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Overthinking

I’m a man who doesn’t read books and I’m fed up of being judged

Oliver Keens thinks he’s only read one novel start to finish in his life, and is tired of the world assuming he’s a philistine for not owning a library of his own. So, he thinks, let’s embrace the fact that reading isn’t for everyone

Tuesday 19 September 2023 06:30 BST
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‘The literary world likes to project an idea that books are on a par with the divine, that they are nothing less than an essential component of humanity’
‘The literary world likes to project an idea that books are on a par with the divine, that they are nothing less than an essential component of humanity’ (Oliver Keens)

I love asking my male friends if they’ve read any good books lately. They all, very cutely, do the exact same thing: a hissing intake of breath, a squint of self-disappointment in the eyes, a guilty grimace around the chops, and then words along the lines of: “I know, I know… I should, but… time… knackered… life, aaargh”. There’s never any hint of objection to the question being asked: they all deep down feel like they should be reading. I’ve seen this reaction from some pals for 15 years or more now, to the point where I’m fairly sure zero books are getting read. So today, I’d like to invite anyone who never reads but still pretends they do to join me on a leap into the cultural unknown. Okay, I’ll go first: I honestly, genuinely don’t read books.

Some things you should know about me to start with: I didn’t grow up in a house full of books. I definitely never saw my dad read. I don’t have any of the common neurocognitive differences that might affect reading, such as dyslexia or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. I don’t have a crippling addiction to social media (I’ve never even been on the platform formerly known as Twitter). Crucially, I do actually like reading, but pretty much just journalism, which I’ve mainlined what feels like my whole life. I just cannot for the life of me do anything in book format – especially fiction, which is frustrating because I otherwise really like its constituent components like dialogue, character and plot. I think I’m a relatively normal person, with a good sense of empathy and understanding for others. But boy oh boy, is this hard to convey in a world that prostrates itself upon books.

Possibly because of the legacy of all-time bestsellers like the Bible, the literary world likes to project an idea that books are on a par with the divine, that they are nothing less than an essential component of humanity. Take Virginia Woolf’s quote that “books are the mirrors of the soul”, for example. By contrast, for those of us who feel reading is not for them, it’s all hellfire and endless dehumanisation. Even in 2023, a piece in The Atlantic labelled those who don’t read as having a “deficiency of character”. In the past, I’ve read people associate non-reading with everything from crime to terrorism. A Guardian report on a survey of men’s reading habits labelled their findings as “excuses”. None of this absurd negativity ever gets called out because there has never been an articulate voice allowed in the discourse who definitely didn’t finish Middlemarch. Even if we’re not part of it, we still default to being part of a literary elite that aggressively tuts at non-readers with an Oxbridge loftiness.

When you’re not a book person, it’s quite fun to have a titter at the huge intimidating walls of books people construct in their houses – a “subtle” way of making damn sure you’re aware of their towering intellects and big, big brains. But really, I know the joke’s on me. No intelligentsia is ready to accept anyone in their midst who is not a reader. Our common understanding of an intellectual is someone with a bloody great big bookcase, plus some dazzling quotes from the classics. Yet a 2017 survey claimed that one in 10 households didn’t contain a single book. The Daily Mail called it “worrying”. The Times called it “bleak”. But it’s a number that will surely grow. How far do we take our adherence to the book as a signifier of intellect? How many people do we exclude from intellectual life?

Part of me wishes I had an ironic bookcase stuffed with my actual favourite books from school: York Notes, aka books for people who can’t read books. I couldn’t have functioned without them. They were slim study guides to set-text English literature classics – a cheatsheet to some, a lifeline to others. I needed them because I just couldn’t read like my contemporaries. It’s hard to describe what happens when I read fiction. The only way to describe it is as being unable to form any lasting or meaningful attachment to the words on a page. Then there’s the inescapable feeling of terror like you don’t understand what’s going on, either overtly or in subtext. It’s a portal to feeling immediately stupid, worthless and inadequate. I feel numb and nothingy about reading novels.

It’s a painful feeling – one that is compounded by a deep shame when people refuse to understand it. I feel like the fact that I’m a man comes into play here a bit. People like to think they can clobber a man into reading – a bit like kicking a misfiring tractor engine back to life. This might come via unsolicited book recommendations at a dinner party, being optimistically bought a tome at Christmas or in patronising articles such as The Guardian’s “Five Perfect Books for Men Who Never Read”. We’d rightly deem an article titled “Five Dresses for Women Who Wear Trousers” as offensive trash, but there’s little respite for the non-reading man – even from BookTok, which depressingly has a plethora of variations on this theme too.

But it’s one thing to be ignored, quite another to be automatically assumed to lack empathy or at worst be a misogynist. In her book The Authority Gap, writer Mary Ann Sieghart (writing under the name MA Sieghart) highlights the problem of men not reading enough books by women. “If men don’t read books by and about women,” she writes, “they will fail to understand our psyches and our lived experience”. I feel like such a die-hard allegiance to the almighty power of the book does everyone a disservice – as much to women outside of the literary realm as men. To put what is, after all, a consumer product between the genders feels misguided. I feel like I know men who understand women without access to books, just as I know many women – outside a certain race and class – who feel their lives aren’t represented in books at all.

Rhea Perlman’s withering stance on reading in the 1996 Roald Dahl adaptation ‘Matilda’ (Sony/TriStar)

There are lots of blowhard men who feel ill-served by a female-dominated publishing climate. I’m not one of them. A survey from 2020 stated that 78 per cent of editorial roles in publishing are staffed by women. There should be hundreds of other industries with that same gender split! I just hope they all appreciate that there are women, many women, in the wider world who are quietly non-readers, just like this man here. We do talk, y’know, us book-rejecting lowlifes. I’m also not anti-intellectual, at all. The world is a manifestly better place with books in it. I really respect people who read. But at the same time, I’m not sure society respects my choice not to read.

I’ve wracked my brain while writing this, and truthfully think that I’ve only ever completed one novel in my life. It’s a hell of a random one, too – The World According to Garp by John Irving. Naturally, I only read it because I loved the film (from 1982, starring Glenn Close and Robin Williams). I watched it multiple times when I was far too young, and its very off-beat boy-to-man-to-father story arc really lingered. And it’s as a father today that I find myself in a quandary over my lack of reading. My one and only bugbear about lacking that towering bookcase is that I’m the son of a man who didn’t read, and I’m perpetuating that – one might say extravagantly by writing this piece – by not being a visible reading presence in their lives. Yet on the off chance my kids turn out to not be keen readers, I’d like them to feel like it’s actually okay if books never take their fancy – something it took me far too long to believe in myself.

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