The reader as a super villain
When you find your way into the world of reading via the right books for you, it’s like pulling off the ultimate heist. There are millions of books out there and thousands of years’ worth of entertainment and knowledge to plunder. The only sad thing is that you won’t live long enough to read them all.
Sometimes you’ll read what millions of other people have read. Sometimes you’ll stumble upon a cache of neglected and forgotten gems that other people have overlooked. You’ll show one to others and the fire within the gem will light their eyes. Others will look at the little stone in your hand and wonder what all the fuss is about. That’s OK; the important thing is that you found it.
Books have made me laugh and cry. They’ve astonished me. They’ve held me captive when I should have been sleeping. They’ve delighted, teased, challenged, thrilled and shaken me. When I come across people who haven’t had any positive reading experiences, it saddens me that they’re missing out. When you’re in a well-stocked library, you’re the richest person on earth. You’re obscenely, disgustingly, eating-truffles-off-gold-plates rich. You put Bond villains and palace-owning aristocrats to shame, because you’ve got the whole world—and other worlds—at your fingertips.
You could get giddy on the power. Imagine the evil laughter:
“So, Mr Book, we meet again. You thought you could foil my plans for reading domination, but I have a library card and I can borrow you all. All of you, do you hear? Mwa ha ha ha ha!”
No? Maybe I inhaled a little too much ink the day I dreamt up that scene in my local library.
What motivates a super villain? Virtue? I think not. Sometimes booklovers do reading a disservice. When non-readers hear us talking about those lists of books we feel we should have read, ought to read, have to read, it makes reading sound like a chore or solemn duty, like filling in your tax return, flossing your teeth or doing sit-ups, when those of us in the know have experienced the indulgence, the sheer pleasure of reading.
I’m not talking about those books we’re all obliged to read at some point (prescribed reading for courses, the user manual for an unreliable appliance, etc.). Into every life, a few mandatory texts must fall. I’m talking about those self-inflicted reading lists that suck the joy out of reading, when we conform to social expectations. Not enjoying that classic book? Put it aside. One day in the future, when you’re not obliged to read it, you may actually enjoy it. Just ask a high school teacher about all the eyeball-rolling I did over Pride and Prejudice. About a year later, when I’d got over a particularly bad bout of teenage spleen and ennui, I liked it. These days, when I don’t have to re-read it, but actually choose to, I regard it as one of the greatest novels of all time.
It’s one of the paradoxes of human nature that reading when you have to is not pleasurable but reading when you’re supposed to be doing something else is sinfully delicious. Think of yourself as a super villain and take what you want from the world of books.*
Badgering kids to read backfires. Books should be treated as contraband, top-shelf stuff. Start putting the books on the hard-to-reach shelves, alongside the red cordial, sugar-laden treats, liquor and fireworks. Nothing fuels curiosity and desire like prohibition. I doubt that I would have read my parents’ copy of Errol Flynn’s memoir, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, at the age of about twelve, had they not expressly forbidden it and attempted to hide it in the linen cupboard (nice try, guys).
Readers are super villains, and we don’t like the word ‘no’.
*I’m speaking here of buying books or borrowing them from libraries. When you borrow from public libraries in most countries, the author—the person who put their effort into entertaining or enlightening you—receives a small payment in recognition of lost royalties. If you pirate a book, the author gets nothing at all, which makes you not so much a super villain as a super-sized tool.