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Some Unusual Advice about Reading

What should you do when you find a book hard to finish? Novelist Nick Hornby argues that you should just put it down. According to a recent Telegraph article, Hornby said that no one, including children, should read a book they do not want to read.

He said, “Every time we pick up a book for a sense of duty and we find that we’re struggling to get through it, we’re reinforcing the notion that reading is something you should do but telly is something you want to do. It shouldn’t be like that. Novels should be like TV. It shouldn’t be hard work and we should do ourselves a favour.”

Yet, the article ends with another quote from Hornby that strikes me as puzzling – “It doesn’t mean you have to read easy books, because you can have very complicated connections to very difficult books, but as long as you’re racing through it, that’s the thing.” How does one develop “complicated connections” with a “very difficult” book if they do not first struggle to get through it?

He argued that reading should be like watching television and, all discussions of the difference of media aside, this seems like a recipe for encouraging people not to read at all. Watching television is an almost entirely passive experience. It is easy. So, what is a reader to do when they find – as they immediately will – that reading requires more work of them than watching television? At best, they will gravitate to easy books that require little of them.

Perhaps the Telegraph reporter misrepresented Hornby’s position. I hope so. After all, in the course of her short piece, she uses the words “highbrow novels”, “difficult books”, and “classic novels” interchangeably. Yet, on the surface, Hornby seems to miss that we have no shortage of easy reads, yet people remain far more likely to pick up a remote than a book. Why is that? Could it be that they already follow the idea that they should not do anything they do not want to do at that moment?

Now, I must admit that I have some sympathy with Hornby’s position. Reading should not feel akin to forcefeeding. But, reading is a skill and it requires practice. Our tastes change and we develop joy in better (yes, better) books by reading them and, occassionally, “getting through them.” At times, we find that we have enjoyed a book only after we have finished reading it and can contemplate it more fully.

What are your thoughts about Hornby’s advice?

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