“As long as they’re reading something…”

Is reading something – anything – better than reading nothing?

I have often heard it asserted that it is, but I don’t really see why. Given some of the utter rubbish I find myself flicking through when I am bookshop-browsing, it seems to me that doing nothing and staring vacantly into space is a far better use of one’s time than reading some of the tosh that’s out there.

(Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with reading tosh if that what one wants to do – but I don’t see why that should be considered a more worthwhile activity than not reading anything at all.)

 

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29 responses to this post.

  1. I think that reading anything is better than nothing, just like any physical activity is better than none. Because reading needs training.

    I know someone from the working class who started to read books at 60. She started with Harlequin. Now she’s 83. Last time I saw she was reading Andreï Makine, Goncourt Prize winner.
    According to your post, reading Harlequin equals staring vacantly into space. Except that staring vacantly into space doesn’t improve your reading capacities and cuts you forever from wonderful books.

    Reply

    • Hello Emma, I agree that staring into space (which I rather facetiously recommended) doesn’t enhance one’s reading capacities. But I do find myself wondering whether certain books may actually inhibit, or maybe even retard, one’s reading capacities. I cannot comment on Harlequin, not knowing it, but if it has been the first step towards reading Prix Goncourt winners, then it must be of a considerably higher standard than the kind of book I was referring to.

      Your friend, whom you mention, who started reading books at 60, certainly seems a most admirable person, and no, my broadside, such as it was, was most certainly not aimed at her, or at people like her.

      Reply

      • Harlequin is a publisher of paperback romance novels – the Canadian (and US, and apparently French) counterpart to Mills & Boon. I think Harlequin actually owns Mills & Boon now.

      • I see – thanks for that. Mills & Boon books, as I understand it, are very professionally wtitten for a specific market. While they are not the kind of book I am likely to read (but then again, they’re not aimed at me anyway), they are not the kind of book I was aiming my broadside at. The sort of book I wad referring to – shopping & ****ing novels, misery memoirs, vapid celebrity biographies – I really do feel are mind-rotting.

        When I contemplate this sort of book, I find it hard to go along with the sentiment that reading anything is better than reading nothing: there really are some sorts of books that I really can’t help thinkng are even worse than nothing. But as Guy says – whatever floats you boat!

  2. Posted by Erika W. on November 4, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    Hmm… I have the chronic awful condition, trigeminal neuralgia, which comes and goes. Right now it has come for the past 3 weeks and it is hard to concentrate on anything more than tosh of the finest water–and that only for short periods of time. Even this can be difficult but I have quite enjoyed John Grisham’s “The Litigators” to which I wouldn’t usually have given the time of day and I am grateful to him. There is a place for everything. Now I am reading “The Kashmir Shawl” by Rosie Thomas–higher quality,, but still definitely light reading and not to be sneered at. Jeffrey Archer here I come.

    With me, some thing is much better than nothing as distraction is needed rather than obsessing on pain waiting for medicine to kick in.

    Reply

    • Hello Erika, I most certainly do not sneer at light reading, or at books that entertain well, or books that distract when the mind is not in a fit state to concentrate. These are most certainly not the kind of book I had in mind when I wrote my post. But even when I want something light to read, even when I just want a bit of distraction when my mind is troubled, I really don’t think ‘d reach for the likes of misery memoirs.

      In future posts, I’ll try to be a bit clearer!

      Reply

  3. I agree that there is plenty of mindless junk out there in the literary world, but if one takes the time to sift through it and separate the ‘grain’ from the ‘chaff’, there usually is something worthwhile to be salvaged. Some would prefer to stare off into space, and it’s their prerogative to do so…I consider that idle state to be a waste of precious time.

    For me, however, I’ll continue to exercise patience when looking for that written word that will entertain, enlighten, or provide another angle or perspective on a subject…I have found that there is always something to be learned.

    IMO, reading is fundamental!

    Best,
    Kevin

    Reply

  4. My cat would agree with you. He can stare for hours out of the window and looking at him I think he does really do something meanigful…
    On a more serious note, I do agree with you. I agree because I know exactly in what context this is usually said and I also agree with you because I think you can litter your brain.

    Reply

  5. Absolutely – depends on the anything, depends on the nothing.

    Speaking for myself, I do far too much reading and far too little staring into space, by which I mean ,thinking, or looking, or listening.

    If we move a step away from the Git’s extreme-case straw man (doing literally nothing), the argument for reading “anything” completely collapses. The number of activities as valuable as reading just anything is endless.

    The great argument for reading is that any activity of value involves some reading, since that is how people communicate – this is why houses with no reading material are so creepy – don’t you people do anything? But this is not an argument for reading “anything” but an argument for reading about movies or quilting if what you do is watch movies or make quilts.

    Reply

  6. I think, along with Emma, that some people’s reading progresses. Also, I have a friend who was could only read mindless junk for a period, and it was the only thing she could do, which was better than nothing, following the suicide of someone close.
    There’s a lot of snobbery surrounding Oprah’s book club and while I don’t share her tastes, if she gets people reading (away from the telly), then great.

    And Erika W. Trigeminal neuralgia is one of the most painful conditions there is, so hats off to you.

    Reply

  7. Emma, Guy – the progress is presumably continual? We are training ourselves to advance step by step to Finnegans Wake or Heidegger or something like that?

    Or maybe there is a threshold you cross, and then you have completed your training. If I can complete a marathon, then my training has been worthwhile, even if I can never win the race. If I cannot even complete the marathon, my training has, of course, been a waste of time, time I should have spent reading.

    Reply

  8. Caroline, Tom,

    What I mostly mean is that we don’t have the same access to education. The person I mentionned before hardly finished grammar school during war time. When you start reading as a child, you progress and grow up at the same time. When you start reading as an adult, you’re not going to read The Fabulous Five, are you?

    And there’s illness, poor reading conditions including noise, small children, feeling tired after work.

    But I agree, some people don’t progress. I know someone who constantly buys the celebrities books and who’s not stupid at all. It hurts my eyes any time I stare at their book shelf.

    On another side, more practical, these stupid books sell well and keep bookstores alive.

    Reply

    • Oh dear – I seem to be in a bit of minority on this one, don’t I? Oh well, at least I get an opportunity to live up to the title of this blog. Can I get out of it by claiming I wasn’t being entirely serious? 🙂

      But I don’t think I was being entirely flippant either.

      First of all, I’d like to stand up for doing nothing and staring into space. It is an activity I find myself doing frequently: it is always enjoyable, and I never fail to feel better for it afterwards. I sympathise entirely with Caroline’s cat!

      Secondly, everyone has a right to read whatever they want without being looked down on, or sneered at. That really is so fundamental, that it goes without saying, and I apologise if I implied otherwise. As Guy says, one may be in certain states of mind when literary quality is not exactly an important criterion, and when one can’t take in anything other than “mindless junk”. I know, I’ve been there myself.

      But by “rubbish” I was certainly not targeting the likes of John Grisham thrillers. And neither was I targeting Oprah’s book club choices. I have consistently praised good light writing – or, for that matter, even middling light writing – on this blog. No – I am considering books that are way, way below such levels.

      My thoughts were occasioned by passing the bookshop on my local High Street this morning, and seeing a notice in the front window telling us that Jordan would soon be there to sign books. Now, I don’t know if the Jordan phenomenon has crossed the Channel, or has crossed the Atlantic: I rather suspect it hasn’t. For those who don’t know, she is a former topless model with extremely large silicon-filled breasts, and who is now credited as writer of certain vapid semi-pornographic books claiming to be novels, and which constitute an insult to the very concept of literacy. Now, I know it’s unfair to pick on Jordan: there’s so much more out there of a similar nature; and, also, Jordan’s books are almost certainly not written by Jordan herself, but by ghost-writers. I admit I do not know Harlequin (that Emma mentions), but if reading Harlequin can lead to reading Prix Goncourt winners, then I suspect it’s a quite few rungs higher than Jordan “novels”. I really do think it most unlikely that Jordan’s books will help encourage anyone move on in time to Prix Goncourt winners. Quite the contrary, I think: these books seem to me more likely to lower readers’ expectations.

      (And the people I see buying these books are not people who haven’t been educated: on the contrary, they are people who have been through years of compulsory schooling.)

      And then, there are “misery memoirs” : these are allegedly true-life stories (although many have been proved to be fake) giving detailed accounts of abused childhoods, with titles like “Daddy – Please Stop!” Having flicked through some of these, they seem to me quite objectionable exploitation, and all the more reprehensible if they are true accounts. But given the shelf space devoted to these, books such as these appear to be immensely popular.

      Of course, people are entitled to read even Jordan’s books or misery memoirs without being looked down on. Looking down on anyone because they happen to enjoy certain things that I don’t is snobbery, and I find it reprehensible. But I am not talking about looking down on anyone: I am questioning whether reading such books should be regarded as “worthwhile” simply because the act of reading involves the written word. Of course, if they provide entertainment or light relief or whatever, they are, in that sense, “worthwhile”, but I don’t see why reading them should be considered superior to other activities simply because they involve the written word. As Tom says, there are so many other activities that are at least as worthwhile as reading. Having a swim in the local swimming pool seems to me far more worthwhile than reading a mindless shopping & ****ing novel; taking a walk in the park and looking at the autumn leaves is far more worthwhile than reading a misery memoir; even just sitting on a park bench and watching the birds fly past can be more rewarding than reading some gushing celebrity autobiography. So many wonderful and rewarding things to do… are they all really less worthwhile than reading? Why should reading nothing and watching birds in the park be considered less worthwhile than reading “Daddy – Please Stop”?

      The much-derided telly, too, can be more worthwhile than certain books. Recently, I watched with my teenage children a series of excellent programmes on BBC4 about the history of mathematics, hosted by Professor Marcus du Sautay, and it seemed to me far more worthwhile than many a book I can think of. Even if we are talking about light entertainment, I’d rate watching an episode of Colombo, say, or even an average run-of-the-mill police thriller, way above reading Jordan’s novels, or misery memoirs. But let us consider like against like – let us consider trash television, and trash writing: I honestly have no objection at all to anyone enjoying either, but I don’t see why the latter should be considered more “worthwhile” than the former. I’m sure “trash television” has given many people at least as much enjoyment and relief as have “trash novels”. Why denigrate one and praise the other?

      Personally, I do find it depressing when books of the kind I refer to above drive out more worthwhile stuff (by which I don’t merely mean the “literary classics”) from bookshops, and even, these days, from public libraries.

      Kevin – first of all, welcome to this blog, and thank you for your post. I think, though, that you’re a far more patient man than I am, because with the kind of book I am talking about, I find my attention wanders after a mere few sentences. I, too, look for “written word that will entertain, enlighten, or provide another angle or perspective on a subject”, but time, as with everyone, is limited, and my patience, I confess, even more so: do I really have to read through Jordan’s latest to decide that there is nothing of value to be salvaged from it? I may be wrong, of course: it may well be that there is some value to Jordan’s latest novel if only I had the patience to trawl through it. But to be entirely frank, I’m pretty sure there isn’t. I’m pretty sure that sitting quietly on a park bench for an hour or so and watching the clouds drift by is a far more enriching experience.

      Reply

      • Posted by Caro on November 4, 2011 at 9:55 pm

        Himadri,

        If I ever hear that phrase (and I don’t really all that often) it is almost certainly in regard to children reading. I don’t think I ever hear someone say that about an adult reader. They are presumed to know what they are doing and if it is reading junk so be it. (That didn’t stop me buying the Jeffrey Archer for 50c at a second-hand book stall I was running at our local fair, taking it home and putting in the wheelie-bin! Our chief librarian frowns a little at the censorship I would be prepared to undertake. We have to cater for everyone’s taste. (We only cater a little for yours, though, Himadri. Not enought people with reading tastes like you around my area.)

        But people like to see children reading, and if it’s rubbishy it doesn’t matter too much. They may well go on to better things. My early reading was those little romance things put out by the English Woman’s Weekly and my beloved Anne books by LM Montgomery. I don’t read with your intensity and knowledge, but I did end up doing an English degree mostly focusing on literature, and I do enjoy reading relatively serious literature now, more than trashy stuff. I suppose lots of people start with rubbishy stuff and continue with that, but maybe their staring into space thoughts wouldn’t be any more productive, either. Lots of people enjoy reading for the escapism into another world, and it’s often a very light fluffy world they want to escape to. (And the reading is easier too, which may be quite an important consideration.)

        Cheers, Caro.

      • Hello Caro,

        But people like to see children reading, and if it’s rubbishy it doesn’t matter too much.

        I actually think it does matter. Oh – I agree children should be free to read across a wide range, certainly; but they must also have access to quality. And further, children should also be taught to read critically, as Scott says in his post on this thread. Merely feeding children a diet of rubbish (as is happening now), merely throwing rubbish in their direction, and not teaching them how to read critically, is to do them an immense disservice. Taste, after all, does not develop in a vacuum. And if we give them the message that reading some piece of rubbish (which doesn’t require effort) is every bit as valuable as reading Shakespeare or Keats or Austen (which does require effort), then why should we expect children to make that effort?

        I know from the books board the kind of book you read, Caro, and while they may not all necessarily be to my personal taste, I don’t remember you reading trash. No – “trash” is something else! 🙂

  9. While I’ve always been a reader, I’ve gone through many reading phases. A few years ago, I didn’t understand the draw to non fiction, and now I really enjoy a good non-fiction read.

    I haven’t heard of Jordan, but I suspect now I’ll hear more.

    I suppose, bottom line, I don’t care what other people read. I have enoughto worry about with myself. It’s a big world, takes all types, whatever floats your boat and all that.

    Reply

    • Hello Guy, my apologies for having introduced Jordan (a.k.a. Katie Price) into your consciousness: you were much better off not having known about her! Unfortunately, here in the UK, it is impossible to look through the newspapers and magazines in the shop, or even to have the television on for any length of time, without coming across salacious headlines about Jordan’s well-publicised sex-life. And if it isn’t Jordan, it’s some other equally vapid celebrity. Of course, we have always had trash, but I don’t think it’s merely my imagination that trash culture is far more strident and far more pervasive now than it has been in the past; and, worse, that it is specifically aimed at our children.

      Sadly, that which screams out the loudest has the biggest impact in defining our cultural environment. One may, of course, pull up the drawbridge, as it were, and retire to one’s own library, but when you have children (we have two teenagers) that is not really an option. Culture does need to be cultivated, and the current environment does not, to my mind, provide particularly nutritious soil for cultivation. I do feel we are letting our children down very badly.

      Purely by coincidence, I found in this morning’s newspapers this article by novelist Howard Jacobson on precisely this theme.

      Reply

  10. We’d probably all be better off spending less time in books and more time in life (I’ve always thought that Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” might have been more interesting had Montresor used books instead of bricks to seal in the poor Fortunato, since, looking at the piles of books surrounding me, I often feel a certain empathy for the latter). And yes, it’s depressing to pass a garage sale or visit strangers – or worse, friends – and see how minable or non-existant are their collections of books. But I have to admit that on occasion, a very poor, awful book has contained some line or phrase that has struck a chord, or reminded me of something important, or in some other way redeemed the reading of such otherwise total drivel. I could argue that in all of those few rare cases, it was my ability to read critically that enabled me to pull out that one redeeming thing from all the worthless flotsam, an ability one doesn’t develop just by reading trash. So I don’t think it’s entirely worthless to read trash, but the idea that the mere fact of reading – as an abstract activity divorced from any agency or creativity or criticality behind it – has some intrinsic value – is open to argument. Perhaps it’s like saying that cooking, in itself, is important. One may not know how to cook, so just throwing ingredients together is unlikely to yield anything tasty or attractive – but at least one eats. And, hopefully, over time, one learns how to make better meals.

    Reply

    • Hello Scott, thank you for your post, and welcome to this blog.

      So I don’t think it’s entirely worthless to read trash, but the idea that the mere fact of reading – as an abstract activity divorced from any agency or creativity or criticality behind it – has some intrinsic value – is open to argument.

      I think you raise a very valid point here: what imparts value to reading is perhaps not so much the quality of what is being read, but, rather, the extent of the reader’s critical engagement. Critical reading is, of course, a skill to be acquired, and ideally, it should be taught in English classes in schools. Sadly, I don’t think this is happening in schools right now. Not in the UK, at any rate. Oh well, that gives me another opportunity to go on a good rant sme time! 🙂

      Cheers, Himadri

      Reply

  11. It seems to me that there are two considerations here. First, whether we should compare the value of reading versus the value of contemplation, and the second, whether reading anything is valuable assuming that reading is a progressive activity.

    I would call it a draw trying to compare reading to contemplation. You can’t do it. Sometimes I stare into space and try to calculate the amount of lumber I will need to construct the work table I have mentally planned to build, other times I will be trying to decide if the sounds from my lower intestine are syncopating with my very hungry stomach. You might even consider whether staring at the television is more beneficial than staring at a geranium. And after suggesting that contemplation runs the gamut between philosophy and gas, we then want to compare it to reading. A fool’s errand!

    But this does lead into the second question: whether reading is intrinsically valuable and also whether reading is progressive. Here I’ll just give my opinion and anyone is free to argue with me later. I feel that reading is progressive but that it cuts both ways. The idea of reading anything, even poorly written albeit popular novels, might as easily
    cause a decline in one’s intellect. A steady diet of crap, rather than being a gateway to better reading, might instead result in a soften brain and a predilection for cartoons on the television.

    Reading, like contemplation, is what you make of it: some reading strengthens us and other reading weakens us. Think of it as exercise: lifting a pint might count as exercise but I don’t think anyone expects it to lead to the Mr. Universe crown.

    http://mdparker46.com

    Reply

    • Hello Mike, I think Wordsworth enjoined us to meditate on nature rather than read. Indeed, we have to read his poems to find that out! 🙂

      The idea of reading anything, even poorly written albeit popular novels, might as easily
      cause a decline in one’s intellect. A steady diet of crap, rather than being a gateway to better reading, might instead result in a soften brain and a predilection for cartoons on the television.

      Sadly, I think you’re right. Our expectations are moulded by our experiences, and if our literary experiences consist solely of reading crap, then, not surprisingly, our expectations of what literature can achieve will remain at a most basic level.

      I remain committed to the idea that everyone is entitled to read whatever they damn well want without been looked down on; but certain trends that I can’t help detecting in our society I do find frankly rather depressing. I won’t rant about them again here: this blog is too full of jeremiads as it is!

      Cheers, Himadri

      Reply

      • I know what you mean by the idea that everyone is entitled to read whatever they want, but being the old curmudgeon I am, I both agree and disagree.

        First, the idea of individual freedom (entitlement is a loaded word) is a big thing in my family (which is only me and The Kid who is off on her own now). I firmly believe you should be able to read anything you want, just as you should be able to marry anyone you want, go anyplace you want, say anything you want, brutally murder anyone you want, or even commit suicide. That’s what freedom is!

        Oh, you noticed that little item about committing heinous crimes and killing people? Well, it’s still a freedom and it serves to interject one or two things about freedoms. First, true freedom allows me to do what I want but it also allows me to reject doing what I see as detrimental to my personal well-being and my inner convictions. I would never consider murder as an option, but if I did, I know that I would be accepting the consequences also.

        The same thing holds true for reading. I am free to read anything I want, even abject garbage. However, I must also accept the consequences of my actions and quite often that would include some level of derision from other readers. There’s another twist to your professed commitment: if one person is free to read junk, are not other people equally free to look down on that person?

        A final note: I truly do not care what other people read but I do take umbrage whenever someone tries to tell me Shakespeare was a twit and I should be reading good literature like Left Behind. Argggghh …

        http://mdparker46.com

      • On this topic, I too find myself agreeing and disagreeing simultaneously with various things. It does mean, though, that one can have a debate with oneself even if no-one else joins in! 🙂

        When different freedoms are in conflict, we must as a society odecide on which freedom is the more important. This is not always easy. But in the case where one person’s freedom to murder conflicts with another person’s freedom to live, the decision is not a particularly difficult one. However, the freedom to read rubbish really does not come into conflict with anyone else’s freedom. The consequence of exercising the freedom to read rubbish may well be that one’s literary taste fails to develop towards excellence; but are there any other consequences beyond this? Should there be?

        I must admit I feel very uncomfortable about looking down on people on the basis of their taste in books. One may indeed look down on certain books: indeed, if one cares at all for literary values, then looking down on Jordan’s novels is about as inevitable as looking up to Henry James’. With books as with anything else, discriminating on the basis of quality is an inevitable consequence of being discerning. But looking down on people who read Jordan books? There, I think, we have crossed a line that we shouldn’t have crossed.

        To draw an analogy, I haven’t really developed a particularly good taste when it comes to food, and am often quite happy guzzling down fast food that people with more discriminating palates may, quite rightly, look down on. But while these people may be justified in looking down on the fast food that I enjoy, I don’t know that they would be justified in looking down on me for enjoying it.

  12. My father always uses me as an example of the any reading is good argument – although I do feel it is something of a family myth. Apparently, I spent the first fifteen years of my life staring vacantly into space; but then I happened to pick up a book one day by Jeffrey Archer (or maybe it was Stephen King), and have never stopped reading since.

    Reply

    • You actually moved on from Jeffrey Archer to William Faulkner? In that case, I take back everything I’ve said! 🙂

      Reply

      • Posted by Caro on November 5, 2011 at 9:08 pm

        Well, Himadri my son began reading doubtless with something like the Mr Men books (perhaps not Now Bernard was more like it) and now enjoys things like Persuasion and The Origins of Species (neither of them books I liked at all). My older son took on English teaching not knowing who wrote Jane Eyre, and now really enjoys the reading he needs to do for teaching (and it does seem to involve quite a bit of Shakespeare and Austen and Dickens at a school which only goes up to Year 11 and is generally not made up of the best students).

        Of course people can advance from liking trivial books to loving excellent classic literature, and many of the kids not being taught this specifically will learn it for themselves. And others won’t.

        Cheers, Caro.

      • Hello Caro, I think we’ve been here before, haven’t we? Of course, there are individual cases and exceptions to everything, and obviously, your sons have done very well (although I can’t see that starting with Mr Men books is a bad thing: what are children supposed to start with – late Henry James?)

        But in general terms, I really do not accept that literature can flourish in a society that does not take it seriously enough to teach it properly in schools. I am speaking from experience here: I keep a close eye on what our teenage children are taught in schools, and what passes for teaching of literature at our teenage daughter’s school is a joke. She is sixteen now, and has for years been in the top stream for English in a secondary school that consistently gets good reports from school inspectors; and the only book she has ever had to read from cover to cover is Of Mice and Men, a simple enough book she could have read some 5 or so years earlier. And no, they haven’t touched Shakespeare. Now, I really do feel justified in feeling angry about this. Obviously, she reads at home, but she and the other kids are being short-changed at school. And it’s not good enough. It stinks. When I raised the issue with the school, I was informed that what they are being taught is “consistent with the National Curriculum”.

        I do not believe this sort of thing is conducive to creating a society in which literature is valued as an important aspect of our ciivilisation.

  13. Posted by alan on November 6, 2011 at 3:41 am

    And what is wrong with a misery memoir? I feel the muse taking me already…

    Reply

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