The pride and prejudice of reading



I recently read a non-fiction book called The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller. The author felt embarrassed about not having read enough “Great Literature” – especially as he’d claimed to his friends to have read many books that he actually hadn’t. So, to make amends, he set about drawing up a “list of betterment” which then became the premise for his book.

It was an entertaining read, but as he struggled through Middlemarch, War and Peace, Moby Dick and 47 other challenging tomes, I found myself thinking, why do this to yourself? (Unless, of course, you plan to write a humorous book about the experience and/or want to impress people.)

At university I struggled through a long list of “Great Literature”, namely French classics – only a handful of which I actually enjoyed. When I finished my degree, I almost felt like never reading anything again. But then I decided to celebrate my liberation from imposed reading by going out and buying Jilly Cooper’s Rivals. It was like downing a Gin & Tonic after years of being restricted to green smoothies. However, when reading this doorstop of frivolousness in public, I’d shield the cover from view – I didn’t want people to look down on me.

How ridiculous that some books should carry shame while others carry kudos. At a time when reading stories is not the go-to choice of entertainment for so many young people, literary snobbery is something we should be stamping out. And yet we continue to perpetuate it by keeping schtum about the books we’re too ashamed to admit we enjoyed – if not vocally damning them. (I’ve lost count of how many authors and critics have enjoyed publicly bashing Dan Brown. So what if The Da Vinci Code isn’t Pulitzer Prize material? Good on him for making a story accessible for thousands of people who struggle with reading.)

There’s a growing understanding among schools and libraries that in order to encourage kids to read more, we should encourage them to read anything – comics, graphic novels, non-fiction books, picture books, magazines, newspapers, ebooks, poems, blogs – to keep their appetite for reading on a positive trajectory. Perhaps it’s time we extended that ethos to adult reading habits, too.

We should be vocally celebrating the books we love – regardless of how uncool they may be in other people’s opinions. And we shouldn’t feel ashamed if we’ve never read any Jane Austen and can’t be arsed to either. It’s not a competition. You only lose if you deny yourself the pleasure of reading what you truly want to.

Is Dan Brown-bashing becoming a national pastime?

Over the last few weeks, Dan Brown’s name seemed to keep cropping up again and again – and not in a positive light. I didn’t pay much attention at first, as it wasn’t the first time I’d heard Dan Brown getting slated, but all of a sudden I was hearing sneers every other day. Then I stumbled across a review of Dan Brown’s latest book, Inferno, on the Telegraph website. I hadn’t realised his latest novel was imminent, but at last there was an explanation for the sudden increase in Dan Brown-bashing.

Only a few days before, Dan Brown was mentioned at a talk given by the author Lionel Shriver that I attended. Shriver was making the point that even literary writers should ask themselves the question, ‘Does your book have some commercial appeal?’ For if it doesn’t, it’ll be unlikely to sell many copies and eventually you’ll be out of a publisher – something she herself had learned from past experience.

To illustrate her point she added (words to the following effect): ‘By that, I don’t mean you should try to be commercial. Dan Brown doesn’t try to be commercial. Dan Brown’s soul is commercial.’ Everyone laughed – not that Shriver’s intention was to put Dan Brown down, it wasn’t. Her point was a valid one, in that you should be true to yourself when writing, but don’t underestimate the importance of commercial appeal. However, I couldn’t help feeling slightly unsettled by the chorus of laughter in the packed-out Brighton Dome. Was I the only person in there who had enjoyed The Da Vinci Code? It’s a while since I read it, but I can’t remember his prose being worthy of quite so much negative criticism from across the media and Twittersphere. All I remember is that the plot swept me along and I found the historical theories fascinating. Sometimes I wonder: do critics jump on certain bandwagons because they don’t want to risk their reputation by admitting they liked something mainstream and popular?

I know there are people who only read literary novels, those who only read mass-market novels, and those who only read non-fiction. There are also those who rarely read anything outside their genre of choice, be it crime, chick lit, sci-fi or whatever’s being promoted on the 3-for-2 tables in Waterstone’s. But can I just put a shout-out for those of us who love a literary novel as much as an airport novel, or crime as much as comedy? I’ll read anything from a ghost story to a lesbian love story to a travel memoir, provided that by chapter 3, it’s got my attention by the short and curlies. I’m generally not biased.

After I left university, having spent four years wading through a reading list that made me want to hurl books out the window – Baudelaire, Sartre, Proust (I studied French) – the first book I bought to celebrate after graduating was Jilly Cooper’s Rivals. It was a long while before I felt ready to move on to anything even remotely more taxing. Perhaps I was too young to appreciate those revered French authors back then, although I’m in no great hurry to give them another try just yet. (Apart from Emile Zola, whose Germinal was the only book in those four years that I couldn’t put down.)

I’m about to start reading my third Lionel Shriver novel, the newly released Big Brother. I love Shriver’s writing. I find her to be sharp, unashamedly honest and I sense that we share the same thoughts and values about much of what goes on on our crazy planet. However, I don’t want to read literary novels back to back. Sometimes I just want pure escapism, a well-told story. I couldn’t give a toss if – like has been said of Dan Brown – the author writes in “blunt, mechanical sentences” and “the protagonist is as vanilla as they come”, provided that there’s a gripping plot laden with suspense. I think Dan Brown ticks the gripping plot box, and personally I think he’s got a gift.

I will end by saying this to all the Dan Brown-bashers out there: The Da Vinci Code has outsold every other novel in the world. I’d like to see you try.