I realised recently that, when I’m looking forward to reading a book, I tell myself that I’m going to ‘blast through it’. I picture a feverish few days (or less) where I’m sitting in my chair, unable to put the book down because I’m so absorbed in the story. For some reason, I seem to associate how much I enjoy a book with how quickly I read it, and that got me thinking: does anyone else do this? And also, is it a useful association to have?
One of the most common forms of praise levelled at a book is that ‘I couldn’t put it down’. This isn’t quite the same thing as reading quickly, but it is similar, because being unable to look away from a book will usually mean you finish it sooner. But I think the idea that a good book is ‘unputdownable’ can, inadvertently, imply the opposite: that a book is not good if you do want to put it down (or, similarly, if you read it slowly). The more I think about that, the more I think it’s a false idea – I think a book can be very good, even when you don’t want to spend every second of the day reading it.
This is summed up by my experience with the book I’m currently reading: The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa. I’m a big fan of Ogawa’s writing. It’s simple and distant and sparse, but there’s an undercurrent in the tone which is both painful and compelling. This book has a particularly dreamlike quality to it, such that I don’t feel I can quite get a grasp on the story, and as a result I find that my mind wanders quite a lot. I also don’t find myself picking it up whenever I get a spare moment, but rather I’ll read a couple of chapters and then go and do something else.
I don’t think the way I’m reading this book means that it’s not good. Quite the opposite, in fact: a book that can make you think, or that sparks reveries as you read, is a great thing. You don’t have to be dragged along by a relentlessly gripping story to enjoy what you’re reading. (Indeed, sometimes a thrilling, fast-paced story can cover up deeper problems in a book; a writer who takes time over their story has to be that much more confident in how interesting it is to read.)
Also, my experience reading The Memory Police is reflective of the subject matter of the book, in which the people on a mysterious island gradually lose their memories of various items as they are ‘disappeared’ by the Memory Police. For example, one morning they wake up and ribbons have ‘disappeared’, so everybody on the island throws away their ribbons and then forgets they ever existed. This is a story about gradual, relentless loss, and the dreamy quality of the writing perfectly captures the atmosphere on the island. How appropriate, then, that a book about the malleability of human memory quite often makes me drift off into my own.
I certainly think there is space in a reader’s life for unputdownable books – some of my most precious reading memories involve the times when I was so utterly absorbed by a story that I didn’t move all weekend except to turn the pages. But I want to avoid falling into the trap of thinking that only unputdownable books are good, or that if you read something slowly you aren’t really enjoying it. Sometimes you will be happy to stay in the pages of a book for a long time, and you won’t feel in a hurry to get to the end of it – and that’s OK too.
It’s especially easy, nowadays, to feel that the enjoyment of something has to take the form of a brief, bright flare of obsession, before you move on to the next thing, and the next, and the next. (And there is, always, a next thing.) But with this post I want to send out a quiet thanks to the slow-burning books, the ones that provide gradual but sustained warmth, like embers in a fireplace.
Do you find yourself rushing through good books or taking your time over them? Does it depend on the book? I’d love to know your thoughts on this, so feel free to comment down below.