October 28, 2011

In praise of readability


In John Self‘s latest missive in the Guardian, he discusses the idea of “an easy read,” which is defined as a book that is “not too hard going.” But what does “readability” mean, exactly? And is it necessarily a bad thing for a book to not be considered A Serious Read? What is the point of reading anyway? Do we read for pleasure or only for edification?

Last week, Jeanette Winterson weighed in on the side of self-improvement when she wrote wrote:”There is a simple test: Does this writer’s capacity for language expand my capacity to think and to feel?” Which is a fair assessment when talking about the importance of craft, but sometimes we just want to be taken for a ride when we delve into a book. Sometimes we want to read an action-packed crime story set in Kenya or even (gasp!) Stieg Larsson‘s Millennium trilogy.

And we shouldn’t feel guilty for our crimes, readers. John Self quotes Beryl Bainbridge in the column, saying, “One hundred years ago, only 10% of the population ever devoured what is alluded to as serious literature. It is my belief that things haven’t changed; nor should we wish it otherwise.”

In the comments section of the Guardian, one reader suggested Utz by Bruce Chatwin (whose “restless genius” was just discussed in Harper’s this month).

Another suggested short stories by Etgar Keret (who is soon-to-be the owner of the thinnest house in the world).

And another comment noted the lack of women on John’s list, since The Cry of the Owl by Patricia Highsmith was the only one included.

Other readers suggested:

— The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud

— “Anything by Lydia Davis

— Election by Tom Perrotta (we would chime in and also suggest his new novel, The Leftovers)

— Out by Natsuo Kirino, the Japanese crime writer (who we keep meaning to read but haven’t yet).

— The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

And, last but certainly not least: Kurt Vonnegut. We were reminded of a 1977 Paris Review interview where the author was asked about the vitriol he’s received from critics after writing Slapstick. Vonnegut, being the good sport that he was, said, “It was dishonorable enough that I perverted art for money. I then topped that felony by becoming, as I say, fabulously well-to-do. Well, that’s just too damn bad for me and for everybody. I’m completely in print, so we’re all stuck with me and stuck with my books.”

So what are your favorite “readable” books? And do you ever feel sheepish for reading them in public (say, on the train, in a park, or in a highbrow cafe)?