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October 21, 2011


You are so right. I found Jane Eyre an easy book to read, but that doesn't mean it's low brow does it? I find Dickens easy to read, usually once I get through the first few pages. But I also like crime novels - does that make me low brow? Do I care as long as I have enjoyed the book? I also enjoy books written by Katie Fforde, Molly Panter Downs, Barbara Noble - at different times we require something different to read, I hate the snobbery associated with books. I loved the Enid Blyton books as a child, yet my local librarian always tried to talk me out of them! You are a very wise woman.

Hear, hear, to both of you! I am a Reading Omnivore too.

How are you finding Dan Lepard's Short & Sweet? I opened it this week and found myself thinking goodness, a cookery book which actually explains things easily and clearly - what a refreshing change!

I do so agree with you and the previous comments left. It was a pleasure last year that such a readable book as 'Wolf Hall' won the Booker. In fact I was amazed. Great to see you have a pile of books that need sorting....it reminds me of home.


"But who cares? It's a well known fact that most of the novels on the list will only sell a few hundred copies - maybe more if they make the short list - and that only the winner will ever sell in its thousands."

Well considering what you wrote here, I would think the authors care very much - its the difference between having a successful book and making money and having a failure and not making any money!!

I mean who, of the reading public, cares? (The original title of the post was 'who cares, who reads?')

I am quite sure the authors care very much. But my argument is that readers do not really care about the in-fighting - they want good, readable books.

I had a monumental failure with Howard Jacobson's winning book last year. Rarely do I leave a book in the middle, but I found it dull, repetitive, inward looking and it left me with a bad taste in my mouth. I am sure it has its group of readers who found it readable, but that wasn't me.
There is an innate snobbery in the UK that means that popular is seen to be synonymous with lowbrow, I'm not sure how to tackle this but I'm all for popular if it's good.
And for a modern readable recommendation try Skippy Dies, it isn't cool but I learned more about myself and the world by reading it.

Oh how I agree Jane. Some writers are too far up their own bottoms (as we say round here) Greenbanks arrived this morning and I am so looking forward to beginning another wonderful readable Whipple. I've just added Great Expectations to my birthday list after reading your posts about Dickens -time I tackled him.

I saw a review programme where there was lots of twaddle talked - apart from the wonderfully lucid and insightful Joanne Harris (of Chocolat). She said something along the lines of 'well, of course books should be readable you might as well invent a car that does not drive'.

Ditto a hundred times.

Hear, hear, Jane! I was just having this discussion with a friend after having finished reading Greenbanks and being appalled at how such a marvellous book has been allowed to go out of print for so long merely because it is not 'highbrow'. I'd rather read something beautiful and touching in simple prose than pages of thesaurus necessitating waffle that doesn't touch my soul.

PS. I am very jealous of your copy of Random Commentary...it is the only Whipple that eludes me!

Thank you Jane for putting into words what so many of us feel. When I saw the Booker long list a few months ago, I stifled a yawn. The literary snobbery is not restricted to the UK. The NY Times positively wallows in publishing reviews of unreadable, complex, boring, characterless and plotless fiction.
And by the way, your love of Elizabeth Taylor inspired me to read her for the first time a few years ago and I swooned. Do we have to wait until authors die before we find out how brilliant they are?

Book snobbery, wine snobbery, food snobbery; they all spring from the same root- insecurity. I say enjoy, relax and be proud of your choices.

Agree 100%, Penny put it in a nutshell. Btw, just found you, Jane, and am loving you!!

I couldn't agree more. You should see the funny looks I get when I say Dickens is my favorite author. But why wouldn't he be? I usually can't put his books down until I've finished them.

I have some dear friends who are terrible book snobs and I've seen them look at my bookshelf and sneer a little. I just shrug and read my "low brow" books voraciously.

I agree with the comment about The Review Show. I don't know what would please Germaine Greer and her drawl (thought Joanne Harris was a breath of fresh air and common sense). I then watched A Village Decides - a programme about a village full of people who agreed to read the shortlist, and it was so lovely and refreshing to see people excited by, and positive about, books!

p.s. I see The Little Stranger in your pile. This, for me, is the best book I've read in absolutely ages. I totally loved it.

"'readability' and whether it is compatible with literary excellence."


Remembering arguments with online friends, years ago, about whether Real Art could be beautiful, or if only painful/horrible/nasty work could be Real Art.

Here we are, discussing the identical thing.

I'll allow the possibility that painful/horrible/nasty work can be Real Art, but can't begin to imagine that it is more likely to be Real Art than beautiful things.

And I find people who think that an onlooker ought to struggle to "get" Real Art (and probably ought to be harrowed by it, as "reward" for their struggle!) impossibly pretentious and arrogant.

Good grief.

Give me Dorothy Sayers every time.

sign me Shallow, but Happy (lol........)

I couldn't agree more. I was struck by a piece I read in the Guardian that lamented that if readability were an important criterion then masterpieces like Finnegan's Wake would not make a modern Booker shortlist. (hmmmm!)

Yet I say the reverse is true, how many acknowledged masterpieces would not make the cut today if "readability" were a literary crime? Would literally anything from the Classics of the 17 - 19th century make the cut?

So yes, down with literary snobbery! In the end it really doesn't serve authors and it sure doesn't serve the reading public.

Try Barbara Pym.

Hi Jane:
Haven't written in your comment section in ages, but today, I feel compelled to do so. YOU ARE SO RIGHT!!!AND RIGHT ON EVERY COUNT!!!!Your words could not have been more validating.....I am speechless, yet so calm, and relieved
after reading your assessment of the current literary world. Thank you so much for putting into words what my heart and head has been feeling for ages. I can now take my dunce cap off without guilt.
Please keep sharing your thoughts, and I would love to see you publishing these very thoughts in you very own book (I love all of the books you have written).
muki "Julie L" in San Francisco

I totally agree. If the book's good it's good...no matter if it's literary or something for reading beside the pool (and I've enjoyed both!).

Dawn x

ps I read Dorothy Whipple on your recommendation and loved her. Have you tried Jane Duncan's books? My Friends the Miss Boyds is fantastic.

You put it quite right. I care about readability as well.. readability mixed with 'good quality.' Maybe we just do appreciate ***Realism*** a lot. I have been thinking about that lately... Page turners like Enid Blyton, imaginative realists oriented to sentimental melodrama like Dickens.. and I should guess you also like Samuel Richardson, maybe??

Also, peeping at Claire Tomalin biographies on your shelves I got really interested to read her. Today I was at a bookstore and I saw her biography of Jane Austen and I remembered your bookshelves and I said to myself I ought to check my Library's records. I have just done so and they do have her biographies of Jane Austen, Mary Wollstonecraft and Katherine Mansfield. ... So I should like to get into that soon as well.

Midnight in Paris?? What happened to your post? Did I dream clicking on it this morning? Otherwise how and why did I book tickets to see it at Cinema City in Norwich this afternoon, and absolutely adored it? Well, anyway, thank you (I think) for sharing your's and Philip French's enjoyment which we, too, shared.

You're on the panel next year - will tell them!

here here, Jane! i wholeheartedly endorse your attitude. nowadays, my list of what to read is filled with what i want to read, and not what i "should" read. an openness of mind leads to an openness of spirit that only enhances the reading experience more!

Completely agree!

I had a lecturer who made a big impression on me, who referred us to George Orwell as the the epitome of well written, elegant and readable prose. Surely the current critics would still think his work worthy of recognition?

I will probably be shouted down here, but can anything modern really compare with the classics. As a readeraholic and book lover, I am hard pressed to be able to remember anything written today very much after having read it. But Jane Austen, George Eliot, Dickens Mrs. Gatskill remain in my memory many moons later.

With regard to the Real Art/Literature debate, I always felt that if one was really an Artist, that meant one skillfully used the medium of one's choice to communicate with and/or evoke emotion in one's audience. If one's audience is left yawning or confused, then the medium has been misused and the "Artist" is a hack.

How right you are!

One thing I detest is taking a really good book and analyzing it to death... I love John Steinbeck and recently tried to read a book "about" The Grapes of Wrath. What a lot of twaddle! Why can't we enjoy really good, clever and readable books without trying to make ourselves seem more intelligent than we ought to be by ascribing strange and barely relevant meanings to every point and idea?

As for the person who suggested Barbara Pym... I agree! I love her books. And, while you're at it, give me a Miss Read any day!

Ooh, I've enjoyed reading this - post and comments. Your list: hermeneutics, exegesis, diagesis, mimesis, made me laugh (whilst reaching for the dictionary, I might add!).

I have just read and thoroughly enjoyed Room, and The Tiger's Wife, both recommendations from friends I love and trust rather then critics or 'experts'. I think it's the book rather than the author sometimes - I loved Dubliners but could not get into Ulysses at all. Having said that, I would happily re-read all of Wilde, Austen, Hardy, Maupassant, the Mitfords, Evelyn Waugh, Joanne Harris, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Bill Bryson over and over again!

Great post Jane. Reading is a non-competitive activity and book competitions are meaningless in my opinion.

And the Julian Barnes is everything a book should be, so lucky us and everyone wins!

I totally agree. I have been having a clean out of books that I feel like I am "supposed" to like and/or read. Just because they are considered a "classic" or have won a literary prize doesn't make them readable!

I find James Joyce impenetrable myself, even though I've attempted to read one of his short stories. It just got my hackles up that I couldn't get into his secret code of language. I'm with you Jane, a good yarn, beautifully told, which communicates well, is my bag. I'm currently reading Katherine Mansfield's short stories, and if there ever was a master of our language, it was her. She wields her words like Rembrandt wielded his brush, her descriptions literally take my breath away. Vanessa xxx

My feeling about a book is that if I like it, want to read it, enjoy the storyline, can be moved emotionally by the words and style, have chosen it myself for a particular mood, reason; learning or indulgent, I will buy it. Recommendations are not always useful but quite often it is the cover that appeals or the title, and that can result in some amazing discoveries!!! My current tempting title happens to be "If God were a Rabbit" . . .no idea what it is about or who the author is, but that title lingers on in my subconscious long enough to place it on my amazon wishlist for Christmas! Say no more!!!!

Here, here. (raises coffee cup)

it's so hard to sort books or to throw them even harder.I like collecting them but because I usually move quite often is hard to carry them along all the time.So now I borrow a lot from library,or buy,read and then take it to the charity.

I SO agree! I spent a year's hard graft in a book group and felt like it was the Emporor's New Clothes... nobody had the guts to shout how shit they all were! It would be great to share books which really are worth the reading.

The 'Yarnstorm Readers Group' anyone? Jane, I nominate you as our Leader....

I have been thinking about this post for a while. I am an American reader who is widely read. I have read lots of classics, rarely reread any books, however, the few books that I do reread are for comfort. Such as, I reread all my Dick Francis books that I read in high school and college again after my mother died four years ago. They were my comfortable escape and kept my mind away from the death for a few comfortable hours. On the other hand, I loved War and Peace and found it very readable despite its reputation, but couldn't get through Moby Dick. I think we need all kinds of books, serious and fun and sweet and even a bit of horror now and then, just as I need a caramel after my brussel sprouts!

I agree with your comments, Jane. So often "winning" books are not well-written, very readable, or interesting.

After reading the media comments concerning the Booker, I was happy this year with the judges' choice. However, like another of your readers, I had to give up with Howard Jacobson after weeks of trying to read it. In the end I only got two thirds through, and found it tedious, dull, too long, and cannot understand how it even found its way onto the short list! I was relieved to find I wasn't alone.

I do find myself looking at the synopsis of books in the long lists for inspiration for a "good" read. And the Booker readability debate certainly got me pondering too. But is it not all subjective? And even if it is readable is it always a good read? For example I find Jane Austin totally unreadable (there I've admitted it - shamelessly I do love the film adaptations), yet millions rave of her. Whereas Edith Wharton books I find I can romp through at ease.

One of the least readable journeys I "undertook" was Mill on the Floss by George Eliot but I can picture the characters and countryside in it now, and still consider it one of my favourite books after one read twenty years ago - perhaps it was its ardeous-ness (if there is such a word!) that means I do remember it well and hold it with such esteem!

I do find I'm less tolerant now of "unreadable" books, life's too short. That said I'm certainly not afraid of a challenging book!

PS. Nice collection of books there! I love Little Stranger... the opening chapter is one of the most atmospheric summer scenes I have ever read.

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