“O sir, we quarrel in print, by the book”

As You Like It, Act 5, Scene 4

William Shakespeare

I’m sure all of us have been inspired at some point by a particularly impressive or evocative quotation that seems to put its finger on exactly what we feel. Yet having seen a new piece of art incorporating all sorts of quotes at the Affordable Art Fair in Hampstead, I got to thinking about those that I simply don’t agree with.

For example, P.J. O’Rourke once advised:

“Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.” 

P.J. O'Rourke
P.J. O’Rourke

The idea of reading something simply to make yourself look good is naturally not incomprehensible to me, since writing a personal statement and interviewing for university places is all about making yourself look well-read. But whilst I’ve tried to read quite a few of the so-called  ‘canonical works’, the well-respected authors, like Dickens, Austen, Bronte, Trollope, Hardy, etc., I’ve also read my fair share of chick-lit. If I died in the middle of reading ‘Christmas at Tiffany’s’ (Karen Swan), I certainly wouldn’t be ashamed; at least I died reading something that makes me happy. Yeah, you can totally guess who the heroine ends up with from the first chapter; yeah, it’s inconceivable how many over-dramatic things happen to her in just one year; yeah, it doesn’t really have a deep and meaningful message and the writing isn’t the best I’ve ever read, but who cares? I’d rather die in the middle of that than perish by over-straining my brain trying to read George Eliot.

Haruki Murakami reportedly said:

If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”

Haruki Murakami
Haruki Murakami

Just… no. Absolutely not true. The heated debates in book forums, the varied reviews in newspapers and blogs and simply talking to your friends should be enough to show how wrong this is. Everyone has a different interpretation of a book; as Edmund Wilson said: “No two persons ever read the same book”. And just to back my argument up further (and to show off my literary nerdness), look at Roland Barthes’ theory of ‘The Death of the Author’, which maintains that the authors’ intentions when writing a book don’t matter; English isn’t about reaching a certain point where we can all agree on what the author meant, it’s about examining all the different interpretations there can possibly be and then choosing which one you personally believe to be true. Naturally, you have to back your theories up with something, like in Science, but the same piece of evidence can be used to prove about a gazillion different interpretations. So a whole book group might read ‘Madame Bovary’ (Gustave Flaubert – I’ve just finished it!), and one could view the eponymous heroine as a passionate woman restricted by society, one might completely disapprove of her adulterous actions and condemn her; one possibly will see the moral of the story as you should be satisfied with what you have, another that we must strive for true love above all else… The possibilities are endless, even though they have all read the same book.


And finally…*whispers* J.K.Rowling.

J.K.Rowling: Not always right
J.K.Rowling: Not always right
Now, Potterfans, let it be understood I am in no way disrespecting your queen. I just find it hard to totally agree with her idea that:

“Books are like mirrors: if a fool looks in, you cannot expect a genius to look out.”

Now, obviously this is, to an extent, the truth.  I don’t believe any book can so dramatically make someone wiser, even if it’s the best and most intelligent novel around. However, I do think that books do have an impact on intelligence. I’m not saying people who don’t read are stupid, and I’m not saying a person who reads ridiculous amounts is necessarily any the wiser.

Saying this, I feel personally that reading has definitely helped me become cleverer, if not wiser. Books have given me characters to aspire to be like, characters that can’t let me down, because they’re always there, and they’re always perfect. Books have shown me the error of so many heroes’ ways and let me learn from their mistakes without having to make them myself (although some of them I probably will). Books have proven that every character has a flaw; that some change and some don’t; that we are all completely different, and yet at the same time very similar; that failure doesn’t necessarily mean the end; that success is only the beginning.

I would hope at least some of the time I’ve spent reading has made me a better person. I may not be a genius, but I’m confident that I’m not a complete fool either.

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