There are other ways to get a narrative fix … so don’t assume a failure of imagination in a non-reader. Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian
You’re making a list, you’re checking it twice, and your fall-back position will be a nice book or two for friends and family to unwrap on ChristmasDay. Everybody loves a good book, right?
But wait. What about those who don’t read? (Take it from me, these people exist. I’ve seen them. I’m even friends with a few.) Now you and me, we know that books are great. Books enrich, educate and entertain. People who read books are smarter, nicer, more attractive. People who don’t read books live grey, humdrum, fiction-free lives, bereft of that essential spark that infuses the lives of us readers, allows us to walk on clouds, hear choirs of angels and piss rainbows.
Me? I have taken the title of the 10th volume in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time sequence – Books Do Furnish A Room – quite literally; I have shelves groaning with volumes, books in piles on the floor, books spread out in the loft like extra insulation. I love books so much that I write them too; actually, my livelihood depends on other people loving books, particularly mine.
And yet. I always feel a vague disquiet when I’m confronted by assertions from avid readers, generally on social media, that those who don’t read books are in some way inferior, or if they’re feeling charitable, to be pitied. Some days you can barely move for endless tweets of that John Waters quote: “If you go home with somebody, and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ’em!” Or, at a quick glance:
“Stay away from people who don’t read books.” “I feel bad for the people who don’t read books.” “NO LONGER SPEAKING TO PEOPLE WHO DON’T READ BOOKS.” “I’m so sad for people who don’t read books.” Or: “I’m not saying people who don’t read books are dumb, I just think it’s weird.”
And on, and on, and on.
It’s natural that readers are evangelical about books. We love to make recommendations, and receive them in turn. Like old Holden Caulfield says in The Catcher in the Rye, after a particularly good book: “You wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”
Social media gives us these chances. My Twitter is an echo-chamber of book lovers – writers, readers, publishers, agents, librarians, bloggers – but that can lull a person into a false sense that the world is full of happy bibliophiles. And that perhaps makes it harder for us to understand why people don’t read books, and even mistrust them.
Which is a very curious thing. Books expand our minds and give us a greater understanding of the world around us; yet, a lot of readers persist in looking down on those who don’t read. And there might be many, many reasons for why they don’t.
Definitely buy books for the non-readers who simply can’t afford them, as libraries around the UK close their doors at an alarming rate. And there are those who would read, but don’t have the time: anyone who’s brought up a child or two will know the brain-numbing exhaustion of just living through a day, the sensation of staring at a jumble of words on a page, reading the same page or paragraph or line over and over, and never getting any further.
But some people just don’t need books. Perhaps they get their narrative fix from TV, or movies, or video games. They might get all the drama and passion and sense of belonging they need from sport. They could prefer the instant, real-time hit of breaking news for their view of the world, or be happy with the understanding of human nature they get from social media or real-life friends.
Reading is important. Literacy skills are vital. Children’s reading drops off massively after the age of eight, which can cause problems in adult life. But being literate and having a love of books are two different things. Books might furnish your walls, and you’re fully entitled to not have sex with people who don’t own books – but this Christmas, don’t buy books to “fix” people who don’t want them. Send them to me instead.