I often hear this phrase from people who have abandoned a book: ‘Life’s too short to read bad books.’ I disagree. I’m in the stubborn habit of finishing every book I start reading. Long ones, boring ones, annoying ones, offensive ones – they all get finished. Let me tell you why.
My first motivator is purely utilitarian and has to do with me working in editorial: I want to be a great editor, the kind with an unfailing sense of what works and what doesn’t, so when I encounter a book that fails to hold my attention beyond the first few pages, I like to figure out why. This is not always easy to do. When you first realise that you don’t like a book, you may only have a vague sense of dissatisfaction. Something’s off, but what? As I read along, the problems usually repeat themselves, so I eventually do pinpoint what it was that stuck in my craw.
When there’s a clearer reason for my not liking a book, like a ‘Mary Sue’ character or a plot twist that seems to come out of nowhere, I think of ways that it could have been fixed. These two exercises have made many a bad book interesting again. It’s a way of making lemon juice out of lemons, and I like to imagine that cultivating this skill in one area of life may seep over into others.
The other reason I feel it’s important to read through is inspired by a comment made by the novelist Yann Martel. I’ve tried to find it online, but unfortunately it’s lost – I think it may have been an excerpt from his book What Is Stephen Harper Reading?: Recommended Reading for a Prime Minister and Book Lovers of All Stripes (this is the book on the US Amazon) if anybody wants to look it up. The gist of it was that if you only ever read books you like and agree with, you will inadvertently self-censor your intake of opinions and ways of looking at things.
This is a scary thought to me. When you do that – drop the books that rub you the wrong way or don’t interest you – you’re setting limits to what ideas and points of view you will accept into your head. I’m afraid of getting so good at it that eventually I’ll need only to read the first page to know that the book ‘isn’t for me’. If that ever happens, it will mean that I will have created an effective filter that only lets through things that won’t make me uncomfortable or angry or bored. I’m scared that I’ll end up safely cocooned in the thoughts that I already think, and never have reason to venture out at all. And then I’ll say, ‘life is too short to read bad books’ and silently add, ‘and having to change your mind is such a bother’.
But of course it’s good for you to be exposed to ideas you don’t like, because then there’s a chance they’ll make you re-evaluate what you do like. I think this applies to all kinds of books from beach reads to Das Kapital. Books are a representation of the author’s worldview, or particular attitude to some aspect of life. I think it would do, say, a 52-year-old male CEO marvellous good to read, say, a historical romance. I’ll bet my hat he would encounter dozens of thoughts that had not passed through his synapses ever before. It might bore him or annoy him – symptoms of fossilised thought patterns being shaken up – but for a few hours he would have been put into the shoes of someone very different from himself.
(For more on the benefits of reading and especially its ability to make you see things from someone else’s perspective, I recommend watching this 3-minute interview with Yann Martel.)
All that said, I don’t think reading should be just an exercise in self-improvement. It’s still supposed to be enjoyable, and readers naturally choose the kinds of books they know they’ve enjoyed in the past. But every now and then everyone should take a risk on something they don’t normally read, and stick with it. Life’s too short to just read the same book over and over.
What do you think? Have I changed your mind?