On Reading Things You Don’t Really Want to Read

I have recently been catching up on Tim Parks’s blogs for the New York Review of Books. These constitute an omphaloskeptic meta-narrative of the writing life that I find interesting, if not very challenging to my own beliefs. This happy fact, that I usually agree with Parks, means that I like to read him, and I want to read more.

This is what Parks himself usually focusses on in his blogs: congenial reading. He takes on his personal best of the best, the work that, you feel he’d like to say, only a barbarian would dismiss or ignore. This is work that pleases and teaches, or teases and preaches!

Any fool can read the things that he or she likes. The one thing that all readers have in common is that their taste is theirs. But what about books that we don’t really want to read—but nevertheless do?

This is probably a broader category of work than we’d like to admit. If we are out of school and don’t have homework any more, we might well wonder why there is any such work at all. If we are adults and we are not reading what we want to read, why not?

The first thing to say is that usually when we read things we don’t want to read, we have honourable intentions. The motive bubbles up from the inner springs of self-betterment. The goal is not to spite an enemy or outclass a rival with new knowledge. The reason for pushing through the unwelcome work is that, improbably, we think we will be better for it. The treatment, we hope, will be effective, though the linctus may be bitter.

I can identify at least five feelings that underlie this reason. The first is guilt. I have in mind an example from my own reading life: Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. If I ever pick it up again it will be because I feel remorse over how appallingly I treated it in grad school. If I recall correctly, I tried to cope with a hopeless pages-versus-hours-left situation with a depraved all-nighter that left the novel about ninety-two per cent finished and me, half-mad, ‘doing the characters in different voices.’ Guilt in a case like this may drive the reader to do the work of atonement, like some belletristic ninth step: making amends for past wrongs done to good books. But, of course, if I wasn’t keen on it at the time, is it likely that I will be now?

A second feeling, and surely a more common one, is insecurity. The character Howard Ringbaum in David Lodge’s novel Changing Places is denied tenure at Euphoria State University after admitting, during a parlour game, to having never read Hamlet. This is absolutely the stuff of nightmares, but it speaks to a real fear. What reader does not, in his or her core, have a terror of being found out—not for lack of taste or skill, but for Dark Age ignorance? The usual, sensible response to this fear is to fake it, to swot up. But reading your bogey works is another option. Work read out of a feeling of insecurity is overwhelmingly likely to be canonical, or at least canonical within the set the reader belongs to. I suspect that the enduring success of classics reprints owes at least something to readers’ insecurities. I suspect even more strongly that insecurity is the only reason most modern liberal readers ever open the Bible.

Curiosity is the pleasantest reason to read something you don’t really want to, and the healthiest, too. I know several people who are now reading David Harsent’s Fire Songs only because it won the T. S. Eliot Prize. (And because they wonder about some of the circumstances around the judging of that prize.) These are not natural David Harsent readers, and their reports are not glowing. Nevertheless, they wanted to see for themselves what it was that won the laurels (and the money). It takes a tremendous amount of self-assurance to say: ‘No; I don’t think I’ll like that, and I don’t need to touch it.’ In the curiosity file we can also place: Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, a notoriously divisive book; Robert Browning’s Sordello, the pre-twentieth-century poem boasting the least favourable gibberish-to-sense ratio; even the amatory pensées of E. L. James. I imagine that many casual readers of poetry (and I am assured that there are some of these) try a newish volume by a big-name poet to see what is happening this time in the world of verse, don’t care for what is found there, and move on.

A fourth motivating feeling is a sense of obligation. By this I mean obligation in the normative contexts of etiquette and social pressure. The concern in this case is not with the canon but with the hyperlocal or hyperpersonal: work by your friends or your friends’ presses, magazines that have previously published you or that you think you’d like to be in (until you read them), books you’ve been given thoughtfully or loaned evangelically, or any other work that is floating in space within your gravitational field. As this list will be different for everyone, I don’t think I need to mention any writers by name here. Reading this work is a condition of the social contract, a tax you pay to belong to the world of letters. Unless you’re a libertarian, it is a tax you should be glad to pay.

The final feeling I identify, and the least noble, is the desire to accrue intellectual capital. I suggest that we read many of the things that we don’t care for to secure ourselves against the unlikely event that we meet a mountaineer at a party. Or a gunrunner. Or a speculator in Asian mining markets. Or a cricketer. Or a doula. Or an economist. Or anyone whose life experience is radically different and in many ways more profound than our own. It is ‘just in case’ reading. It’s like having a standing army, or a vault of bullion. Why else would I recently have read H. Hensley Henson’s English Religion in the Seventeenth Century, which I did not love, if not to be able to some day use what I remember of the book in a discussion of history? You may not have great deeds in your life, but you can always have great conversation. Similarly, why would I have read Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, a book so dire it was shamed by name in Peep Show—a unique honour—if not to be the sort of person who can, in the last resort, at the fiery gates, say, ‘Well, at least I have read Sister Carrie’?

So those are my thoughts, overambitious as they are. I will admit, I am not sure that I was right to use ‘we’ so insistently in this piece, because I realise that everyone’s reading is her own, and that it is brazen cheek of me speak for everyone. It was just a convenience. I hardly want to define what is ‘taste’ for the world. That is a matter for another time and probably for another writer.

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