Thomas Sutcliffe: You can never turn the last page

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At the beginning of his new book How To Read a Novel, John Sutherland crystallises the dilemma of a modern reader with a dystopian fantasy. Imagine you had limitless money and storage space, he writes, and that you could order a copy of every novel in print. The result would be a fiction library of approaching half a million titles and if you dedicated yourself to reading them - at three hours per novel and 40 hours per week - 163 lifetimes would pass before you had to log on to Amazon to order up some fresh reading material. He puts it another way - every week "more novels are published than Samuel Johnson had to deal with in a decade". It is this condition of "surplusage", he explains, that has led him to write a book which aims to help readers hack their way through the shrubbery to get at the true timber.

I don't know whether his facts and figures are accurate - and he doesn't explain how he arrived at them, so there's no easy way of checking. But there's no question that they feel right. Anyone who's been into a bookshop recently will recognise the sheer sense of glut that he alludes to - the panicky sense that a fully informed literacy is effectively a lost cause.

What really stuck in my mind, though, was Sutherland's proposed piece-rate for his imaginary corpus-crunchers. Three hours for a novel is pretty impressive - even if, like Sutherland, you've spent your life training by bench-pressing Harold Robbins and Victorian three-deckers. Given that this is an average time allocation, and that Tolstoy and Proust, for instance, will be leaning heavily on the scales in one direction, there are presumably a lot of novels that John Sutherland dispatches in well under two hours.

I think I may have been over-sensitive to this issue because I've just been taking one of my own annual breaks from the literary treadmill. As the presenter of a weekly arts-discussion programme the tempo of my own reading is necessarily dictated by the weekly deadline of recording and transmission. This is similar to a lot of professional readers, whether they are critics or university dons. And though my own workload is a tiny fraction of Sutherland's imaginary completist - something like 70 or 80 books a year - the fact that reading isn't a full-time job means that a certain impatience and urgency often attends the opening of a book. A small, ignoble, part of my brain is likely to be whining, "Are we there yet?" even as the driver is admiring the scenic twists of the road we're following. When holidays come along I don't stop reading - to my mind it's what leisure is for - but the foot definitely comes off the accelerator.

You would think that this might mark a straightforward improvement in the calibre of what reading does take place - as page-turning is decoupled from the cruise-control which guarantees a timely arrival, and allowed to roll at its own pace. But it doesn't quite work like that. For one thing, necessity turns out to be a pretty good substitute for leisure when it comes to tackling certain kinds of book. The endless white nights of a Russian summer may have been a great promoter of the big novel, but they also relied on a kind of unadulterated ennui (or lack of distraction), which is very rare these days. And since substantial books often require you to get the flywheel spinning first - so that you have a momentum that will carry you through the uphill stretches - a bout of compulsory reading is not always a bad thing. What's more, if you've spent the last three months reading books as Charlie Chaplin turns bolt-heads in Modern Times, fitting a human rhythm to the metronome of output, there's a natural inclination to get a little slapdash when the foreman is off duty. Like the "Friday-night specials" that come out of car plants when the workforce are already thinking about the weekend, your reading may be full of untightened screws and ignored rattles.

What you may eventually achieve, though, is the best kind of reading of all, in which the books have more to say about the question of pace than you do. The paradox is that a good novel simultaneously demands to be read both fast and slow - urging you on by its quality but holding you back by the fact that lingering is actually repaid. Indeed, very good novels demand to be read twice - once so that you can purge the faintly distracting tug of the narrative and a second time so that you can get proper sight of what was going along beneath it. Even if you were only to read the books that are worth reading there are several lifetimes of work in the business.