If the judges of literary awards can't even find time to read books, what hope is there for the reading public?

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It seems we may owe Selina Scott an apology. Many years ago she memorably acted as mistress of ceremonies at the televising of the Booker Prize and found herself at one point interviewing Angela Carter, chairman of the judges that year. "Did you read all the books?" asked Selina, without a tremor of nerves. If you had ever wondered what Angela Carter would look like if unexpectedly thumped with a baseball bat, this moment will have satisfied your curiosity.

At the time the question was widely taken as evidence of egregious naivety, the inevitable consequence of judging a book by its cover when it comes to presenters. But, if we are to believe one journalistic account of the way in which the NCR Prize for non-fiction was awarded, Scott's question may have had a serious journalistic purpose. The Observer last Sunday reported on the fact that a team of "professional readers" had supplied the NCR judges with summaries and opinions leading to the shortlist of 11. Even then, it was suggested, some judges had found it tough going: "I would be surprised if she had read a single book from start to finish," said one anonymous judge about an equally anonymous colleague.

The first thought that occurs to one is that there is a rather beautiful symmetry at work here. The traditional effect of such prestigious literary prizes is that large numbers of people are persuaded to go out and buy a book which they then never quite find the time to read (a virgin first edition of Keri Hulme's The Bone People still sits on my own shelves, slightly faded on the spine but otherwise mint. Any serious offer considered). So why not hire a panel of judges to work on similar principles? That way, at the very least, they will end up with a work that looks suitably impressive on the shelves.

But this is flippant of course, and it is slightly startling to find that the celebrification of literary judgement has gone quite so far. "We are busy working people," protested David Taylor, one of the judges. "We just haven't got the time. Some of the books are 500-page jobs on subjects such as the Russian Revolution and the death of the British countryside." Given that the eventual winner was a "500-page job on the Russian Revolution", this sounded less than tactful. And if the judges of a lucrative literary award can't even find the time to read books, what hope is there for the reading public?

All the same I can't think that this really registers as a scandal. For one thing I have some sympathy with the judges. There were 122 entries for the NCR prize; allowing an ungenerous average of five hours per book and making the large assumption that the judges could clear two hours every day for uninterrupted reading (a delirious fantasy for anyone with small children), it would have taken them close to a year to complete all the books. Once you have decided to recruit attention-grabbing celebrities - whose work is already cut out maintaining their celebrity - you have pretty much guaranteed that some kind of shortcut is necessary. For another thing, anyone who regards a book prize as the last bastion of cultural standards deserves whatever disillusionment comes their way.

But I was also glad to see the cult of completion take a little knock. There is something self-flagellating about the way in which virtue is associated with pressing on to the bitter end, as though books were a kind of distasteful vegetable which you must clear from the plate before being allowed to go on to pudding. Of course there are bad reasons for not finishing books - impatience, laziness, a reluctance to grapple with the ideas contained within them - but there are also plenty of good reasons.

Far too many books are published for one thing - a feature of the same literary culture that has promoted the idea of awards - so any sensible reader is going to skip and select in a way which may not be compatible with ultimate justice.

What's more, there is a real intellectual virtue in browsing itself (a lovely verb which derives from "broust", a word for the shoots of new growth on a plant or bush). Queen Elizabeth described her devotional reading in just such terms: "I walke manie times into the pleasant fieldes of the Holy Scriptures, where I pluck up the goodlie greene herbes of sentences, eate them by reading, chewe them up musing, and laie them up at length in the seate of memorie" (a quotation which comes from Alberto Manguel's A History of Reading, itself a lush field for the browser). The great patron saint of browsing is Samuel Johnson - "Mr Elphinston talked of a new book that was much admired, and asked Dr Johnson if he had read it. Johnson: 'I have looked into it.' 'What,' said Elphinston, 'have you not read it through?' Johnson, offended at being thus pressed, and so obliged to own his cursory mode of reading, answered tartly, 'No, Sir, do you read books through?' " Elsewhere Boswell notes that "he had a peculiar facility in seizing at once what was valuable in any book, without submitting to the labour of perusing it from beginning to end" (a useful talent which, as it happens, is also claimed by the chairman of the NCR judges, Clive Anderson, who explained, "you can tell if a book's bad from the title, or from the first page or the second page or the third page").

Those who have a fetish about completing every page sometimes give the impression of wanting to postpone the moment when they must emerge and face the world. "Books," wrote Hazlitt in his essay, "On the Ignorance of the Learned", "are less often made use of as 'spectacles' to look at nature with, than as blinds to keep out its strong light and shifting scenery from weak eyes and indolent dispositions." That properly reminds us that there may be merits in putting a book down, just as much as in picking it up in the first place

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