April 27, 2018

Give it up for… giving up on books


Look at this poor lady. Don’t be like her. (That’s “In Gedanken” by Félix Armand Heullant, 1905.)

Giving up. It’s a concept that, in these days of workplaces that joyfully claim to be “always at 150%!!!”, self-actualising business bores, multiple Iron Man marathon runners, and streaming services that practically beg you to watch just one more episode, is actually pretty taboo right now.

Even reading hasn’t escaped the Age of Encouragement. The rise of the e-reader in particular has urged us to think of books in terms of percentages, in terms of “progress.” As if reading were something to be solved, completed. But what if you don’t like where a book is going, or the style, or even just the cut of the author’s jib? Does that make you a lesser person? No, no it does not. There’s no shame in removing that bookmark, or logging off at twenty-two percent, and moving on to something else. In fact, you’re probably already on to a better book by now, aren’t you? I knew it.

Speaking of twenty-two percent (he says, segueing masterfully), that’s exactly the percentage of UK readers, according to a recent survey by the Reading Agency in conjunction with this year’s World Book Night say they would never give up on a book. NEVER. Even if thousands of bees flew out every time they opened it up. Even if it grew elbows specifically so it could elbow-drop them every time they turned the page. EVEN. IF… OK, I’ll stop, but the point is: these are not readers like you and me, people. These are the hardcore word-likers. The people for whom reading stopped being a pleasure a long time ago, and is now a duty. The kind of folk, I suspect, who would pass-agg hint-drop you into reading Finnegans Wake cover-to-cover “because it’s really something you should finish.” The kind of folk, who, even though they hate the writing of Henry James (hellooo!) with every fibre of their being, notwithstanding other fibres, or other beings, or indeed other writers with the first name Henry and the surname James, would still force themselves to read every damn Henry James novel because they felt like they had to.

This is exactly the kind of thinking that puts people, and especially kids, off reading entirely. It’s an attitude that, when encountered at an impressionable age, quickly conflates reading with the other “good for you” stuff you don’t wanna do: eat your vegetables, tidy your room, occasionally run a damn comb through your hair, etc. So it’s heartening that, in the wake of this survey, the Reading Agency have sided with the seventy-eight percent on this one. Their #quitlit campaign, echoed by Janet Frishberg at Electric Literature, while it might seem a little counter-intuitive coming from a literary organization, actually contains a positive message: It’s OK to stop doing something you’re not enjoying. There are a lot of books out there, and, to put it bluntly, we don’t have a lot of time on this planet. Being “well-read” isn’t about checking off a list of titles that you “should” read. It shouldn’t be about pressure; it should be about pleasure. So, quit some lit today, and read whatever you please. Maybe avoid picking up the one that’s buzzing suspiciously, though.



Tom Clayton is publishing executive at Melville House UK.