In a widely panned speech this month, author Howard Jacobson asserted that the problem with literature was not with books or writers, but the reader.
Speaking at the Man Booker festival in London, he asserted that people were not reading deeply enough, and were instead content to find out who committed the murder. However, he said reading was not just about entertainment, but also about the intellectual challenge.
“To say that reading more closely resembles study is not to be a killjoy: concentration and enjoyment are not opposites. Strange that when everyone’s running marathons and otherwise raising sweat for the hell of it, working hard at a novel is thought to take the fun away.”
Crime readers and writers were outraged by Jacobson’s allusion to the genre as being less worthy than more challenging reads.
And while I don’t think there’s anything wrong with crime fiction – in fact, I find it hard to put down – Jacobson’s comments about failing to read deeply struck a chord with me.
In my tendency to skate giddily from one book to the next, greedily ploughing through one with little pause to digest what I have read, and immediately picking up the next, I feel that I haven’t been giving literature the deep concentration that it deserves. Instead of running a marathon, I have taken a leisurely stroll, enjoying the view but missing out on the benefits of strenuous exercise.
Paradoxically, what my reading habits have lacked in detail, they have made up in speed. My desire to race through all the books that I can is a response my knowledge that, in my lifetime, I will only be able to read such a small proportion of books that are available, I try to sprint through the ones I can. However, in doing so, I wonder whether I am really reading them at all.
In an article in The Guardian, Tegan Bennett Daylight wrote of the students she encountered at university, and how their concentration spans meant that up to 200 consecutive words was a challenge to read in the era of Twitter’s 280 character commentary and Facebook’s plithy updates. She wrote of how difficult students found reading Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip.
“If you have never read anything more difficult than a Harry Potter book, how are you meant to proceed?”
She understood the reasons literature was often deemed too hard by younger generations.
“There’s no reason for them to continue reading. There is so much else to read that is shorter, and not just aimed at them, but, in the case of their Facebook feed, tuned to their experience. Marketed to them. Why would they bother reading something that was neither for them nor about them?”
So, as evidenced by a steady decline in sales of literary fiction, has our ability to analyse and appreciate a work of literature beyond the superficial declined? And if so, how to become a more engaged reader?
One way might be to take note of the lines of beauty or revelation when they happen – to read consciously and take note of the words or phrases that move us, or simply pause to ponder them. This practice might make readers more attuned to the words on the page and how they make them feel – a kind of mindful reading.
This practice came to mind when I was listening to the author of Taboo, Kim Scott, speak on ABC’s The Bookshelf. I was surprised by his ability to recall the first lines of a book that he had read when he was a child. Considering his words and the impact those lines had made on Scott, I tried to think of words that had moved me, and struggled to recall any. Despite all of the books that I’d been reading, I’d been floating over lines of poignancy and significance, rushing to find out ‘what happens next’. I hadn’t let them reach me to the degree that they stayed with me. In fact, I probably hadn’t even noticed them, let them expand me, or change me.
And that is the thing. I like to be entertained by literature, but I also want to be moved and changed. To see the world, and those who walk beside me, differently. I want the words of books to shake up my misconceptions and cause me to explore ideas that I’ve never thought about before.
Reading purely for entertainment and relaxation certainly has its place – and anyone can read anything, in any way, they like -but I would also like to occasionally mine the great and rewarding depths of what is being offered by literature, and be a little less lazy. To slow down, work harder, and plumb the depths before me. After all, perhaps it is better to read just a few books properly than skim over dozens.