World Book Day celebrates pure joy of reading

Spine-tingling: 184,000 books are published each year in the UK alone.

To quote Jane Austen, “there is no enjoyment like reading!” It is one of life’s purest delights, and it comes with health benefits too. But should you read for pleasure or self-improvement?

Reading is good for you. It boosts your emotional intelligence, improves your self-esteem, keeps your brain active and wards off dementia. It can even extend your life expectancy.

But it’s not just about health. “In addition to its substantial practical benefits, reading is one of life’s profound joys,” says the UK Reading Agency. There really is nothing like curling up with a good book.

So what books should we read?

Critics like F.R. Leavis and Harold Bloom helped to fashion a “canon” of great writers in Western literature, from Homer to Charles Dickens. For Bloom, the best writing helps us to learn more about ourselves, while “mediocre” writing teaches us nothing.

“One doesn’t want to read badly any more than live badly, since time will not relent,” he wrote. “We certainly owe mediocrity nothing, whatever collectivity it purports to advance.”

Indeed, studies show we often feel guilty about what we do or do not read. The book that people most frequently lie about having read is Alice In Wonderland, followed by 1984 and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Only 4% of Britons have read War and Peace by Tolstoy, but a further 14% wish they had.

Two of the most consistently popular genres are crime and romance fiction. Crime sales have increased by 19% since 2015 to 18.7 million, making it the most popular genre of all, while sales of literary fiction have been falling.

“The fact that ‘literary fiction’ defines itself against ‘commercial fiction’ might explain why it isn’t doing well commercially,” says novelist Matt Haig. “Snobbery creates a class system of books out of tune with the age we live in.”

For novelist Sarah Perry, the mystique surrounding so-called classics only intimidates people and discourages reading. We need to bring the fun back into books that are considered “challenging”.

“More people would read Tristram Shandy if its reputation did not precede it. ‘You’ll ROAR with laughter, it’s a right old laugh’ is a much more accurate and compelling line than ‘oo you really should’,” she says.

Turn over a new leaf

What is the main purpose of reading? For self-improvement or for sheer enjoyment? Of course they are not mutually exclusive, but surely which one you prioritise will have an influence on the books you pick up. Do you want to be absorbed in another world? Do you want to be intellectually challenged?

Are some books more worthy or more valuable than others? Leavis and Bloom certainly thought so. Now, they are often criticised for favouring old, white, male authors. Does the canon still have value? What makes great literature? A thrilling story? Inventive language? Its insights about the human condition?

You Decide

  1. Should a person read mainly for self-improvement or enjoyment?
  2. What is your favourite book?

Activities

  1. What is “literature”? Write your own definition and compare it with your classmates.
  2. What do books mean to you? Write a page discussing this question. Include your favourite writers and why you like them. You could include quotes too.

Some People Say...

“We read frequently if unknowingly, in quest of a mind more original than our own.”

Harold Bloom

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The Lord of the Rings is often voted the UK’s favourite book. In 2003, the BBC carried out a major survey in which The Lord of the Rings came top, followed by Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. Another survey by Wordery last year put the Harry Potter series top, followed by The Lord of the Rings and The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown.
What do we not know?
Whether challenging or intellectual books can truly be said to be “better” than more popular fiction. According to Irish writer Sheila O’Flanagan, this snobbery is often directed at genres that are considered more feminine. Elitism and sexism, she says, “have a habit of going hand in hand where conversations about fiction are concerned.”

Word Watch

Emotional intelligence
The ability to understand your emotions and those of others. Emotionally intelligent people are socially capable and good at dealing with relationships with others.
Harold Bloom
An American literary critic who was born in 1930. His books include The Western Canon.
Homer
The name for a Greek poet who wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey around the eighth century BC. These are widely regarded as the first great works of western literature.
Collectivity
Bringing people together.
4%
According to a YouGov survey from January 2016.
Literary fiction
A term widely used to distinguish “serious” fiction from genre fiction. It came into use in the 1960s.
Commercial fiction
Mainstream, popular fiction that is often divided into genre categories like romance, crime and historical fiction.
Tristram Shandy
A fictional autobiography written by Laurence Sterne in the 1750s and 60s. Its full title is The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.