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I always liked reading, ever since I was a baby. My father has videos of me running around with my superman cape and jumping on the coach, and then stop dead in my tracks so I could sound out the words to Dr. Suess.

It wasn't until I first went to school that I found out that most people didn't like to read books. Reading wasn't cool. I remember an argument I had with someone at school, where he took the position that there was no reason to read books at all.

Of course, this depends a lot on the field you're in, but I had to see his point after a while. If you're a programmer then there's no such thing as a worthless O'Reilly book, but if you're in marketing or retail sales, books aren't going to help you all that much. So I saw his point, but I still read for pleasure.

I read because I like to read, and I'm good at it. I can get through a book in under an hour, and I remember everything I read afterwards. Meanwhile, I can't remember a single episode of Friends, and to be blunt, it's just much easier to get at good books than it is to get at good television.

But then the guy's other argument dropped: in school, even if you hate reading for pleasure, they'll still make you read. And it's not even the fun stuff that you'll have to read. Every so often I hear cries from the literary community about how western civilization is going down the tubes because no-one will read serious literature any more. There's a reason why. Their books suck. In fact, many of the so-called classics suck, and I'm privately convinced that if many of these books didn't have the dead weight of peer pressure holding them up, nobody would shed a tear if they were simply not read.

This ties into the well-known cultural phenomenon: People who talk about books they've obviously never read. It's more fashionable to have read a classic and say that you love it than it is to actually read it for pleasure -- the fact that you've read it is more important than whether you liked it or not. And God forbid you should say out loud that you didn't enjoy it, because you will be committing an act of heresy, regardless of whether you actually liked the damn thing or not.

For a while, these goons tried to say that English literature was actually a way to expand the soul and make a better and more cultured person (which they should be a tautology, but isn't). This theory should have really been scuttled when most of the classics were found in the shelves of the Nazi death camp commandants, but you can disprove this quite handily by taking a close look at any English professor.

So in the end I had to empathize with the guy who didn't see a point to reading, because no-one who was telling him knew. The community takes itself so seriously that it loses track of exactly why it reads in the first place: for entertainment.


Let me be more explicit: most of the classics that I have read have sucked.

There are exceptions. Marge Piercy is good. Anything by John Irving is excellent. Same goes for Shakespeare, Dorothy Parker, Iain Banks.

I thought Franny and Zooey was histrionic and didactic. I thought Infinite Jest was a ripoff and a intellectual cheat. I read Sense and Sensibility and was bored. I read Maya Angelou and thought the characters spent far too much time complaining about their problems without actually doing anything. I read London Fields and was amazed by how Martin Amis expected me to be impressed with a completely obvious reference to Enola Gay... I go through the whole book (having figured out the major plot endings after the first 100 pages) and that's the payoff? And don't even get me started on John Cheever.

At this point I've already decided that if a book doesn't entertain me in the first 100 pages, I'm dumping it. I've been through too many books where I ignored that instinct and was disappointed for it. You can see that as "giving up" if you like... but why subject myself to something in which I don't see value?

Now it's time for the comeback.

"people who have read widely and well are more cultured than those who never pick up anything other the TV guide. Doesn't mean they are nicer people, just means they have had a greater exposure to culture."

Yeah... whose culture? Are you saying Jerry Springer and WWF isn't culture? People absorb as much, if not more information about culture from the television set as from books. Jerry Springer will teach you more about the people you live with than Marcel Proust.

"You could read those books that give you an insight into how people think, how people see the world, and then you know better how to sell to them. Useful? Nah. Course not. Oh, but terse says books shouldn't be useful. Terse says that reading is only for entertainment."

I didn't say books weren't useful, and I don't appreciate you twisting my words. Ask someone in Marketing how many books he's read about Marketing. Now ask a programmer how many books he's read on programming. In my experience, books help programmers more. You learn about people by talking to people.

Reading isn't cool

In some groups, no, it's not. But then learning's not cool either. It's better to fail than to be seen as a swot. It's considered better, in some circles, to learn something that will advance your career directly than study something for its own sake. This is why marketing courses are more oversubscribed than classics these days.

Reading is now cooler than it has been for ages. The numbers of books sold in the UK has been going up and up in recent years. It's not that just more people are reading, but that existing readers are buying more books (this might have something to do with all the library cutbacks.) Even boys are getting back into reading fiction (thank you J.K Rowling for reminding them what fun it is).

if you're in marketing or retail sales books aren't going to help you all that much.

Well, if you skip past all the business books that are targeted at these people, and all the self-help books about assertiveness and techniques to convince people, you could look at all those where people have insane ideas or amazing scams and convince the world of them (see: The Bible, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, etc). You could read those books that give you an insight into how people think, how people see the world, and then you know better how to sell to them. Useful? Nah. Course not. Oh, but terse says books shouldn't be useful. Terse says that reading is only for entertainment.

They'll still make you read

Oh, the horror, the horror! Forcing words into tiny little minds. Cruel, isn't it?

classics suck

Many of the so-called classics suck, huh? Have you read them, or are you falling into your own trap of making sweeping statements about things you've not read? Have you read them out of the context of school? have you chosen to read them for pleasure? Have you read them with a little knowledge about the society and systems in which they were written? Have you given yourself up to the storytelling, and the delights of language? Or have you merely said, "Who needs this so-called great writing anyway? I've got this happy trash to read instead." You have over a thousand years of literature to choose from. You have novels and poetry and drama from around the world. Have you read this stuff, or are you sticking to the literary equivalent of Friends.

There is no master list of Great Books. Is a classic considered that because of its age or its greatness? Of course, some of them are no great shakes. They are revered just because they are old, not because they are wonderful. Adore them or dismiss them after you've read them, not on the basis of their standing, or otherwise you too are making judgements on what you've not read.

I can't believe that it's cooler, anywhere, to pretend to have read a book and pretend to have loved it, than actually read the book and like it. And saying you didn't like something that is widely regarded as good, having an original opinion and being able to back it up with reasoned argument is not heresy. It's called debate.

Books will not make you good. Nazis liked books.

They also recognised their power: they burned them by the bonfire load. But this is a weak argument. It's on the level of "Hitler was a vegetarian. So don't tell me that vegetarianism has any merit." Perhaps people who have read widely and well are more cultured than those who never pick up anything other the TV guide. Doesn't mean they are nicer people, just means they have had a greater exposure to culture.

For entertainment

It's not just for entertainment and escapism. It is for learning and enlightenment too. It's for broadening one's horizons and getting glimpses into worlds and lives that we never visit outside the printed world. It's for elucidation and education. Its for the communication of any human idea that can be expressed in words. And it's for pure enjoyment and delight.

And yes, I read. I read constantly. I read on the bus, in bed, brushing my teeth, walking down the road. I read when I eat my sandwiches. I read when I was the dishes. And I will read almost anything. But I am book snob. I admit it. I don't read any paperback with gold blocked letters on it. Nope.

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