Books are Bad for You

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There is no way someone who lives books, reading and writing can ignore a column piece called Books are Bad for You. My hackles go up immediately and I’m ready to argue with its author, Howard Jacobson, before I’ve even read it.

Which is, of course, exactly what he wants his reader to do.

He makes the point that “Any book worth reading will have you arguing with it by the bottom of page one, …” Does that make your piece even more valuable, Mr Jacobson, because I didn’t get past the title?

“… will have you reaching for your pencil and your notebook by page two, …”

Those words bring Virginia Woolf to mind.

Confession time: If I have difficulty starting to write, and we writers are experts at finding excuses, I pick up Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary. Immediately I’m transported to Monk’s House. Strangely, not to the study at the end of the garden, but her bedroom semi-detached to the house with the single bed squashed against the bookcase in the corner. It doesn’t matter that the entries weren’t all written there.

What matters is that I’m sitting on the bed, listening to the woman in the armchair next to the window with a notebook in her lap, who is passionately, intimately and deeply analysing what she wants to write and how she wants to write it. It’s as if she’s talking to me, nutting out for herself what her writing means to her and casting out for new innovative ways to communicate it.

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By page two I am always crouched over my own notebook. Writing. Not necessarily about what Virginia – I can’t now call her Woolf – has said, but about what it inspired in me about my own life and work.

Jacobson continues that a book worth reading “… will have you so astonished that you must set it aside every couple of minutes to consider what you read.”

Don’t you love when this happens? And it happens too rarely. I remember a holiday on a tropical island with my husband and children. Lying on a lounger under a palm tree by the pool. Drusilla Modjeska’s The Orchard open on my lap. Before I’d finished the first page I came across a sentence so beautifully written I had to put the book down.

“Book no good?” the man in my life asked.

“I’m savouring the writing.”

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A few pages on and Modjeska introduced an idea so intriguing I had to put my book down to mull over it.

“Had enough already?” he asked.

I learnt very quickly of the barrier offered by the open book.

And remembering this holiday I have to agree with Jacobson that there is an expectation that a “great” book will absorb us completely. We see it as a positive thing to be carried away by its easy readability. We want books we can’t put down.

There must be thousands of books I’ve read that have been eminently readable, that took me into their world and on some superficial level moved me at the moment of reading. But I can’t remember them now. These are the books Jacobson believes are bad for us. He sees no point in this type of book at all.

The books I do remember, my favourites, are the ones that make me thoughtful, expand my world and my understanding of our world, or that are painful, and as a result, hard to read – I’m thinking of Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin or Jonathon Safron Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Both so confronting and agonising at times I didn’t know if I could bear to read on. But, of course, I did.

As I write this post I’m staying in a sleepy seaside village. There’s a slight nip to the breeze but the winter sun is warm and drowsy. In a moment I’m going outside onto the patio to soak in the warmth.

Howard Jacobson will not approve of the book I’m taking out there. But I’ve decided these maligned books that don’t “empower thought and sense” can still have a place in my life.

What do you think?

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10 Responses to Books are Bad for You

  1. anne says:

    Love your response to Jacobson’s piece, Karen. Who’s to say that a book he might malign might empower another? I say there’s room for all and what better place to read than sitting with your back to the sun, soaking up the warmth, and simply enjoying the book. Happy reading 🙂

    • Hi Anne. I agree completely. There’s a lot to be said for those books that give us reading pleasure. But there’s a little bit of me that wants both the reading pleasure and the mind-blowing insights. Marion Halligan’s ‘Spidercup’ is another one of those rare books for me. I’m sure you have a list, too. Yes, it’s dangerous territory, indeed, to set yourself up as the arbiter of ‘worthy books.’ (Hate that word, worthy. It drains all the excitement out.) It’s interesting that his piece did all the things he said a worthy book should do, though. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Cheers, Karen

  2. Sam says:

    I adored both of the titles you mention. A few more I’d add are ‘The Light Between Oceans’ by M.L. Stedman and ‘Middlesex’ by Jeffrey Eugenides. Both really made me think. Great post!

    • Hi Sam. Thanks so much for your suggestions. I haven’t read either but will certainly do so now. I got halfway through Eugenides ‘The Marriage Plot’, put it down and haven’t felt inclined to pick it back up. Perhaps it was the book, not the author, that caused that. I enjoyed your post on the new writing group. Thanks for the tips.

      • Sam says:

        I have ‘The Marriage Plot’ on my shelf. Hopefully I get to it one day. I recommend Middlesex to everyone I talk to so I hope I’m nor pumping a bad book!

      • I think I was the only person in the world who didn’t finish Alan Hollinghurst’s ‘The Line of Beauty.’ But I love love loved his ‘The Stranger’s Child.’ It’s funny how that works out sometimes. I’ve heard ‘Middlesex’ is a fine book from others, too. Looking forward to reading it.

  3. suemasens65 says:

    I love your response too Karen, I love to read a book that transports me to another place and I forget about everything else as though I am living the story.. I guess he means those sorts of books do nothing for us really. But they do because they help one through difficult patches in life to forget our troubles momentarily. But the thought provoking book is just as wonderful. I just read Muriel Barbary’s “The Hedgehog” and cant stop pondering over some of her mind probing questions. A wonderful example of a book to ponder over…

    • Hi Sue. I’d love to know what Jacobson would say to your comment. Books are brilliant to help us escape from life sometimes. That’s valuable, indeed. I loved “The Elegance of the Hedgehog”, too. Cheers, Karen

  4. Maree Gallop says:

    Very thoughtful response, Karen! I find that so many books have a place in my life. Some of them stay with me always and make me think about them years after I’ve read them; like Wilkie Collins, The Woman In White or Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of his Natural Life, and another that affected me deeply was Kate Grenville’s, Lillian’s Story. These books moved me emotionally and expanded my thinking. More recently, now writing my own stories I am able to look upon even the not so good books and learn from them. Maybe we need to take the good with the bad!

    • Hi Maree. It’s funny how so many of the books people have mentioned here are books I have really enjoyed reading but have made me think, too. Ahh, The Woman in White…

      I also wonder how we would recognise the good if we didn’t have the bad?! Maybe the ‘unworthy’ books serve that purpose, too.

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