookshop. Of course, if physical bookshops are on their way out, then this might be a dream with a limited shelf life (pun intended) but I’ll keep dreaming it for now.

2. A stranger telling me they’ve read my book, and then saying one of the following: ‘How could you kill that character? He was my favourite!’; ‘I don’t think that character would have done that, she’s just not that kind of person.’; ‘What are you doing here talking to me? Why aren’t you getting on with the sequel?’

3. Getting to sit on a panel at a convention and be all like ‘yeah, I’m a writer’ like it’s no biggie. Then getting asked questions about the stuff I’ve written. Even if they’re stupid and/or awkward questions. Hey, they’re showing an interest!

4. Being interviewed by Radio 4. As above, but with added ‘whoa I grew up listening to this station and now I’m on it and people are listening to me while they potter around the house.’

5. Hearing that my characters have been shipped and slashed. Especially if there’s a fierce online argument about who is *really* destined to be with whom.

6. Being condemned by The Daily Mail.

7. Buying a round of drinks with money I’ve received for something I wrote. Even if the amount is paltry, it’s still payment for words which have spilled out of my brain, and there’s no better encouragement to go and write some more and maybe get a less paltry amount next time. And even if my royalties never stretch to anything more than coffee for one, you know what, that cappuccino is going to taste So. Damn. Good.

A Prison of the Mind

Earlier this week, I signed a petition, directed at justice secretary Chris Grayling, urging him to reconsider the rule changes which ban prisoners from receiving books and other items from outside. This issue is getting quite a lot of attention in the media – social and otherwise – and a large number of high-profile writers (including Jeffrey Archer, one of the few to have done time in both jail and Parliament) have joined the campaign. Now, I am utterly unqualified to comment on the treatment of prisoners so I’m not going to try – I’ve put a few links below for more information. The reason I signed the petition has less to do with my views on rehabilitation, and a lot more to do with a gut reaction: quite simply, the idea of being denied books strikes horror deep into my soul. Books can provide so many things: education, enlightenment, escape (metaphorically speaking). As an avid reader and aspiring author, they are such an important part of my life that I can’t imagine living without them. Well, actually, I can, but I don’t want to (a vivid imagination can be both a blessing and a curse). And so, I regard restricting access to books as a punishment of extreme cruelty, a prison of the mind, which I wouldn’t inflict on even the most hardened criminal.
I’m pretty sure that others who support this campaign will share my abject horror of booklessness. Indeed, many writers have exploited such feelings, since love of reading is about the only thing you can be reasonably confident your readers will have in common. Just think of the awful parents in Matilda who try to make their daughter watch TV rather than read, or the ‘firemen’ of Fahrenheit 451 who burn all books they find. For my money, the best (for which read stomach-churningly horrifying) depiction of book deprivation can be found in The Handmaid’s Tale, a book which literally gave me nightmares and sends my pulse racing and my palms sweating even as I type these words. And no, I am not exaggerating, not in the slightest. Thank you, Margaret Atwood.

But is there such a thing as too much reverence for books? This is the question raised by an intriguing birthday present I received last week from a writer friend. It’s a book called ‘Wreck this Journal’ and it has the tagline ‘To Create is to Destroy’. It consists of a series of instructions to, as the name suggests, wreck it: one page tells you to rip it, another tells you to smear your dinner on it, another tells you to take the book in the shower with you. As the photograph shows, I’ve made a start, but, indoctrinated by my father into treating books as precious things, it was a struggle. Once I got started, however, I have to admit that it’s a strangely liberating experience, to defy my own reverence for printed pages and just unleash creative destruction upon them. It’s a great idea which I encourage all writers to try. But, here’s the thing, you have to develop that reverence to start with, and you’ll never get it if you’re denied the books.


Article by Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, which started the campaign:
Authors’ letter to the Telegraph:
Guardian article about the campaign:
The petition:

A vanishing pleasure?

Happy new year all, and welcome to my 2014… it’s not been a stellar year so far, but there is at least plenty of time for it to improve. And early January is always enlivened by the new shiny objects received at Christmas, including of course several books to add to the reading list. I should really try to make some more headway with said list and spend less time looking at Buzzfeed. My reading habits have been put to shame by my husband, normally quite a slow reader, who has munched through 5 books in the past couple of weeks, exhausting all available volumes of interest. So today we ventured out to Waterstone’s to get something new.
It’s funny how, over the years, Waterstone’s has gradually transformed, without actually itself changing all that much. I remember when it was an ogre of the high street, gobbling up lesser shops like Dillon’s and Ottakar’s and putting poor independent booksellers out of business. Now it’s a beleaguered symbol of old school retail, under threat from the evil empire of the Amazon, a fire kindled under its profits. I don’t actually have that much sentimental attachment to Waterstone’s, not compared with late lamented Borders and its very generous approach to allowing customers to read books in store, or Blackwell’s in Oxford which nurtured me through my academic career. But I was struck today with the sheer joy of book shopping, the pulse-quickening sensation of walking into a whole building dedicated to books, and being able to wander around tables covered in books and shelves full of books, and browse through hundreds of the things, picking them up, feeling the weight, flipping through them, admiring the covers of the special editions, the gloss and the matte, the hard back and the soft, the fiction and the non. And then the excitement of walking out with a fresh purchase, longing to get home to try it out, every book a present waiting to be opened. I love reading physical books, I love having them on my shelves, and I love shopping for them. I don’t know how much longer book shops as a species will last, but I’ll miss them when they’re gone, and I’m going to enjoy them while I can.