No Book Left Unread

There are many movements that seek to impose a certain type of book on people: people should make an effort to read books by ethnic minorities, people should commit to read only books by women for a year, people should only read books with diverse casts. I have the same doubts about reducing books down to a single broad trait of the author as I do about all positive discrimination, but I am more concerned with the hidden axiom beneath them all: certain books have no value.

Yesterday’s Goodread’s quote is from Maria Semple (ironically one of the writers of Beverly Hills 90210, which might be described as fluffy summery in feel):

I never understood the concept of a fluffy summer read. For me, summer reading means beaches, long train rides and layovers in foreign airports. All of which call for escaping into really long books.

– Maria Semple

Those even tangentially familiar with me will probably be aware that I read a lot of books: last year I read over 150, and I have beaten that already. And for exactly the reason Semple cites: filling the spaces betwixt and between other things as well as deliberate reading.

However, I fully understand why people would want a fluffy summer read: it provides the same experience to them as Erickson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen or Huysmans’ La Bas provides me.</p.

My reading-for-comprehension speed is fast, fast enough that I can finish a standard novel in an evening. When my job involved travelling to court hearings across the United Kingdom, I used to carry at least one unstarted novel in addition to the one I was reading to make sure I would have enough to read if my train was delayed. Really long books are the only ones that fill the spaces Semple references.

In addition, my memory for plot and character (my book buffer as it were) is both capacious and fast to access. I have no difficulty reading during a short commercial break, watching a segment of a program, and picking the book up at the start of the next break without any loss of immersion in either story. The interstitial spaces suitable for me to read are almost limitless.

But, for all the myriad readers who do not have my extreme facility with reading; who take a week – or a month – to read a novel; who need to focus to keep the narrative straight; shorter, less-dense books are more suitable to their experience.

Extending Semple’s premise, one might as well say one doesn’t understand the concept of children’s books: after all (as any parent will attest) children’s books are brief and shallow, gone in minutes.

So, do fluffy summer reads do anything for me? Not really. Does that mean people shouldn’t read them? Of course not.

Reading is a great way to see another perspective on life, any new perspective – no matter how similar to that we already hold – gives us (for the individualists) more opportunities to leverage situations and (for the social) a greater insight into how our experience is not the only viable one.

Are there any books you feel have no value? Are there any books that everyone needs to read?

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9 thoughts on “No Book Left Unread

    1. I was thinking more about the wider point of every book being worthwhile for at least a minority of people, but every book having some worth for all readers could well be true.

      Subject to accessibility: I would accept the argument a specific reader finds at best trivial worth in a text they can’t read.

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  1. Hmm. No value at all to anyone? Doubtful. People have waxed poetic about books I have thought shallow and formulaic; surely those books were of some value to them. Books I thought were moving when I was young do nothing for me now. I discovered this when I decided to reread Mitchener’s Hawaii a couple of years back. At the other end, there must be people who would get nothing from the most magisterial work.

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    1. I can imagine people not thinking they got anything from a particular work; I’m not sure if that perception would be correct.

      Ignoring the trivial better grasp of what they didn’t like, I don’t think they could avoid having their beliefs challenged by the interaction; however, slight a challenge it was.

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        1. Having started Finnegans Wake several times and given up, I took at least two lessons from it:
          – critical acclaim doesn’t mean a book is better;
          – not every book by a particular author will be similar to the others.

          I don’t think everyone who gave up would consciously take those lessons, but I could believe they would unconsciously become slightly less likely to accept literary praise as a judge of quality.

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  2. Which of course brings up the question of what counts as great literature. I hadn’t considered book-specific learning in the context of this discussion. I suppose one could always at least learn to put a book down and not finish it.

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    1. Or indeed the question of what distinguishes literature from other written works.

      The definition that it is what literary critics say it is seems too self-referential to me. And – although works that “stand the test of time” are more likely to have merit – reference to the classics provides a definition that isn’t very useful for recent works.

      Potentially, literature uses language to a purpose other than clear communication, i.e. to evoke a response to information rather than only provide it. Making great literature works that achieve a powerful response in a large proportion of the audience.

      Which raises further questions of how you determine audience, whether it is the sum of all responses or only a single valid response, and what responses are valid.

      And then we enter the realms of cultural bias and are back with the definition that people can’t point at it on a chart, but know it when they see it.

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