Writers explain why we shouldn't worry about what we read — or don't read

Writer Barbara Nichol continues exploring shared assumptions about reading, readers and books with original thinkers — writers, critics, scholars and journalists. This is part two in a three-part series called Reading with a Grain of Salt.

Original thinkers in the book world speak off the cuff in a three-part IDEAS series

Virginia Woolf once said: 'The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions.' (Fotyma/Shutterstock)

*Originally published on June 19, 2020. This is the second of a three-part series on IDEAS called Reading With a Grain of Salt.

Writer Barbara Nichol continues exploring our shared, and often hidden, assumptions about reading, readers and books: for example, that reading is as a sign of intelligence, that there are certain books we should read, while others are "beneath" us — and even the widely-held conviction that we should read in the first place.

Nichol sought out writers, critics, scholars and journalists — all of whom are widely recognized for their insights, erudition and original minds.

Here are some excerpts from part two of the documentary Reading With a Grain of Salt. 

Author and book columnist, Michael Dirda on the pressure to read the "best" books

"You can only read so many books in our lifetime, you only have so much time. So you have to make choices. There's probably a certain amount of pressure on people to read the best books, but you can't always be climbing Mount Everest ... 

Michael Dirda is a weekly book columnist for The Washington Post as well as a contributor to The New York Review of Books, among other periodicals. (©2003 Chester Simpson)

"People do have this moralized sense that they should be devoting themselves to the best there is — or if not the best, then the fashionable.

"I've always disliked the bestseller lists that newspapers and magazines run because I view them as a kind of restraint of trade. People look at the bestseller lists, [and] say: 'Well, I should read this book and that book.' Whereas, I think people should go into bookstores or libraries and simply look around, pick up a book, read a few pages, maybe ask your friends or talk to a bookseller — what's interesting, what's good? And thus explore more fully the whole universe of fiction or poetry, or what have you, rather than be guided simply by the popularity of certain books.

"And if you've worked in the industry, if you've worked as a book reviewer, you know that the big trade publishers, if they invest a million dollars in a book, they're going to make it a bestseller, no matter whether it's any good or not."

Journalist and author Caleb Crain on how many books people actually read

"Here's the thing: it's difficult to determine how much people are reading.  There are lots of reasons to distrust surveys. People don't necessarily remember what they've read or how much they've read. And people lie.

"Reading is a prestige activity in most cultures, and so people don't want to admit that they haven't read a book. So they might exaggerate that and say they've read 20, when in fact, they've only read three."

Author Sarah Bakewell on Karl Ove Knausgård's, My Struggle

Sarah Bakewell is the author of several books including 'How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.' (Pietro Ficai-Veltroni)

"I loved it. I didn't love all of it. I didn't uncritically love all of it. I had reservations about swathes of the last volume, actually. But I was swept along, I was intoxicated by it. It totally works for me and it's very difficult to say why.

"I think there's something slightly mysterious about why it exerts such a hold and again, why it exerts a hold on some readers and not on others. 

"I mean, it's very much a divisive book. You know, some people just simply don't connect with it. And I again, I find that very understandable, actually, because in the abstract thinking about it, I'm not quite sure why I found it so addictive. But I did. 

"I suppose, my overall feeling about so much of this stuff, about reading, is that I think we put expectations on ourselves. We worry about what we read or don't read — or how we read. And sometimes I worry about what I read, or don't read, or feel I should read differently. I think a lot of people do it — and we shouldn't."

‘Very often one wants no more than a good read — to shut out the world, where those bruises heal what the world has given.’ — Roberston Davies. (Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images)

Suggested books on reading and writing

On Histories And Stories by A.S. Byatt

Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books by Maureen Corrigan

The Pleasure Of Reading: 43 Writers on the Discovery of Reading and the Books that Inspired Them, edited by Antonia Fraser.

Howards End Is On The Landing: A Year of Reading from Home by Susan Hill

How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read by Pierre Bayard

The Year Of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller

My Reading Life by Pat Conroy

Proust And the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf

A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel

Nothing Remains The Same: Rereading And Remembering by Wendy Lesser

Tolstoy And The Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading by Nina Sankovitch

How Reading Changed My Life by Anna Quindlen

Books: A Memoir by Larry McMurtry

The Merry Heart: Reflections on Reading Writing, and the World of Books by Robertson Davies

Reading Like A Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose

How To Read A Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren

Great Books by David Denby

Books For Living by Will Schwalbe

The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading by Phyllis Rose

The Lost Art Of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time by David L. Ulin

The Books In My Life by Henry Miller

Literary Taste: How to Form It by Arnold Bennett

Fran Lebowitz is the author of Metropolitan Life and Social Studies, The Fran Lebowitz Reader and the children's book Mr. Chas and Lisa Sue Meet The Pandas. Lebowitz is the subject of an upcoming Netflix series directed by Martin Scorsese.

Nick Hornby is an Oscar-nominated screenwriter and award-winning author. Among his novels: Funny GirlHigh Fidelity, A Long Way DownAbout A Boy and Juliet, Naked. His non-fiction books include 31 Songs and Fever Pitch. The Complete Polysyllabic Spree is a collection of his columns in The Believer magazine, for which he continues to write. He also wrote the Emmy Award-winning television series State Of The Union. In 2010, he co-founded the children's writing charity The Ministry of Stories in East London.

Sarah Bakewell is the author of biographical and philosophical works including At The Existentialist Cafe: freedom, being and apricot cocktails and How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for biography.

John Carey is the author of many books including The Accidental Professor: An Oxford Life in BooksWhat Good Are The Arts?The Intellectuals and The Masses, and A Little History of Poetry. He is the Emeritus Merton Professor of literature at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of the British Academy and of The Royal Society of Literature.

Abigail Williams is a professor of English at the University of Oxford and author of The Social Life of Books: Reading Together in the Eighteenth-Century Home.

Caleb Crain is the author of the novels Necessary Errors and Overthrow, as well as the scholarly study American Sympathy: Men, Friendship and Literature in the New Nation. He has written for The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Harper's, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, n+1, and The New York Times Book Review. His blog is called Steamboats Are Ruining Everything

Michael Dirda is a weekly book columnist for The Washington Post and recipient of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He is the author of four collections of essays, the memoir An Open Book, which received the 2004 Ohioana Award for nonfiction, and On Conan Doyle, which received a 2012 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. His current project is an appreciation of late 19th and early 20th-century British popular fiction, tentatively titled The Great Age of Storytelling.

** This episode was produced by Barbara Nichol. Interview excerpts have been edited for clarity and length.