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Arts & Culture

On the Pleasures of Not Reading

August 31, 2015 | by

An illustrations from the Nuremberg Chronicle, by Hartmann Schedel (1440–1514).

What a golden age this is for trolls. Never has it been easier, with the proper combination of disdain, ignorance, and calculated condescension, to work hundreds of thousands of strangers into an indignant lather. If you don’t mind the occasional death threat, the polemic has never been a more attractive mode. It’s pungent.

I have to believe the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones feels the same way—his article today, “Get real. Terry Pratchett is not a literary genius,” is too arrant a piece of provocation to be unintentional. Its thrust is that the late Pratchett, whose final Discworld novel has just been published, is part of a “middlebrow cult of the popular” distracting readers from more ambitious, capital-L Literary fare. That’s a contentious argument in and of itself—but Jones’s true troll masterstroke lay in his admission that he’s read hardly a sentence of Pratchett’s work. The author “is so low on my list of books to read before I die,” Jones writes,

that I would have to live a million years before getting round to him. I did flick through a book by him in a shop, to see what the fuss is about, but the prose seemed very ordinary … life really is too short to waste on ordinary potboilers. I am not saying this as a complacent book snob who claims to have read everything. On the contrary, I am crushed by how many books I have not read.

Some of that feels deliberately bush-league—that “million years” bit gives too much of the game away; clearly this is a piece of rhetoric designed not to be reasoned with but balked at—but beneath the hauteur is a useful point, one that much of literary culture, in its glad-handing, is at pains to admit. There are writers we instinctively, permanently dislike: not only will we never read them, we will quietly relish the not-reading, finding in it a pleasure that can occasionally rival reading itself.

Granted, there’s nothing quiet about Jones’s not-reading. Not all of us, thankfully, have the gall to write a piece blasting our favorite not-reads, but all of us harbor, somewhere, a list of those toward which we feel an inexplicable animus. At the top of my list, ironically enough, is Charles Bukowski, who Jones singles out as “a voice from hell with the talent of an angel.” I have for many years now actively enjoyed not reading Charles Bukowski. I want to say with conviction that Bukowski is not so much a voice from hell as a voice from Hell-Lite™, a kind of flimsy, adolescent imitation of true misanthropy—but I have no evidence to furnish in my case against him. How could I? I’ve never read him. All I know is that I’ve listened to a tepid Modest Mouse song about him; I have spoken to a stranger at a bar who told me she’d “snort his words off the page,” if she could; and I’ve sneered at the cover of Ham on Rye in a Park Slope Barnes and Noble. If you asked me to mount a cogent defense of my antipathy, I’d have to say something pretentious like “I find his role in the culture banal.”

I can muster the same scorn for Chuck Palahniuk, Chuck Klosterman, and probably a handful of other Chucks, too. (Don’t get me started on the Jonathans.) And I’m not above taking pleasure in the fact that I’ve never read Danielle Steel, though I have no grounds to take pleasure in this, and it leaves me wide open to charges of elitism. I can’t be stopped. It’s like a perverse form of that old Greenspanian irrational exuberance.

Then there’s the larger circle of books that arouse mere indifference in me: the top three novels on the New York Times’s hardcover best-seller list at the moment are fine examples. Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train, and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See—I have no plans to read any of these. Each has, through the vagaries of the marketing process, done something to recuse itself.

Jones, in reacting so acidly to Pratchett—who, by the way, I’ve also never read, though I’m holding out hope for myself—was no doubt responding mostly to this same set of signifiers: to the downmarket, campy designs that mark most of Pratchett’s books; to the author’s affinity for unfashionable hats; to the sometimes mawkish, adulatory tone of the notices that followed his death; and to genre fiction’s longstanding status as plain entertainment. None of those make for a compelling case against Pratchett, of course, but if we castigate Jones for this—and I’m not saying we shouldn’t; he was really snotty about it—we should be aware that we’ve all done the same.

And the bigger problem is we’re sometimes wrong. Our distaste for the trappings of publication puts us off from something great. We can tut-tut the marketing departments for this, but we have to shoulder some of the blame ourselves, especially when we allow our attitudes to harden into beliefs. After years of suspecting that I hated Michel Houellebecq, I began to assert as fact that I hated Michel Houellebecq; more recently, I discovered that I deeply enjoy Michel Houellebecq. It took impassioned pleas by not one but several friends to get me to read him—an almost literal conversion effort. People have become Catholic for less.

Given the curious mix of flux and stability that describes our lives as readers—sorry, our lives, period—it’s next to impossible to know when we’re really missing out. A lot of the tragedy in the consumer preference algorithms deployed by Amazon and Netflix is in seeing the limits of your own taste: in recognizing how many things you will definitively not enjoy, and wondering by what aesthetic contortion you could find something new. Must Love Dogs has always been there for me; why have I so steadfastly refused to be there for it?

This gives rise to a kind of nervous contrarianism: we deny authors who would clearly suit us, and seek out those who will almost certainly disappoint us, all in the name of eclecticism. And soon enough, it seems that what passes as taste is an arbitrary extension of our insecurities and neuroses, and that an insane hubris undergirds every value judgment, and that the best thing to do would be to start over, bringing no preconceptions at all into our lives as readers. This is a position I find myself in about once a day. On that point, at least, I can agree entirely with Jones: I am always crushed by how many books I have not read.

Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.