Top Ten Tuesday – 10 Reasons to Turn Down a Book

Last week’s Top Ten Tuesday was about things that would instantly make me want to read a book. This week the list from The Broke and the Bookish is its complement; Ten Things that Would Instantly Make Me Not Want to Read a Book. My answers are not all opposites of last week’s, but I did find this list more difficult to compile. I think it is because, if you really love books, you may have fewer reasons for turning one away. You may also devote far more time to thinking about the ones you like/want than to those you do not. And if we are truly honest with ourselves, these reasons may expose biases we hold but may not be willing to admit. For these reasons, I think I can also think of more exceptions to this list than last week’s.

1. It’s Everywhere

I still have not read a single Harry Potter book nor seen any of the movies. It’s not that I think I wouldn’t like them, on the contrary, I’m confident I would love them. But I am allergic to hype and if there is something everyone is raving about and you can’t get away from it, I will avoid it like the plague. I guess this is the opposite to wanting to read a book that is overlooked (Reason #2 from last week).

2. It’s Discredited

I did a post on obsolete books a while back. If you’ve already read it you’ll know what I mean. I resisted buying Lance Armstrong’s It’s not About the Bike for a long time but finally did and then, well, you know what happened. I’m not going to read it now, what would be the point?

3. It’s not Literary

While it is tempting to say something like “I’m not a snob, but…”, why bother? I am a bit of a snob. Just a bit. You are not going to find me reading a lot books derisively referred to as ‘genre’ – crime, sci-fi, fantasy, romance, young adult, etc. Or the genre-less pop fiction that will never get near the likes of the Booker, Women’s or Pulitzer Prizes. I’m sure a lot are well-written and a lot are great entertainment. I can certainly list a few I enjoyed immensely (Jurassic Park, Dune, Misery, for example). But they will never be more than a fringe in my reading and I will pass most by.

There is an important exception here – reading on holiday. I don’t mean the sorts of holidays where you are lounging by the pool at a resort or onboard a cruise ship. I mean when you are sitting by your pack at a train station late at night in what feels like the middle of nowhere. Here, you need a book that is engrossing enough to read when you are tired and jetlagged, that can be read and understood when you can only read in 15 minute increments and can last for the 4-6 weeks my holidays usually take. The classics don’t cut it here. I have a few examples in mind but I may save them for another post!

4. It Received a ‘Bad’ Review

If good reviews can turn me on to a book (Reason #7 from last week) then surely bad reviews can turn me off? Truly negative reviews are relatively rare, although I have done a couple myself (see Civilisation or Narnia). But positive reviews can also contain something that will turn me off the book. A common example is where the reviewer says something to the effect of “If you liked [the name of a book I really did not like], then you’ll love this book!”.

5. It’s not Written By an Expert

I have succumbed to a fair few history books, written by non-historians, that were more like travel books on reading (the most recent being In Search of Zarathustra). I was seduced, I guess, by the fact that they often write on topics that have not been covered by popular history writers for some time. The experience has made me much more discerning when it comes to the credentials of non-fiction writers.

Journalists are particularly bad. Journalistic ethics often means giving opposing arguments equal space while avoiding prejudicing the material with opinions of your own or even a conclusion, which is fine for reporting but faulty for science or history. The lack of expertise in the author can be glaring. A geography book written by a journalist would probably give equal time to the idea that the earth is flat, when they should just state that it isn’t, briefly explain why it isn’t, and move on! There are also plenty of academics who are terrible writers but the ones who are excellent – Simon Singh and Richard Dawkins for example – show how very complex and nuanced subjects can be made accessible without compromising the material and still crafting a great read. Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, has both science and writing credentials and it shows. More could learn from her as science reporting in the media is abysmal!

6. It’s Too Big an Investment

I like trilogies and series and try to read one every year, but I do pass some by. What usually happens is that I spot a book while browsing that sounds interesting but then I realise it is a sequel or a prequel. I don’t like leaving things unfinished, so I have to ask myself if I am so interested that I’d take a chance on what might be a big investment. Often I am not.

7. High Expectations

I recently wrote a post on my ‘bad reading habit’. There are quite a few books on my shelves that I have been avoiding because I have loved the author’s other work and I am scared they may disappoint me. But I am sure I will get around to them.

Now for some reasons that may expose some biases.

8. Familiarity

In New Zealand, there is the common sentiment that NZ’ers don’t do enough to support local artists, musicians and authors. I was certainly guilty of this and did not read many books by NZ’ers. In my case the cause may simply have been familiarity breeding contempt. Now that I have been living in Australia for some time, I thirst for books from back home and splurged in my book shopping on a recent trip. Meanwhile, I now feel a similar aversion to new books by Australians.

9. Exoticism (for lack of a better word)

Conversely, I also dislike exoticism for the sake of exoticism. Without a doubt, minority writers and points of view have been underrepresented in fiction and there is a strong turnaround in demand for them. Which is great. Fiction’s ability to generate empathy and understanding for peoples whose experiences we will never touch in our own lives is its most powerful effect and should be the first argument we make when defending the value of literature. But too often I read a blurb or a review which highlights the exotic or alternative aspects of the point of view but the plot sounds a little ordinary. I do want to learn more from these other points of view but if the novel is just a familiar story in an unfamiliar setting, I might be better served with biographies and history books.

10. It’s Beyond the Pale

Last week I wrote about the importance of books that will challenge us (Reason #10), but there is a limit to how far we may be willing to take this. We may refrain from admitting it in fear that it makes us sound close-minded, biased or prejudiced, but we should not feel that way if we are keeping to standards of integrity that we can defend.

In giving my reason last week, I mentioned a few of my own standards, like evidentiary support and expert testimony. It should be ok to have these standards and not feel guilty for being ‘close-minded’. To paraphrase Richard Dawkins; ‘By all means let’s be open-minded, just not so open-minded our brains fall out’.

There are plenty of books that do not offer fair and balanced perspectives, that misrepresent opposing views, that do not even attempt to defend their position against even obvious counter arguments and are, frankly, quite biased and prejudiced. They are often books on social and political issues and are little more than propaganda pieces for an audience who equally do not want to be challenged but to inhabit an echo-chamber and hear what they want to hear. I will happily give these a miss, even if I agree with them.

All that being said, it may be wise to read these books anyway. This is especially true if you want to be an expert yourself or if you want to be outspoken and active on a particular issue. The only way to feel confident about your position is to test it against various alternatives, otherwise it is indistinguishable from superstition. The only way to tell a ‘good’ argument from a ‘bad’ one is if it stands up to various scrutiny. Remove scrutiny and the ‘bad’ ones thrive. They do not go away by ignoring them, banning them, or non-platforming them. On the contrary, they are only strengthened by such responses. But allow them sunlight and air and they quickly dry up and choke. Banning them only ensures these ideas flourish untested, gives credence to their adherent’s claims of prejudice and bias, while making everyone a prisoner of their current opinion.

If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you only think what everyone else is thinking – Murakami

It is disheartening to see that free speech is dying in the one place it was best protected; on campus. Reports of student protests that turn violent and destructive, of speakers being threatened and verbally abused, of professors being cowed into avoiding debate on sensitive issues, are shocking and antithetical to education. Nick Cohen has spoken of how appalled today’s students are when someone tries to advocate for free speech, as if it is something only a bigot would defend, and of the concern of what happens when a generation that does not believe in free speech become our new police, lawyers and politicians.

By now I may sound like I am contradicting myself. But the clue is in the title. I may not want to read these books, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t. For now, I am confident that my standards mean I can be sufficiently challenged and remain grateful that people who write the sorts of books I read are self-critical and have read and appraised those other books so that I do not have to. If you ever find me reading those books, you will know that it does not mean I have found myself in agreement with them, but that I have either decided to be an expert or an activist myself.

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