Ignore the Critics: Why You Should Read What You Want

Category: Reading
Tagged: reading

Last week, Jonathan Jones, an arts critic writing in the Guardian, enraged Terry Pratchett fans the world over with his assertion that the Discworld books are “ordinary potboilers”. This, Jones cries, is the disturbing result of a world where books people enjoy are becoming popular, turning us all into “mentally lazy” humans who can no longer cope with the demands of real literature.

Jones calls Pratchett’s work “trash” and says that “actual literature may be harder to get to grips with than a Discworld novel”. As someone who has never managed to finish reading an entire Discworld novel, I’m not sure what that says about me. I’ve spent years thinking I just didn’t enjoy the books, but now I realise I'm just mentally lazy and I’m off home to burn my bookshelves and stock up on the latest antics of Spot the Dog.

“Life is too short to waste on ordinary potboilers,” argues Jones. He’s wrong. Life is actually too short to waste on anything you don’t enjoy reading, regardless of whether that’s a thriller you picked up in a supermarket or a literary classic. Are you halfway through Jones’ revered Mansfield Park and it’s such a slog that you sigh slightly as you pick the book up? It’s fine – accept this is not the book for you right now, put it down and pick up the next book in your to-read pile. Does reading Discworld fill you with joy? Then read right on.

Writing off an entire series just because you’ve decided (based on no evidence, because Jones hasn’t actually read any of the books he’s so quick to dismiss) that they’re not good enough for you is pure snobbery. Is the theory here that books need to be difficult to be good? Is the mark of literary merit inaccessibility? Or is it just that books that are popular should always be considered inferior, in which case: what do we do about Dickens? His books, originally published in instalments, were hugely popular with the public when they were released. Anyone care to join me on a rampage round a bookshop, inking out the word “classic” and tippexing in “potboiler”?

What decides literary greatness anyway? Longevity? Sales? Prizes? The taste of an elite group of newspaper columnists and English Literature professors? I propose we dispense with the snobbery and accept it comes down to personal taste. There are so many books I’ve started and never finished, and whole genres I prefer not to read, but it’s not because of snobbishness, it's because I just didn’t enjoy the book. It’s fine to accept that and move on.

Read what you like. Don’t worry about the views of newspaper columnists, literary prize committees or the woman sitting across from you on the bus. We are all different. We dress differently, we talk differently, we have different ways of seeing things. Frankly, given that after millions of years of evolution we still can’t even agree on which way round the toilet paper should hang, why would we have suddenly agreed a consensus on what makes a book good?

As long as you read, no matter what you read, you will never be mentally lazy. Do experiment and try new books, authors and genres so you can discover new things you love to read - but also so you find out what you don’t want to read. Because there is one point where I agree with Jonathan Jones – I am also crushed by how many books I have not read. So ignore the critics and the experts and fill your days with the books that make you happy. You won’t regret it.


Image credit: I will be an intellect ! by Craig Sunter

A flat disc in a square... by loonatic

Subscribe to our monthly e-updates for book lovers