The Curse of Comfortable Reading

I’m a big fan of the BBC Radio 2 Book Club. However, there’s one thing that happens almost every time it’s on that exasperates me as a writer (and, in fact, as a reader). But it’s also quite fascinating and revealing, and I’d like to talk about it a bit now.

For those of you who are too cool to listen to such a hopelessly mainstream station, I’ll briefly explain what happens. Every couple of weeks, Simon Mayo and his team on the drive time show pick a book to discuss with the author. You get the impression that a fair amount of thought goes into the choice of book, and that Mayo himself and his team (particularly Matt the sports guy) are fully engaged in this. Mayo’s questions are thoughtful and reflect the fact that he is an accomplished writer himself.

There is also a democratic element to the Radio 2 Book Club, in that listeners can apply to become reviewers themselves. Following the initial part of the author interview, Mayo plays a recording of the thoughts of three of these listener reviewers, and this is where it gets exasperating/fascinating/revealing (take your pick). Because the first thing that ALMOST EVERY SINGLE REVIEWER starts off by saying is:

I wouldn’t normally have picked up this book but…

following which they go on to say how much they LOVED reading it. There’s probably a drinking game to be constructed around this, although I’d probably end up getting hammered every other Tuesday Monday night. I could be wrong but this week I think all three fitted this template, and it wasn’t the first time either.

It’s such a shame. There is such a variety of books out there to be read and yet too often we stick to our own comfortable little silos. I know of people who only read crime. I know of people who only read romance. I know of people who NEVER read science fiction. I know of people (mostly retired men) who only read non-fiction. I know one chap who only reads biographies of Formula One drivers, which is about as niche as you can get.

We seem to base our cultural lives on the mantra “if you liked this, you’ll love this”, whereas life would be so much more interesting if we adopted a principle of “if you liked this, try something completely different next time”. (I wonder if the experience of being a Radio 2 book club reviewer has changed any of the participants’ approaches to reading, incidentally. Do get in touch if you’re one and it has.)

Maybe I’m overreacting. I’d hate to presume to prescribe what people should or shouldn’t be reading. Also, it’s not as if I’m entirely in the clear myself. If I look at the books I’ve read so far this year, the male authors still lead the female ones, even if the differential is marginally smaller than in previous years (28 male, 20 female plus 6 mixed anthologies). And I’m almost too embarrassed to state the number of books by persons of colour. Well, OK, it’s 2. I REALLY have to do something about that…

But wouldn’t it be wonderful to get to a point where everyone picked up a book because it sounded interesting or challenging or unusual, and not because it sounded like something they’d read before? Just imagine all those minds being blown.

Then again, wouldn’t it be wonderful to get to a point where everyone picked up a book…


7 thoughts on “The Curse of Comfortable Reading

  1. Claire Fuller says:

    This interesting, and yes, I agree that it would be wonderful if everyone (and I include myself) picked up books because they were different from the previous one. But I’m not surprised that the Radio2 bookclub reviewers say this. It’s also been my experience of every bookclub I’ve been in – a book picked by someone else is usually not one I would have chosen. That’s why bookclubs are so great!

  2. Ian Cundell says:

    (to expand upon my tweet)
    When about 15 I realise I was only reading SF. So I took decision to alternate SF any other ANY other genre, a mix stuff largely led by what Patons on Holywell Hill had in.

    I discovered Hemingway (Snows of The Kilimanjaro) , urban legends before everyone knew about them (The Vanishing Hitchhiker and other legends), Rumpole (I think possibly nicked from my brothers shelf). Also JK Galbraith (although I probably would have found my way to him, via academic interest, in due course anyway). And a whole bunch of less notable stuff lost to the vagaries of memory.

  3. admin says:

    Good point about book clubs, Claire, although I’m sure I read somewhere that men tend to shy away from them, which is a shame because (based on very little evidence) I have a feeling that men tend to be particularly conservative about what they read.

    Apart from the likes of Ian, of course – and alternating genres is an excellent approach. Ah, I remember Patons. Lovely shop. And their cat that was so old and moth-eaten it may well have actually been a zombie.

  4. Patsy says:

    “wouldn’t it be wonderful to get to a point where everyone picked up a book…”

    Yes – that people read and enjoy books seems to me to be the most important thing. What those books are is less important (although obviously I see my own as an excellent choice!)

    Personally, I do a lot of ‘comfortable’ reading. Yet I’m conscious that all the genres and authors I enjoy were once new to me. Just as with food, we really shouldn’t decide we don’t like something unless we’ve tried it. A diet of milk and rusks would lead to scurvy – and scurvy most certainly isn’t comfortable.

  5. admin says:

    Diet is a good analogy, Patsy. There’s nothing wrong with comfort food per se, but too much of it is unhealthy. Literary scurvy is also a very bad thing.

  6. Gerald says:

    It took me a long while to find the ‘right’ book clubs. I can’t stand book clubs where a contrary opinion is dismissed, and where personal anecdotes are the order of the day. “That reminds me of when I was young, …” etc etc.
    Both of my books of the year for 2016 were from book clubs, and I do love to be ‘forced’ to read outside my favourite genres. Not all recommended books are good, but at least these two book clubs (one of which is held in a pub – genius!) are open to honest critique and opinion.

  7. admin says:

    That sounds excellent. There are two book clubs in our village, but the fact that there’s one for women and one for men has put me off the idea of trying to join.

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