Never read a book because it's deemed good for you

'People who read a lot do so because they enjoy it, as unambiguously as they enjoy chocolate'
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The Independent Online

When cultural experiences are universal, right across a great city, they often indicate some kind of moment of great confidence. When everyone is reading the same book, or going to see the same exhibition, or talking about the same thing, it draws communities together in a sort of communal excitement and self-belief. Books do this more powerfully than anything else, because they are cheap and democratic – if you can't afford to buy it new, you can borrow it from the library, buy it second-hand, or get it from a friend who's already read it, and there's no limit to the number of people who can experience it directly.

It's quite different to, say, a universally acclaimed play, because even if you can afford a ticket, you might not be able to get hold of one. And books, too, seem to have a more powerfully emotional effect than most other arts, because they demand so much more in the way of investment. If you spend a week reading a book, that has drawn something out of you which a play or a piece of music doesn't, and you may be willing to repay that investment with enthusiasm and an ongoing commitment to support it.

In some ways, the cultural moments of cities are marked by mass enthusiasm for single books; the moment when London went mad for The Pickwick Papers, when the whole of Sicily learnt about itself from Il Gattopardo, when 1980s New York celebrated itself by reading The Bonfire of the Vanities.

So it's highly understandable that the New York authorities have had the brainwave, in the wake of 11 September, of asking the whole city to read a single novel in the same week, to bring all sorts of different people together in discussion. There is nothing so cosy as a conversation about a book between two strangers on a train, and they hope that the subway will be filled with chat about whether Marjorie really meant what she said when she told Clive that Cynthia was too good for him, or whatever.

Whether it is likely to work, however, I don't know. The novel they seem to be recommending is one by a Korean-American writer I've never heard of. If it did work, it would have a publishing history quite unlike any other novel ever written. If it doesn't work, that's one writer's career finished at a stroke, which seems very unfair.

All other enthusiasms have always come from the ground upwards, as reader recommends novel to reader, and not because anyone felt they ought to read it. There's something distinctly school-marmish about the proposal, and, also, I feel, something distinctly American. American culture has always gone for the "100 Great Books" approach, as though anyone read principally for self-improvement. If self-improvement is involved, it follows inevitably behind readerly enjoyment. Reading is good for you, of course, but no one should ever read a book just because it is good for you, or for the city you live in; anyone who reads a lot does so because they enjoy it, as unambiguously as they enjoy chocolate.

The "Great Books" approach has not, in the past, been an unsuccessful one, even though such lists always start with Aristotle and culminate with Moby Dick, neither of which I find a very inviting prospect. If they have been successful, however, it's because they inadvertently introduce some readers to an unusually selfish vice. Readers bent, initially, on betterment quickly find that some of those forbidding books are as pleasurable as EastEnders, and spend long wasteful afternoons on the sofa with The Faerie Queene not because it is improving their mind, but because it is irresistible. And after a while, you rather resent the fact that anyone could suppose that any of this is being seen as good for you; rather dislike, in extreme cases, the knowledge that anyone else is sharing this very private pleasure.

That's why one has slightly mixed feelings about what seems quite an estimable idea. It's not just that when a city decides that it has a new favourite book, it will happen when it is in a particularly confident mood – you can't create a confident mood by telling everyone to go out and buy the same book. It's also that the whole idea of this year's must-read book is ever so slightly anti-reading. The whole point of having favourite books is that they are not far from being private possessions. No one who really loves books has anything but a twinge of regret when something they've discovered all for themselves suddenly becomes a bestseller, and the perversity of readers is such that when this happens they will move on to something much more obscure.

It's a nice idea, and it would be agreeable to think that it could work. I hope, too, that they've picked a good book, and it makes the author a lot of money. But it just seems a bit of a triumph of hope over experience. The one thing that you can be absolutely sure of is that a year or two from now, the second-hand bookshops will be full to overflowing of copies of the mayor's choice.

hensherp@dircon.co.uk

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