If it’s difficult to read, put it down – Nick Hornby says it’s ok

Nick Hornby. Pic: Joe Mabel

So Nick Hornby says if we find a highbrow book tough going and are not enjoying it then we should stop reading it – now, what do we make of that? It’s an interesting one isn’t it? And liable to divide opinion I’d have thought.

Reading shouldn’t be a chore he says, you shouldn’t do it out of a sense of duty. It should be like watching TV – something that you want to do.

You can read a piece which explains in more detail his point of view and puts it in context here.

My view is that it’s an easy, populist thing for him to say, and that it also fits nicely with the books he has for sale as they are fairly easy reading. Though in saying that I don’t intend to denigrate his work which I’ve always found very worthwhile and entertaining.

A cynic might hear the subtext of what he’s saying as: ‘Don’t bother with all this highbrow nonsense, read one of mine instead.’

And it’s a tempting offer isn’t it, not to have to read anything which challenges us? But when I think back over the books I’ve read I realise that sometimes, the ones I found most challenging gave me the most back in the end. They revealed more to me about what it is to be human and they stayed with me longer after I had put them back on the shelf. If I’d listened to Nick and his quick fix I’d never have finished reading them.

And what else in life should we stop doing because it’s too tough? Generally speaking it’s not fantastic life advice. It reminds me of Homer Simpson saying to Bart:

“Son, if something’s hard to do then it’s not worth doing.”

Great advice Homer and Nick!

Swerving fiction because it’s difficult to read also tends to stop us reading anything which is not contemporary. Because even popular commercial fiction written in another age sounds unusual to modern ears and it’s a struggle to adapt until you get used to it. Get in your literary time machine and travel back even one hundred years and you will find this to be true. But travel further back and you find, for example, Shakespeare’s popular crowd-pleasing comedies, which no doubt were crystal clear when he wrote them, but which now present the reader or listener with a challenge to give up on.

I think it was Philip Larkin who pointed out that people love contemporary poets much more than even far greater poets from a bygone age because they speak to them in the language they use in their daily lives.

So we’ve ruled out all of literary history – but even confining ourselves to present day fiction we might find some of it a bit of a chore. Unusual words to wrestle with, concepts we might find take us out of our comfort zone. Some of us might even find Nick Horby’s work too much to handle. So why bother with it? Let’s just watch TV instead, it’s a lot less challenging after all.

Nick Hornby says he wants everybody to be reading something that they love, it‘s an honourable ambition. But doesn’t that require some effort on the part of the reader? Some level of commitment? The fact is that reading challenging work can be an effort – but it has its rewards too and, in my view, it’s a bit of hard work which repays the reader many times over.

What do you think? Share your views in the comments below.

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35 thoughts on “If it’s difficult to read, put it down – Nick Hornby says it’s ok”

  1. Are you conflating ‘challenging’ with ‘difficult’? I have no intention of persevering with a book that has been written in an opaque manner, but one that clearly presents challenging issues is a different matter. I’m with Nick on this one.

    1. For me the real issue is – does the book merit the effort? Many people would say, for example, that Ulysses by James Joyce was well worth the trouble it takes to read, less people would say that about Finegan’s Wake which is practically unreadable.

  2. I’m with you on this one. Some of my all-time favorite books took me half a dozen tries to get into before I really took off with them. And even books I wasn’t thrilled with (by Dickens, Tolstoy, and Wilkie Collins, for instance,) I ended up being glad I’d finished. I call books like trade paperback formula romances “mind candy.” There’s nothing wrong with a little candy now and then, but if you make a whole diet of it, it’s not going to help you grow.

    1. I like that analogy and I agree – I think there’s more you can take from a great book than just ‘enjoyment’ not that there’s anything wrong with enjoyment. But great books are like any great art – why should we expect them to be simple?

      1. I’m trotting somewhere down the middle on this one. I do have a tendency to abandon a read that continually makes me read and reread until I’m weary of the thing. That said, there are some books I keep picking up because the writing itself is stellar or other more persistent readers than me have guaranteed they are worth the effort, which I usually find true once I’ve stayed on task. Um, you might notice I used the word “task”. I eat right because it’s good for me…a task. I exercise because it’s good for me…a big task. So why not keep reading to exercise your brain.

        And all this comes from a writer of “mind candy” who tries to give you challenge in the way of a little mystery. When I set out on the journey of writing, I decided we had enough hard reads in the world so why not aim at entertainment. But like a comment in this post, all things have a season. Sometimes you want “mind candy” and sometimes you need the challenge of “meat”. I’m definitely one of those readers who can slip off the rail in either direction at any given notice. I guess that makes me the boring middle-of-the-road reader.

      2. I certainly agree Barbara – there’s a time for everything – I certainly wouldn’t decry popular fiction, but, equally, I know there’s room too for literary fiction which might be a little harder to get a handle on but, in many cases, is worth it. This type of book can be a long journey but it’s often worth the carriage’.

  3. I am with you too, Chris. No argument, However, what I read often depends on what is going on in my life. If I’m very busy or under a lot of pressure, I tend to read easy books. If I start something that proves too challenging for my current ‘state’, I put it aside till I have more time for concentration, but I don’t just not read it. I go back to it later and am often very glad I’ve done so.

    1. My thoughts exactly. When the children were small and I had little time and concentration of a gnat, I read easily accessible books. Now I’m ready for the hard stuff, so to speak!

  4. I’m with Hornby on this, Chris. To be clear, there’s always going to be a certain level of subjectivity in what we choose to describe as “difficult to read.” I think it’s a case of one person’s meat and all that.

    Personally, I read a lot for a living, so if I want to read for pleasure, whatever it is gets a few paragraphs to hook me or lose me. And, sadly, the fact that I’m drawn in at the beginning doesn’t me I’ll read to the end if I feel the work is getting boring, predictable or, well, for want of a better description, “difficult to read” as it goes on. Perhaps this is an occupational hazard for me.

    I do agree that we tend to favour contemporary books over those from other eras because of the more relatable language, but I personally would read anything from any age that grabs my attention. For instance, I’m a big fan of anything by Georgette Heyer.

    I’ll reiterate what I said about the subjectivity of it all because, just as Hornby says, “It doesn’t mean you have to read easy books, because you can have very complicated connections to very difficult books, but as long as you’re racing through it, that’s the thing.”

    For me, you may not be “racing through it,” but so long as you’re enjoying what you’re reading, “that’s the thing.”

    1. Thanks for your views Crispin. I can quite understand people dropping a book if they don’t take to it. For me though there’s a different sort of enjoyment in a complex book which may be difficult to get through but in the end is rewarding. That’s not to say I sit with furrowed brow reading Nietzsche all the time – but I do think there must be a place left for complex and beautiful great works of art.

  5. I suppose another point is – what about all the undeniably great books which we treasure but, at the same time, could not say we have enjoyed or taken pleasure from? For me those would include: Schindler’s Ark, Darkness at Noon, One Day in the
    Life of Ivan Denisovich, Kafka’s The Trial and many more.

  6. I’ve read some so-called ”easy” books that I couldn’t get into. Too superficially written, no character development and I could predict the end from page 2. Some of my favourite writers: Tobias Hill, Andrew Miller, write very ‘dense’ prose and you have to concentrate to appreciate it. Hornby is promoing his stuff. Ignore. I do.

  7. I emphatically disagree with Mr Hornsby. I love to read because I learn from it. It is not simply for enjoyment. Fiction is part of our cultural wealth that reflects the nature and opinion of different periods of history, and challenging works of fiction are usually those that have the most to say.
    Unfortunately, Mr Hornby’s rather glib statement is indicative of an age where we filter all of our incoming information to suit our own tastes. It’s very easy to go through life only ever hearing, reading and seeing things that agree with your own opinions. It also means that your mental development becomes stunted. One cannot possibly broaden their perspective of the world if they only read what they like.

    1. I think that’s an interesting point about the times we live in. A glut of choice means we might be less inclined to put ourselves out with something which might make us work – so we end up with fast food for the soul.

  8. I blame childbirth x 3 and years of broken sleep and early risings on loss of brain cells and inability to concentrate on anything too literary. I am notorious for starting a book and not finishing it. Sometimes I go back and give it another go, but that depends on what I move on to. Reading is my down time and it’s too precious to me to struggle through something I’m not enjoying. I usually read at night, so if I can’t get in to it, I’m most likely to fall asleep (could have its uses, I guess!).

    1. Ha – know where you’re coming from, I’ve had my fair share of child related lost sleep too! I always chug away at books until I finish them though, however slowly that might be. I get there in the end, though it may take a while!

  9. I can see what Hornby means. He’s a man of our times, and has learnt that most people are out for a quick high, no effort, and no waiting. As a teacher, i’m aware of the importance of pleasurable reading, so I try to bring the students into the narrative, not always easy with anglo – saxon lit! For me, it depends. I sometimes just want something light and satisfying: a hea, but others, I’m prepared to make an effort. As a writer I aim to juggle both: enjoyment and intellectual challenge… Just downloaded your sample:)

    1. Thanks Luccia! Yes times have certainly changed – to the extent that many people now wouldn’t consider picking up a book at all. Still, for those who do read I hope there’s still room for something a little deeper as well as literary fast food. 🙂

  10. I’m an avid reader and often have two or three books going at the same time. I do think we need to challenge ourselves and enjoy reading literary fiction and, of course, the classics. I also think we need to enjoy what we read. It makes perfect sense to read a variety of books both contemporary and classical.
    I can honestly say the only books I don’t finish are the badly written/edited ones. The kind that are full of grammar and spelling errors and story-lines that focus on flat characters that meander everywhere. I have no toleration for those.

    1. Couldn’t agree more Christine, I’m all for reading for pleasure but one of the things I find pleasurable is to be tested a little intellectually. I also agree there’s a huge difference between a good book which has difficult aspects to it and a badly written book.

  11. Good point. I tend to alternate between easy reads, and not-so-easy ones. It took me over a month to read In The Light Of What We Know, and it was hard going in places, but it’s a fantastic book and I would definitely recommend it to others. On the other hand, I’ve been sent books to review from Mumsnet Book Club that were so easy going, I finished them in a matter of days. I enjoyed them, but I don’t think I got as much out of them!

    1. And of course both types of books are valid – I’m certainly not suggesting people should not read fun, easy books I just think they there has to be room somewhere for the more serious kind too! 🙂

  12. I read books written in a lighter style to relax… regardless of how deep the ideas presented may take the mind and imagination. I read difficult, complex books regardless of style for what they have to share and teach. Some of my all time favourites in both fiction and non-fiction have been damnably hard work to get into or have invoked the concept of the mental contortionist… but have been well worth the effort. Badly written books though seldom make it beyond the first three chapters.

      1. But I suppose there is an element of personal opinion in there. I very nearly discarded Stephen Donaldson’s Covenant books simply because the style was harsher than I was used to as a young woman. Sometimes you have to persevere.

  13. I think the trouble with “arguments” like Hornby’s is that they swing so rapidly from the obviously-true to the preposterously-foolish that it becomes hard to disentangle the two.

    Obviously true, I’d say, is that if you’re really not enjoying a work of literature (assuming it hasn’t been assigned to you in a class or something) then you probably shouldn’t be wasting your time with it. Truly: if reading a book gives you no pleasure or enjoyment at all, then find something else to read. Life is short. There is no shortage of great books–even if you ONLY read the great books that you also find enjoyable, you will not live long enough to read them all.

    Preposterously foolish are remarks like this one: “as long as you’re racing through it, that’s the thing.” This proposition seems to suggest that you should ONLY read books that you can race through. Sad nonsense. The books that I love the most, that I derived the most satisfaction from, and return to over and over again, are the ones that I read the SLOWEST–not always because they were “difficult,” but also and more profoundly because of the beauty or the strangeness of the FORM. Stylistic innovation at the level of the sentence is something I personally love and enjoy and always want to linger over; if ever I find myself “racing” through a book it’s almost certainly because I’m NOT enjoying it on all levels, as it were (I’m just trying to find out what happens next, which can be fun, of course, but it’s never quite as enjoyable for me as a book that I can ALSO appreciate and savor at the level of the sentences themselves, a delight which inherently slows the reading process).

    But of course, the point is that not all readers care very much about literary form or stylistic innovation or strange and mysterious sentences. Some readers just want to hear a story. Telling them they “ought” to be more interested in formally complex works is almost like saying people “ought” to be more interested in classical music. The flaw with such recommendations is that different people read books for different reasons, just as people listen to music for different reasons. Some just want to be casually entertained, others want depth, others want formal complexity, etc. etc. Trying to tell people they should read books for reasons other than their own is almost always a losing proposition.

    Imagine the reverse: imagine someone saying, “Even if you don’t enjoy a book that is written very simply, you should really FORCE yourself to finish it, precisely because it is written simply.” No one would take that seriously. Likewise, no one should take seriously the prescription that a book should be read, even if it’s not enjoyable, simply because it is written beautifully or strangely or in some complex way. And why? Because not every reader cares about literary form. And indeed there’s no reason every reader should care.

    As it happens, I myself care very much about literary form. So much so, in fact, that if I pick up a book in the bookstore and the sentences are plain…if I don’t get a sense of that “being of language” that Foucault famously remarked upon…if I don’t feel that this author is doing something interesting at the level of the sentences themselves…then I will almost certainly close the book and never read it. And anyone who would suggest to me that I should force myself to read it anyway, because of some special quality it has but that I don’t find enjoyable…well, they’d be wasting their breath.

    To the extent that Hornsby is suggesting you should read books you enjoy, he’s basically saying nothing. To the extent that Hornsby is suggesting that you should only read books that you can race through, or that you ought to avoid books that can only be read slowly because of their formal complexities or difficulty–if in fact he means to suggest that–then he’s an damned idiot. (Something tells me, though, that even he doesn’t really mean to say the latter; if for no other reason than because it would make him guilty of the very thing that he condemns, namely, telling people what they ought to read.)

    1. Many thanks for that thoughtful contribution. I think the odd nature of his comments is because they are a special plea pointing the reader towards the type of book he writes. I have no problem with his books, I enjoy them, but I think that being prescriptive over what people should read is a dangerous game. I also think it’s a good idea for me to stretch myself when I read – often I find myself enjoying a book I started out struggling with, easy isn’t always better!

  14. I think it’s unlikely Hornby is *really* saying easy is better. Again, that would be foolishness, if for no other reason than because some readers *enjoy* difficulty, or just formal complexity, etc. Other readers not so much. Regardless, it would be egregious hypocrisy for Hornby to try to dissuade readers from reading challenging books. So egregious, in fact, that it’s hard to imagine he’s really doing that.

    Hornby’s point seems to be this very small one: if you have no enjoyment from what you’re reading, find something else. Ultimately we all agree on this I think. Even you would eventually give up on a book if it remained unenjoyable. At a certain point you bail. As it happens you might be an especially charitable reader, and give it more pages before bailing; other readers might be more impatient. But in either case it’s perfectly valid to put a book down that you derive no enjoyment from. This is why Hornby’s argument is so empty–he’s really just describing something we all already do.

    That’s NOT the same as rejecting the possibility that a book that is difficult might also be enjoyable, or that a book that you initially don’t get a lot of enjoyment from you will enjoy more as you get deeper into it.

    Of course, if I’m wrong about that–if Hornby DOES reject the possibility that a difficult or formally complex book might also prove enjoyable to many readers–then that’s just him being foolish. But it’s hard to imagine that that’s what he’s actually saying, because that would be so stupid. There’s a syllogism for that, isn’t there?

  15. I doubt that NH is really saying that easier is better, too. I suspect his point was that there is not point in partaking in a leisure pastime that you’re not actually enjoying, or reading a book because you think you ‘ought’ to.

    1. I think you are right – that was his point. Mine is that reading can be more than a leisure activity and go deeper than just enjoyment. I wouldn’t want to discourage people from reading for the simple pleasure of it.

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