Saturday, September 1, 2007

The Seven Deadly Reading Sins

By Stuart Sharp

So many confessions, so little time. Let’s face it; most of us, once we start on the confession theme, will have a hard time stopping. To prevent this, or at least to organise things a little, I’ve arranged my own confessions around the seven deadly sins, which seem to show up in reading as much as anywhere. Feel free to see how many of them you can check off for your own reading habits, and try not to worry if it’s all of them, because I suspect a lot of other people will be in the same boat.


When it comes to laziness, I don’t have to look any further than my choice of reading material for this confession. The truth is that I would much rather read genre fiction, particularly fantasy and horror, than 'proper' literature. I’ve tried, really tried, to read the greats, to get through those important works of literature that are supposed to be good for you. But a lot of the time things follow a familiar pattern. I’ll start the book, reading a few pages here, a few pages there. Then, somewhere towards the middle, I’ll start reading some cheap horror novel and forget about it completely. I had a quick look round when I started writing this one, and realised that I’ve got bookmarks sticking out of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Spencer’s Faery Queen and Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte de Arthur, only one of which I can remember starting. I tell myself there are good reasons for this; that after spending my days working through medieval texts the last thing I want to do is read anything serious, but even so, I know the truth. I just can’t be bothered to finish them.


I’m a book snob. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the confession under sloth. What is a feeling of guilt at not reading enough ‘proper’ literature except snobbishness? There’s clearly some tiny part of my brain that thinks I shouldn’t be reading any book that hasn’t come out as a Penguin classic and been dissected by a dozen academics. And that part of my brain is wrong. Reading, after all, is mostly about enjoyment. Feeling faintly guilty because I’ve just done the literary equivalent of turning down cordon bleu cooking in favour of fast food misses that point entirely. If you think this is silly, and that you’ve never suffered from this kind of snobbishness, ask yourself this; when you were reading the last Harry Potter, did you think of it as a guilty pleasure because it was supposed to be a kid’s book? If you didn’t read it, was that because it was ‘just for children’? If either answer is yes, then you’re probably a book snob too. Welcome to the club.


If I told you that I’d eaten a particularly large trifle all by myself in one sitting, you’d probably think that I was A: a glutton, and B: quite odd for mentioning it in a 'zine devoted to books. On the other hand, if I mention that I read the 607 pages of the last Harry Potter in just over a day, I’m pretty sure quite a lot of you will understand. There are, as far as I can tell, essentially two types of reader. There are those who linger on each page, as though trying to wring every last drop of enjoyment from the words, and there are those like me, who devour books quickly, finish them and immediately start looking for something else to read. There’s nothing particularly wrong with either approach, but there are a couple of signs to watch out for if you want to avoid slipping over into gluttony. Firstly, if you’ve just engaged on a marathon reading session, finished the book you’re enjoying, and then can’t remember any of it, that’s probably a bad sign. Secondly, if you’re appetite for reading means that every available surface in your house is overflowing with paperbacks, you need to cut back. Or get a library card.


Not greed for wealth in this context, of course, but for books instead. Why read one at a time when you can read six? This is a particular reading ‘sin’ that I tend to fall into almost by accident. In order to be able to find whatever book I’m reading when I come back to it, I tend to put it down in one of a few regular places. Not bookcases, obviously, because that would be far too organised. Unfortunately, the end result is that I sometimes end up with a partially read book per place, which works out at three or four books. Or I’ll start reading something and then suddenly come across something I’ve wanted to read for ages. Much as with Sloth, above, I then tend to forget about the original. If that happens a few times in a row, I end up with a backlog of half read books, which I then read all at once. I’m waiting for the day when my memory starts pushing the books together, so that I start remembering plots that are half Jane Austen, half Trudi Canavan.


One of the minor quirks of genre fiction is that it tends to result in some long, long series. These days, in fantasy writing, a simple trilogy isn’t enough. If you’ve got the characters and the setting, why not stay with it for ten books, or twenty. Including the ones aimed at younger readers, Terry Pratchett has managed, by my count, 35 novels set in and around Discworld to date. The difficulty with series like this is that you, or at least I, end up reading through the series, then waiting patiently for the next one. At least, I wait patiently for the next instalment for about a month after I’ve finished the last one. Then I wait slightly more impatiently, even though I know it takes much longer to write and publish a book. After a while, I start looking out for clues that a new book is imminent. I might end up wandering round the author’s website, or go down to my local bookshop to see if it’s shown up yet. Invariably it hasn’t, which makes me wonder whether I should pre-order the thing online. I don’t though, partly because I prefer buying my books from real people, and partly because I know that this anticipation is part of the enjoyment when the next book finally is published.


A fairly short list of some literary things that make me, if not angry, then at least annoyed:

Ghostwritten autobiographies, wilfully strange short stories that made sense when I started reading but not towards the end, clumsy attempts to write dialogue in accents the author clearly hasn’t heard enough of, ‘surprise’ endings that you guessed half way through, works of history or literature from a library where someone has underlined about half of it in ink to show the ‘important’ bits, celebrities publishing the sort of novels that most people would get laughed at for submitting…

And breathe.

As you can probably see, I’m quite easily annoyed where books are concerned, but then, I suspect quite a lot of people are. It’s a rare reader who hasn’t found at least one author whose work they absolutely despise. The trick is never to mention it, because you can bet almost anything that the spouse/sibling/complete stranger you do tell will be their biggest fan.


Let’s leave aside the obvious temptation to envy the success of major authors for a moment. After all, they probably deserve it. Except for whichever one you decided to dislike under Anger, obviously. Instead, I’d like to confess to a smaller type of envy; the envy that comes when someone you live with has a book you want to read. Only you can’t, because they’re still reading it. Assuming they’re happy to share books with you, you can’t even go out and buy your own copy, because there’s no point in having two identical copies on the communal bookshelf. And it’s inevitable that this is the point at which they reveal themselves not only as someone who savours every page for hours, but also as someone who laughs at all the funny parts and tells you that you’ve got to read that bit, because it’s hilarious. There are two solutions to this. The one that doesn’t involve murder is to make very sure that you buy the book before they do. Failing that, you’ll just have to sit there and fume, or invest in different coloured bookmarks, one or the other.


April said...

This is a great article!

"Why read one at a time when you can read six?"

Oh God, I could have written that myself ;)

Carl V. Anderson said...

Wonderful confession! I certainly suffer from them all as well.

There is rarely a time when I don't have a ton of books going all at once.

I'm not sure I totally agree with the book snob thing as the guilt people can feel over not reading 'proper' literature is, in my opinion, almost always guilt imposed on us from elsewhere, even if we are not conscious of it, than true book snobbishness. Just admitting you read genre fiction makes you not a snob.

And there is alot of hard to get into 'proper' literature, but as a fellow genre lover I would encourage you that there is alot of 'proper' lit out there that is amazing and certainly would appeal to you more than the examples you gave.

I hate to say that if I wanted to read a book my significant other was reading I would take the greed road and go buy another copy. ;)

Kathleen said...

Great article, your best yet! I'll be linking to it on my book blog!