The notion that books should be edifying

I came across this entry at Count My Stars and was originally going to leave a comment, but found I had more to say than I’d thought, so I decided to write a post about it instead. In case you don’t read the original post, it’s a critique of an editorial telling people they should finish books they’re not enjoying. But, really, you should go read the post; it’s very well-thought-out.

I’ve never had the mental fortitude to keep going with a book if I wasn’t enjoying it. I didn’t even get through The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner or Robinson Crusoe at uni. But you know what? I don’t care, because when I struggle to get through a book and won’t give myself the grace to put it down, it means I don’t read at all, because I’m midway through a book so “can’t” pick up another one.

What I don’t understand is why so many people seem to think reading should be edifying. I’ve touched on this before, in my post about reading YA literature, but I see it cropping up again and again. It’s not enough to read for pleasure; we must also persevere with unpleasant books because the mental agony they cause increases our strength. I disagree.

For one thing, there are many aspects of everyday life that serve to increase mental fortitude, such as dealing with disagreements with family and friends and working towards personal goals (in fitness, hobbies or other arenas). Failing to finish books that are no longer enjoyable does not mean a person cannot hold an uncomfortable yoga pose or finish a DIY project. We all have different priorities, and my priority when I read is to enjoy myself.

Beyond that, though, I’ve found that forcing myself to finish books I’m not enjoying has, if anything, harmed my enjoyment of reading. I sometimes go for weeks without reading a book because I’m midway through a book, usually one that started off very good or is a sequel to an excellent book, that I’m just not that into. I don’t want to start another book, because I know that when I do that I might never come back to the previous one, and I want to finish it because I have hope that the author will still reach a satisfying conclusion, but I just don’t have the motivation to pick it up. Nowadays I try to tell myself that it’s okay to put down a book I’m not enjoying, even if I think it’ll get better again; if I find myself wanting to read more of it I will, and if I don’t, then it probably wasn’t worth forcing myself to.

Besides, it’s been three years since I finished my degree and I still haven’t touched the classics on my to-read shelf because my mind associates them with “have to” rather than “want to” (and I genuinely enjoyed a lot of the books I studied at uni). In fact, I don’t think I’ve read anything older than The Lord of the Rings in that time; I’ve pretty much exclusively read modern, relatively fast-paced novels.

I got a lot out of the books I read at university, including a great deal of pleasure. At the same time, reading books out of a sense of obligation or desire to improve oneself takes some of that pleasure out of it. I know a lot of people who don’t read because they don’t like it. That’s fine if they truly don’t enjoy it (though I don’t understand that mindset; there’s so much diversity to be had in books, in both the stories told and the style of prose, that I can’t comprehend how someone could not like reading full-stop), but I often get the impression that they don’t like it because they associate it with the books they had to read at school. Claiming that you should continue to read a book you don’t enjoy reinforces that association.

Reading can be thought-provoking and educational. I remember reading a study about how children who read books showed greater empathy because reading involves empathising with the characters. Critical thinking also often comes into play when reading fiction, especially SF/F stories that deal with moral issue. Focussing on the educational aspect, however, detracts from what is perhaps the true value of reading: the sheer, unadulterated pleasure of curling up with a good book and transporting yourself to another world.

I don’t see anything wrong with a person making a commitment to finish every book they start. Writing an article telling others to do the same, though, will by its very nature categorise reading as something you should do, not something you want to do. And that, in my opinion, is more harmful than giving up on something you picked up for pleasure when it no longer provides enjoyment.


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