How to be a Better Reader

The internet is full of articles telling writers how to improve. But there are at least several more readers than writers out there, and better readers make better writers writing better books. So, here are some ways to improve your reading life. There may be a test.

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Read something you wouldn’t normally read. At least once every couple of months, pick up a genre you’ve never tried, non-fiction on a subject you know nothing about, a novel that doesn’t look like your cup of tea. There could be an entire world of new books out there, waiting for you to love them.

Read more non-fiction. Discover something about science.  Explore a random period of history. Pick up something you’ve no reason to care about yet. I want you in the pub, next week, telling people, ‘No, seriously, it’s a biography of this woman who was married to an Archbishop of Canterbury and she never actually did anything much but it’s really interesting!’

There is a special seat in heaven for the reader who spreads the word about a book she loves.

There is a special seat in hell for the reader who leaves a one-star review on Amazon because the book had a printing error or was delivered late. That seat is very pointy.

Annoyed at the price of a book? Please tell me all about it, in a properly edited 100,000-word manuscript. What, does that sound like months of hard work? Oh.

Give yourself proper time to read, not just ten pages on your commute and five pages while falling asleep. You wouldn’t try to watch The Wire in ten-minute snatches, hours apart, would you? Books need attention too.

If you fear that your friends/family/fellow commuters will judge you for your reading matter, you have three choices: read with your head high because they have no right to book-shame you; get better friends/family/fellow commuters; buy an e-reader. Do not stop reading.

The TV is tempting, the dirty laundry is massing, the to-do list is taking on independent life. On the other hand, the entire collective intelligence, insight and discoveries of the human race are spread out in front of you for the taking. Go on, five more pages.

Jean-Paul Sartre was a time traveller. He wrote Nausea, his great cry of existential agony, after visiting the 21st century and listening to the 500th argument about the relative merits of ebooks and print. Let it go.

Given the choice between the movie/TV tie-in cover and the real one, buy the real one. Have book pride.

Authors will keep writing, if you’ll just keep reading.

(This blog was inspired by this very gloomy article in The Guardian.)

Book Shaming: ‘You Don’t Read *That*, Do You?’

A: Hey, what are you reading?

B:  It’s called The Screaming Girls and it’s a thriller about a serial killer who horribly tortures pregnant women to death and then nails their uteruses to the wall. He’s called The Virginia Woolf Killer because he’s creating a womb of his own. I’m really enjoying it. What about you?

A: It’s about two people who fall in love.

B: God, I don’t know how you can read that stuff.

Or, as George Moore said, “I wonder why murder is considered less immoral than fornication in literature.” That was in 1888 and nothing’s changed.

The world is full of people ready to tell you what you should be reading. You should be reading plotless lapidary prose about the slow decline of an aristocratic family in pre-war Hungary. You should be reading books written 150 years ago, at least. You should be reading the genre I like, the ones with the good covers. Scandinavian crime in translation, not cosy mysteries. Thrillers > sci fi > fantasy > romance > erotica. You certainly shouldn’t be reading books for children. Reading the wrong books is just wasting your time. God, you don’t read that, do you? I thought you had to be an idiot/pervert/nerd/pretentious jerk to read that stuff. You actually like that? What’s wrong with you?

And it’s worse as a writer, a thousand times worse, because now it’s not just your interests being attacked but your abilities and imagination. Especially if you write either romance or children’s, both of which are frequently regarded with a sneer. (Hmm, which gender is heavily associated with those two genres of writing? Oh, what a coincidence.)  When are you going to write a proper book? Don’t you want to write something more challenging? Aren’t you good enough?

The excellent children’s writer Jenny Alexander blogged about being made to feel lesser in ‘Are you a Proper Author?’

The group was made up of successful authors from every area of writing – medical books, Black Lace, children’s fiction, ELT, poetry… Without exception – well, except me; I wanted to have a go at poetry – they all harboured a secret ambition to write a literary novel. They said they wouldn’t feel like a proper writer unless they could achieve it.

Well, I’m an experienced editor, published author and holder of a degree in English Literature. I’m entitled to judge ‘proper writing’. And to anyone who tells me what to write or read, I am now summoning up all my well-honed literary powers to say: Get stuffed.

I write romance, fantasy, thrillers, blogs, sticker storybooks. I do all of those things to the best of my ability. If I feel the urge to write a villanelle, literary novel about the futility of existence in fin de siècle Paris, history of the Victorian transport network or YA zombie apocalypse space opera, I will do that to the best of my ability too. I will keep writing, and I will try to keep getting better at it, and if you want more than that from me, then get in the goddamn queue, because I’m busy.

I’m not talking about being undiscriminating. There are plenty of books I think badly written, plotted or edited, or all three; lots of genres I don’t care for; lots of subjects I find repellent. I don’t have to read them; I don’t have to be nice about them. But nor do I get to say that you’re wrong, stupid or lesser if you love a book I loathe, or read a genre that strikes me as absurd. All I can say is, you saw something good where I didn’t. It’s even possible that if I ask you what you saw, I might learn something.

Matt Haig’s tremendous piece on book snobs deserves a complete read but I’m just going to quote my favourite bit here:

The greatest stories appeal to our deepest selves, the parts of us snobbery can’t reach, the parts that connect the child to the adult and the brain to the heart and reality to dreams. Stories, at their essence, are enemies of snobbery. And a book snob is the enemy of the book.

Read the books you love, love the books you read. If you write, then write the best book you can, about whatever you want. Do what you want, as long as you put your heart into it. And don’t presume to tell anyone else what they ought to be reading or writing. That’s their heart.