Tuesday, September 07, 2004

On non-readers

I had the terrifying experience this evening of being in a bookshop with a friend Who Does Not Read. We’d met for a quick drink at a nearby pub and I needed my browsing high for the day; since he was in no hurry to leave, he dawdled in after me.

As it happened, I was soon the one in a hurry – to exit the bookshop. It was horrible. As I studied the “New Releases” section, he stood by at an oblique angle, all of three inches away, and studied me. Then, perhaps sensing my unease, he moved away and made the most depressingly unconvincing show of looking at titles on the “Self-improvement” shelf. When the titles were long or marginally complicated ones, he had to mouth them silently to himself as his gaze alighted on each word, one at a time. It was all I could do to stop myself from rushing out with a yowl. I managed to gargle out something like “letschguh”, and led him out.

Now I don’t want to get too snooty about non-readers, especially at a time when I fear that I myself may be going too far in the opposite direction -- getting obsessive about my books, to the exclusion of all else. After all, many great writers (Somerset Maugham among them) have sought to undermine the importance of reading, or even being literate, by saying that there are far more worthwhile, productive things people can do with their time. Like ploughing a field. (Of course, I’m always a bit sceptical about a man of letters making such statements – sounds too much like the billionaire saying “Money isn’t everything”.)

But at the level of pure, innocent curiosity, I can’t help wondering how it is to be someone who has never gotten into the reading habit. I’ve always had my books, starting from the age of 3+, when my mother read Ladybird Level 1s out to me. And while I don’t completely agree with that old homily which suggests that a person with books can never be lonely (it hasn’t always been true for me, and frankly I don’t think it should be true), I do believe there are few better palliatives than reading.

I often form mental pictures of the lives of people who don’t read. This friend, for instance: he’s usually very busy with work and I hadn’t seen him in months, but very unusually he had a short working day today and so called to check if I could meet up. All very well, and a nice, healthy thing to do, completely commendable. But how, at the same time, can I refrain from conjuring up the following images: 1) Non–reader is astonished to find himself back home before sundown. 2) Plays around with TV remote, decides there’s nothing worthwhile on. 3) Lazily picks up a stray magazine lying on a side-table, flips the pages, looks at individual words before losing interest. 4) Realises that there’s absolutely nothing to do, must call a friend.

Now that’s probably an over-simplified vision, but I don’t think it can be too far from the truth either. If I ever find myself completely free (which is increasingly rare), with two, or three, or six hours of nothing to do, I know there’s always going to be a book handy. And I’m frightened by the thought of a life where that possibility is completely precluded.

(It occurs to me now that this is, after all, a public forum and perhaps I mustn’t rely too much on my friend’s disinclination to read; it might not extend to web pages. Hence not mentioning his name.)

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