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.

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.