A work of unique imagination and vital vision. A near-impossible literary feat. A perspective-shifting study. An addictive, vivid spellbinder.
Those are a few of the typical descriptions from a recent round-up of forthcoming fiction and non-fiction titles of 2023. The piece is hardly unique in its breathless praise. Almost every new book is described as brilliant, a masterpiece, and epoch-defining. How tiresome.
Much of this is just marketing, of course. You can’t expect a publisher to announce a book with the rousing words: “It’s nice.” They wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they didn’t hype their offerings.
But one fallout is that many readers have come to expect that every book they read should offer them a transcendent experience. It will alter attitudes, leave you astounded, and be highly recommended to all and sundry. (Spoiler alert: some will, most won’t.)
Social media posts reflect this way of thinking. Even allowing for influencers and others with vested interests, the language used to describe books verges on the ecstatic. Awesome! Epic! Stunning! You’d be hard pressed to find posts that simply say “perfectly pleasant”, “a good way to pass the time”, or “quite amusing”. Mind you, all those are perfectly acceptable functions.
Unfortunately, these great expectations are often dashed when it comes to actually reading the books in question. There’s a sense of being let-down or not quite understanding the book. Where is the peerless, unparalleled experience I was promised? Should I have watched a movie instead? Is this really the greatest thing since the grilled cheese sandwich?
To set matters straight, let’s continue with the food parallel. Some meals are everyday preparations. Others are indulgent. A few are special. It would be silly to glorify every dish we eat with over-the-top adjectives such as “brilliant”, “outstanding”, or “exceptional”. Yet, when it comes to books, that is how we’re expected to feel.
Not only that, but there are expectations that reading a book can change your life or, at the very least, magically endow you with more empathy towards the human race. Doesn’t seem to have worked for Josef Stalin, who was known to read a lot and had a personal library of over 20,000 books.
As Rebecca Solnit writes in A Velocity of Being: Letters to A Young Reader, some books are toolkits, and some are wings. Some are horses that take you on breathless journeys, while others are parties full of friends, “even when you have no friends”. Some books are medicine, while others are “puzzles, mazes, tangles, jungles”.
Romance novels, cosy mystery tales, and well-loved children’s books can exist on the same shelf – in a manner of speaking – with modernist masterpieces, searing non-fictional investigations and award-winning work. All of them aren’t supposed to meet the same standards and fulfil identical needs. Sometimes, you need a warm blanket; at others, you need a jolt to wake you up.
It's not that regular readers aren’t aware of the entertaining, pleasurable or even calming nature of reading. Rather, the emphasis on “greatness” – whatever that means – leads to a scenario where every single book is supposed to live up to impossibly high standards if it’s worth reading in the first place.
Imagine also the pressure that this reverential attitude towards books can have on authors. Already reportedly struggling with writer’s block and being underpaid, they now have to worry about whether the book they’re writing will be universally acknowledged as a masterpiece.
Apart from fulfilling different needs at different times, how then should one evaluate the function of a book? In an essay from How to Read Now, Elaine Castellano offers an apt way of looking at it, especially in our fraught age.
We should ask questions, she writes. “When we say we know what a monster is, when we say we know what a hero is, how do we come to know those things? What does that knowledge permit us to believe about our world, and how does that knowledge shape how we live in that world, let alone how we read and write in it?”
And if the book you’re reading doesn’t lead to satisfying answers, you could always follow the example of Michel de Montaigne. “I seek, in the reading of books, only to please myself by an honest diversion,” he wrote in one of his essays. “If one book do not please me, I take another.”