Nick Hornby on why you shouldn’t read novels you don’t enjoy

Nick Hornby, the author of High Fidelity, Fever Pitch, and About a Boy, makes an excellent argument that if you are reading a high-brow literary book and don’t enjoy it, you should stop rather than struggling through it.

This seems like an obvious point, but it’s an obvious point that a lot of people who think of themselves as brilliant don’t seem to understand.  Just look at the comments to the article.

You should read what you enjoy, and not read what you don’t enjoy.  If you like challenging literary novels, then go ahead and read them.  But recognize that’s a matter of taste, and your tastes don’t make you superior.  Nor should you try to impose your tastes on others or insist they must be stupid for not sharing them.

If you like Moby Dick, read Moby Dick.  If you like Nick Hornby novels, read Nick Hornby novels.  If you like trashy romance, young-adult adventure, pulp sci-fi, potboiler mysteries, comic books, or Dr. Seuss, you should read those things that you like.  And if you don’t like any of those things, you shouldn’t waste your time and energy forcing yourself to struggle through them.

As Hornby argues, reading shouldn’t be a chore or obligation.  It should be something you want to do, much like watching TV is for people that like TV.  And to make that happen, you’ve got to pick the books that you want to read rather than the books that pretentious people tell you you ought to read.

Struggling your way to the end of a challenging book doesn’t make you superior.  It means that either you are someone who enjoys challenging books, someone who been tricked into thinking that you have an obligation to accept the highbrow tastes that have been imposed upon you, or a full-of-yourself douchebag seeking an excuse to look down on others.

If the first option describes you, then good.  Keep doing what you’re doing.  If the second is the case, then you should free yourself from this self-imposed obligation and switch to reading books that you like.  And if you’re the kind of twit that looks down on people that don’t share your taste in literature, then get over yourself.

It’s pretty sad that there are so many of these twits that it’s necessary for Hornby to make such a self-evident point.

Also, the comments to that article are pretty funny, as the full-of-themselves douchebags sputter and drop their monocles over a respected author attacking the core of their imaginary moral superiority, but can’t agree over which books make them superior and which ones are dismissable pap.  (There are also plenty of sensible people in the comments agreeing with Hornby.)

(Note: I’ve never personally read a Nick Hornby book, but I did enjoy the movies of About a Boy and High Fidelity.)

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5 thoughts on “Nick Hornby on why you shouldn’t read novels you don’t enjoy”

  1. As to my own personal tastes, I like some challenging books and don’t like others. I loved the Odyssey but thought the Iliad was boring. I like Shakespeare’s comedies but am meh on most of his tragedies and histories. I loved Catch 22, To Kill a Mockingbird, Gulliver’s Travels, and All Quiet on the Western Front. I hate Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens, which are generally about unpleasant people being painfully boring. (With the exception of A Tale of Two Cities, which I found awful because it was like a bad soap opera, and I still resent that I was forced to read that dreadful cartoonish book three times in school.) I’ve never even tried to read Joyce, because his books always struck me as being about the author feeling clever rather than telling a story.

    In general, I want books to have a strong story and compelling characters that I care about. (At its most basic level, a story is about a sympathetic character or characters trying to accomplish something difficult.) How challenging a book is is somewhat irrelevant to my enjoyment.

    And if you disagree with that, or with any of the examples I gave above, that’s fine. Your tastes are your tastes, and you enjoy what you enjoy, while I enjoy what I enjoy.

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  2. “It should be something you want to do, much like watching TV is for people that like TV.” I’m pretty sure I encounter more people pimping upscale cable series (or even better, foreign imports not available in the U.S. yet but which will no doubt suck when they’ve been americanized for the plebes) on a weekly basis than I see anyone pushing high-brow books.

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  3. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with pushing a show (high-brow or not) if the message is “This is an excellent show that I think you will enjoy watching.”

    If the message was more “This is a challenging show that you ought to watch if you want to prove you’re smart,” that would be problematic. But I rarely see that argument with respect to TV. The only example I can think of of a TV show with evangelists like that is The Wire. And maybe some political propaganda like The Newsroom or Keith Olberman.

    But in my experience, other highbrow shows like Breaking Bad, Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, etc., tend to have evangelists that focus on how much people will enjoy watching it. Which is fine.

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