I don't understand it, and never have. By any definition of the word, I'm a bookworm. I read while brushing my teeth. Going to the loo. In the bath. Having breakfast. Breastfeeding. I read on trains, planes and occasionally while driving in heavy traffic. I have two library cards and Amazon Prime. And I will read anything; absolutely anything. I will read cereal packets, Narnia, Blyton, the Brontës, Dickens, Neil Gaiman, Jilly Cooper, Richard Feynman; George MacDonald Fraser; Vikram Seth; Michel Faber; Brian Masters; Agatha Christie, Chekov; Hunter S Thompson; Douglas Adams; Lee Child, T S Eliot, Antony Beevor; Heat, Viz, The New Yorker. I will read high, low and the Richard and Judy list in between. All that matters to me is that it's good.
When people say, "Oh, I would never read science fiction/crime/ novels without a gun on the cover" I am instantly suspicious. The true bookworm starts with their parents' Dr Spock (or, as a novelist friend of mine did as a four-year-old, Teach Your Child to Read) and absolutely will not stop until they go blind. (Although another friend of mine has already taught herself to read braille. Apparently, it means you can keep your hands warm by reading under the covers on cold winter evenings.)
An elderly lady once mentioned to me that she keeps books both upstairs and downstairs, in case she ever has a fall and has to wait for help. I understand this completely. Thinking about that one time I hopped, bookless, out of a hotel in New York to grab a quick cup of coffee and got stuck in the lift still brings me out in goosebumps. Except, somehow, every year, I never feel like reading the contenders for the Man Booker prize, the winner of which is announced on Tuesday.
This is what I believe reading is for: I believe it is either a window on to your own world or a door to someone else's. It is immersion. It is somewhere else. One is always searching for the seamless connection, the direct brain-to-brain download from writer to reader that only books can provide, in the currently unimprovable format of a paperback (the sole reason, I think that books so far haven't gone the way of music and television and are believed to be "free"). Time vanishes, as does noise. When I was reading The Crimson Petal and the White I was startled half to death by an electronic voice on the Tube as it intruded into my 19th-century reality. You read and you read and you read, and then you come to and it is three o'clock in the morning; or you are lying, curled up on the floor, weeping in a frenzied ball at the end of A Prayer for Owen Meany.
This is what I do not believe reading to be for: bragging rights. Admiration of form. Stopping in the middle of narrative to admire a particularly unusual metaphor. Experimenting with style at the total cost of engagement. Being po-faced on purpose; putting on your Sunday clothes.
The aim of the Booker prize seems so simple – "to reward the best book of the year written in English". That sounds pleasingly straightforward and clear. Except, of course, the time restraints render it an impossibility, forcing the judges to discuss the merits of art without the help of critical distance.
Truly the Booker should run five or 10 years retrospectively, so that it is easier to see that, for example, A Fine Balance would resonate long after Last Orders would be drained; that A Suitable Boy (not even shortlisted) should perhaps have pipped Roddy Doyle's perfectly competent Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha; that, in fact, The Crimson Petal and the White should have been called in regardless of minor passport issues. And, of course, the Booker isn't the best book of the year; it's the best literary book of the year in "Serious issues of serious literature", that most humourless of genres.
White Tiger remains almost unique among Booker winners for having the occasional joke. There was panic and scandal the year D B C Pierre won for Vernon God Little, that the prize was "dumbing down", rewarding, as it did, a readable, exciting work. Genre has no chance: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, an astonishing exercise in world-building, but with supernatural elements, didn't even make the shortlist in 2004; nor did the "children's book" The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.
It did win the Costas. But the Costas (as the Whitbread used to be known) has simple judging criteria: which of these books would you press on a friend and implore them to read? Can you really imagine grabbing an aquaintance and insisting they read The Famished Road? Would you read it again yourself, other than from a sense of duty? I find the great novels, the really great novels, are intensely, endlessly readable. Middlemarch, Great Expectations, Madame Bovary: page turners, every one. But, oh goodness, I had to leave behind that old man in the mountains slowly pondering his tea in The Inheritance of Loss. I can't even remember the source of that woman's faintly limpid sense of disquiet in Hotel du Lac.
The sense of sombre worthiness surrounding the awards drags everything down. Is it just me? I have staggered through Ulysses. I've read every gilded word Edith Wharton ever published. Most amazingly of all, I'm the only person in the history of the world who made it to the end of Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal's novel, the single worst thing ever committed to print. (Well, nearly the end. I still bet I did better than anyone else who picked it up, though.)
So why do I look at The Sea by John Banville with such a sinking heart? (Cover quote: "Incandescent prose. Beautifully textured characterisation. Transparent narrative". If you have to say that a narrative is transparent, you already have a problem right there.) I adored Anne Enright's book Making Babies and bought it for anyone I knew who got pregnant. But I read the blurb for The Gathering – "the nine surviving children of the Hegarty clan gather in Dublin for the wake of their wayward brother Liam" and thought, jeez, another bloody wake, and bought Diana Athill instead.
The Booker does bring publicity to literature, which is supposedly the point. But it's the wrong type of publicity: it confirms to the 58 per cent of people who haven't read a book since school that, in fact, "good" books are manifestly not for them; because if they're not even for people like me, then who are they for?
"Posh bingo", Julian Barnes has called it, and he may be right: a tiny circle of gossip and dissent and showing off and chatter. And I am very fond of the (possibly apocryphal) story of Jeffrey Archer ringing his agent after each novel and saying, "So, ahem, do you think you could submit this one?"
And, of course, there are great Booker novels: The Remains of the Day is close to perfect; Life of Pi is a wondrous thing; and, fingers crossed, Wolf Hall will be recognised for the sensational work it is on 6 October. But the Booker's enduring legacy to me is this: this is Grown-up Serious Reading and would all you little sentimental people who like being entertained please scuttle back to your tawdry little comics, your Katie Prices, threefers and celebrity autobiographies. Which, given its fame, its scope, its power, seems such a rotten shame for us, the bookworms, the readers.
Jenny Colgan's latest novel is Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend
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