By Russel D McLean
Last week I spoke at a school as part of their Book Week, being held right before National Book Day hits here in the UK. National Book Day is all about getting kids reading, because we should all be concerned about literacy rates.
One of the things I talked to them about (and I covered a massive variety of topics, so all of the stuff that follows is an expansion or exploration of some off the cuff comments) was the fact that we don't have to read books to "better" ourselves. Yes, we should talk about books. We should talk about issues raised in books. But in the same way that we do that with movies and computer games and other forms of narrative entertainment. Books are always being touted as being somehow "better" than other narrative forms, but I sometimes think this translates into books not working as hard as they could, as though by the very nature of being prose they've earned some slack.
Look, books (we're talking fiction here) are about entertainment. Like movies, they can be about deep, provoking entertainment or they can be about relaxing us in some way, helping us escape reality. Sometimes, on rare occasions, they can do both. One of the reasons I love crime fiction is that I can at once thrill to the excitment of what I'm reading, but I can also talk about issues raised, whether its about the nature of crime, the culpability of criminals, the society that creates certain types of crime, or whatever. But the fact is that I seek out books I enjoy and that speak to me.
I see no shame in not enjoying a book.
And just because I don't enjoy it doesn't mean its bad. This was one of my other points: that we should not be afraid to say we didn't enjoy a book. It just means that, as with people, we suffer from a kind of personality clash. There are some people out there who are perfectly nice that we just don't get along with. And its the same with books.
Me and Agatha Christie don't get along too well. I appreciate her intelligence, her influence and the way she so cleverly creates these perfect little plots where the guilty are caught, but the fact is that we don't have anything in common. Me and Raymond Chandler on the other hand, have a little magic on every page and care about atmosphere and character over plot, which is why we get on so well (and why neither of us really care who killed the Sternwood Chauffeur).
You shouldn't be afraid to dislike a book. But you should be able to say why that is beyond "I didn't like it." By examining the reasons certain books don't appeal to you, you start to discover more about yourself and who you are.
I think we need to talk about books. But not just about how they better us. We need to talk about them on the same level as movies and other narratives. We need to talk about them not as special objects but simply as things that are. They're another delivery method for stories and fictions both good and bad. They're not innately special compared to these other methods, but they are different and unique in their own way, capable of delivering a certain kind of experience in a way that movies cannot in the same way that movies deliver a certain experience books cannot.
A good story is a good story.
A bad story is a bad story.
And there are millions of good stories between paper covers or glowing out at us from the screens of our e-readers.
Let's talk about them.
Let's agree about them.
Let's disagree about them.
Let's discover them.
Let's read them.