Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Literary Lemmings

I object to the very concept of the book club. This foul bludgeoning of individual taste and imagination was shoved in my face for the millionth time today, as I was researching Twitter - apparently book clubs have sprung up all over the site as it is a perfect breeding ground for miniature reviews. As with many things spreading fast these days, my advice is catch it, bin it, kill it - before reading becomes a competitive sport.

I love books and I love reading, but what I do not love is being told what you should, or worse, MUST read. Why must I? Does the fate of Western society rest on my absorption of its content? No. Will my life be changed forever because I glanced at a few pages on a busy train? Probably not.

This will probably be controversial because many including my family love to share recommendations and swap titles. I don't mind a casual bit of praise for a novel and if it intrigues me I may well pick it up, but I do not NEED to read it - it crushes the very joy of discovering books to have it lobbed so ferociously in your direction.

Here's how books were meant to be selected: you wander into a charming, dusty, quintessentially English bookshop (or Waterstones), peruse the shelves, glance at some covers and titles, feel a particular draw to one due to illustration, blurb, author or just that inexplicable attraction one sometimes feels - and then buy it. Same goes for libraries, a total haven of choice and leisure. If you're a bookworm, of course. I forget that so many people 'hate' reading; I'm a bit of a romantic when it comes to books. I don't even think you read a book because it's a 'classic'; one man's classic is another man's snoozefest. It's all about your personal attraction and reaction- you would never date a guy just because someone told you you should, would you? Especially if after the first few minutes he seemed pretentious, boring or stupid. So why not apply the same logic to finding books you truly adore?

When I see Richard and Judy, Jonathan Ross or Glamour's book club brandishing some shiny paperback with a 3-for-2 sticker, I run, and I suggest you do the same. Not because these people don't mean well (R&J, incidentally, are absolutely lovely) but because you'd have to be an absolute mug to believe that this is the book of the century. Firstly, the assumption that everyone's book of the century is the same is madness - some love romance, some thrillers, some dialogue and some action. Secondly, these glossy 'from the author of' specimens (often with an insipid cover featuring beaches or fields) are usually the least original tomes ever to hit the shelves. They'd have to be to please every presenter, bookstore boss and magazine. Guess what, folks: these people have met the PRs, they've interviewed the author, they are as biased as you can possibly be.

The books I love have rarely been ones thrust my way by academia, friendly recommendations or media hype. They are the ones I had a quiet, odd fondness for, that I saw bits of myself in or that made me laugh out loud.

So when someone gives you a review under 140 characters of something you've never seen, touched or smelt (love that old book smell), take it with a pinch - a handful - of salt, because no one can tell you what will strike you when it comes to literature.

Naturally, when I find one I do love, sheep and singing are never far behind.


  1. Very good point.

    Although there's so many crap books in the world sometimes it helps to have a guiding hand?

  2. Completely agree about the 'classics', random finds sometimes turn out to be the best ones, everyone has different tastes.

    Love the illustration too, if only we were all serenaded by village people everytime we picked out a book from the library ;)