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A beginner’s guide to reading books

I realise I may have plunged into Book Week without addressing a key issue: how to read. First, get a book. Then read it. Stop every now and again to eat, sleep or empty your bladder (why not all three?) and then keep going until you get to the end of the book. You’ll know you’ve reached the end of the book because the pages with words stop and all you can see is the back cover and whatever was under it before you closed the book.

The hardest part of that set of instructions is the getting a book bit. It’s not hard because they’re rare beasts that need to be stalked and trapped, it’s hard for exactly the opposite reason: there are squillions of the buggers, all squawking for attention. There are LOTS of books out there. Like seriously LOTS. Lots more than you can imagine. And more every day. Millions more, now that self-publishing is so easy. You’re a reader at the foot of a tremulous and intimidating mountain of books, armed with only stout reading boots and a packed lunch. So where to start? How do you know what to read? The obvious answer is this: read what you like. This is the underlying premise for the rest of my argument, so make sure you’ve got a solid handle on it.

The rest of the points I want to make have flipsides and counterarguments to them, which means you have to figure out for yourself how much weight you lend to each of them. But the underlying premise is solid and I will not be shaken: read what you like.

That means:

  • Don’t get caught up reading classics just because you feel you should.
  • Don’t get caught up reading blockbusters just because you feel you should.
  • Don’t be scared of putting a book down for a bit and coming back to it.
  • Don’t ever let someone brand you a mainstream, mouthbreathing idiot/an ivory-tower wanker/a sheeple/a show-off because of what you’re reading.

Man, now this issue becomes more complicated. Read what you like. Let’s go through these one by one.

Don’t read classics just because you feel you should.
Don’t read blockbusters just because you feel you should.

I’m lumping these together because they’re so closely linked.

Like most people, I’ve Got Opinions on our education system, but I’ll confine myself to just this one at the moment: our (Australian, middle-class, Western-centric) school system emphasises rote-learning and obedience over thought and exploration. The result of this, in the context of reading, is that heaps of people grow up being told what to read and never really work out why they’re told those things. So when you’re a grown-up and you’re suddenly left without anybody telling you what to read, you don’t really know where to find what to read next. So you defer to other forms of authority: the classics canon is one, the blockbuster canon is the other.

The classics canon is the traditional list of books people often say you “should” read. Classics somehow have earned the status of “improving”: if you read them, you’ll become a better/smarter/wiser person or something. Many form the traditional basis of academic education — and rightly so. Many of the books that get chucked into the (generally ill-defined) classics genre are significant works in literary history: Charles Dickens revealed social conditions and characterised children like nobody else; Virginia Woolf broke the boundaries of what a novel could do; D.H. Lawrence challenged standards about what could and couldn’t be discussed; and that’s only touching on English literature, nevermind European, American and Asian classics. They contributed to the evolution of literature and reading them can be hugely rewarding. But it’s not obligatory. If it bores you to read Dickens, then ffs don’t read Dickens. Life is short and there are countless brilliant authors to read without ever reading anything published in England in the 1800’s. Read the ones that seriously stir your crank, give you a buzz, make you think and give you a chance to change your perspective: that’s the highest goal of writing.

The blockbusters canon (look, I know “blockbusters” usually refers to movies, but it’s a damn handy word and I’m going to use it) is just another source of authority. You’re looking for something to read; you’ve heard a lot of hype about Jonathon Franzen’s/Margaret Atwood’s/Dan Brown’s/James Patterson’s new book, so why not start there? Don’t want to be left behind if everyone else is reading it: it’s the done thing! Won’t you look silly at the book club if you haven’t read the latest Jodi Picoult? Maybe. Who cares? Sometimes these books are popular for the reason that they’re very good: if someone whose judgment you trust recommends a book — someone with similar taste to your own — then don’t chuck it aside just because it’s on the Top 40. But don’t snatch up a book because it’s on the Top 40. Who writes those lists, anyway? By what standard is a book a bestseller? Last time I checked, the Bible was still one of the most highly-ranked books in terms of sales, but I can tell you it’s a bit of a dud read, and you don’t usually see it on the “Top 100 Books of All Time EVAR!” lists.

These two points basically come down to this: read what you like. Don’t read what you think you should like or what others tell you should like: read what you like.

Don’t be scared of putting a book down for a bit and coming back to it.

A book is not a puppy. A book is not a person. A book is not a solemn bond or a sacred relic or demonic obligation. A book is something you can put aside when you don’t like it, which is more than you can say about life in general. A book is something you can get bored or angry with: and if that’s the case, then put it down and walk away. I mean, you don’t literally have to walk away. You’d lose your seat on the bus. But if a book isn’t doing it for you, give it a rest. Maybe it’ll be forever and you’ll find another book to scratch your itch — and the book will find another reader they can satisfy. But maybe not. Maybe you’ll come back to it later and it’ll rock your world. When it happens, that’s awesome. But when it doesn’t, it’s so far from being the end of the world that I feel silly even mentioning it. If you start reading a book and don’t like it: stop. It’s not the end of the world. It’s not going to make kittens blind or the fruit wither and crumble from the trees. Go and read something else. Read what you like.

Don’t ever let someone brand you a mainstream, mouthbreathing idiot/an ivory-tower wanker/a sheeple/a genius because of what you’re reading.

This is surprisingly important. Read books because you want to read them: don’t read something just because you want people to know you read it (“Oh, you haven’t read War and Peace? I have, because I’m magnificent.” or “I’ve read every single thing Terry Pratchett ever wrote, including all his toilet graffiti and shopping lists. Have you? Didn’t think so, loser.”) And don’t stop just because somebody suggests that what you’re reading makes you a crummy person (“Science fiction? What are you, twelve?” or “Lolita is for perverts: are you a pervert?”). Life’s too short to play the genre fiction vs literary fiction game, and anyway that’s time you could spend reading. Read what you like and tell everyone else to fuck off. Okay, don’t actually tell them: they may get hurt feelings or get all punchy at you. But by all means, say it in your head.

Let me say it again: read what you like.

How do you find out what you like? Think about what you’ve read in the past and ask yourself what you liked about them. Did you like the dragons? The castles? The way the hero and heroine got together in the end without all that messy humping? The author’s deft eyebrow-tilt towards another book? Winnie-the-Pooh’s hunny pots? Figure out what appealed and find that somewhere else. Look for books by the same author; look for books the author has collaborated with; find out what the author likes to read and chase those authors. Check out Amazon’s “people who bought this book also bought…” thing. Have a look on Goodreads or LibraryThing or Shelfari; ask people who have similar taste to you what you should read. Ask people who have bloody awful taste and ask them what you should read, then avoid it. Find blogs you like and find out what their writers read.

Life is short, reading is awesome and there are millions of sexy books out there, just waiting to take your call. Getting them free (or at least cheap) is a snap, too: you’ve just got to know where to look. Borrow them off friends or, hell, from a library. Visit second-hand bookshops or download some ebooks (there’s plenty of free ebook reading software available, but a lot of ebooks are also available as pdfs or HTML anyway). Start a Book Exchange with your coworkers (I am eternally, fervently, fawningly grateful that this happened at my work: it meant I could hand over all my surplus-to-requirements books and then take home a whole lot of new ones) and register on Book Crossing. Try Project Gutenberg or Daily Lit or The Baen Free Library for freebies.

Books are everywhere. Read what you like.

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