We’re not here to read for marks.
In 2014 I attended a poetry masterclass in Nairobi and something the speaker said about our love and hate for poetry stayed with me. He said that we all loved poetry at some point in our lives – as children. I remember some people giving him weird looks and he clarified by reciting Hey Diddle Diddle in this cool reggae style with music in the background, and people got excited and sang along. He then explained that what interrupted that love for poetry was when we progressed in school and in poetry lessons we were asked things like, “What does the poem mean?” and “What was the poet’s intention?” and all of that jazz.
How true is this? I mean, I haven’t met a child who hates nursery rhymes. It’s not just the musical element we bring into it, the singing, clapping and dancing, but even when you read it and it still has that rhyme, kids still enjoy it.
I can relate to what he said because when I did poetry in school I hated it. It was because I had to answer all these internal questions about the poem. One thing that I remember was the fear. The fear of not understanding the poem or the poet’s emotions and intention. The fear of not being able to interpret the poem at the same intellectual level as the poet. All of that didn’t just steal the enjoyment of poetry but it also made me hate it.
This is not too far from the dislike of books that some non-readers have, the classroom-style of reading can easily get in the way. Reading with the intention of being tested or examined can be an obstacle to reading. It’s certainly not the only or main reason people don’t read but it does have a role to play. Also, many people don’t study textbooks because they are so in love with them but because they have to.
I never used to share much about my reading because I wasn’t able to answer the question, “Oh, what’s the book about?” That question used to choke me up because I always thought I had to go beyond the blurb and give an intelligent answer that included a description of the book as well as my clear and intelligent understanding of the book. This was worse with non-fiction.
At some point, I decided to brave it and write reviews but after some time I stopped. The same old fear crept in and I doubted if I was doing it right. This fear worsened when a bookseller, publisher or author would give me free books and ask me to read and review them. With these requests, I placed a heavy duty on my shoulders to write reviews that were as incredibly written as the books I was reviewing. It was almost as if I wanted my writing to outshine the author’s writing. Dumb, right? I know. So I sort of reduced my sharing of what I read, to avoid questions that I doubted I could answer.
I think that some people, not reviewers specifically, have a similar fear. It’s not necessarily having to say what the book’s about but also the fear of not understanding the book. This is especially with non-fiction books that could have industry jargon and all of that. The perceived inability to comprehend the book can easily discourage a person. This is probably why you hear some non-readers say that they don’t read because it’s for ‘smart people’. Friends, we read so we can be as smart, if not smarter.
Here’s the thing; who cares about whether you understood the book or not? On average, I read a book a week (it used to be in three days pre-motherhood) and to be honest with you, there are still some books I don’t fully understand. I can get an idea of what the book is about but at the end of it, I’ll still not have much to take away from it or to understand. I still don’t understand Shakespeare! (Spellcheck just corrected my ‘Shakespear’ spelling).
I also tried Homer’s Iliad and gave up. I recently read Zadie Smith’s Swing Time and all I know is that there’s something about race and dancing in it. I attempted Teju Cole’s Open City and my brain refused to cooperate. I went through all of Eric Ries’s The Lean Startup and…do not ask. I just gave some of them away and put others back on the shelf with the hope that I might reread and understand them. And it’s totally okay.
Some people won’t even start because of this expectation. You know what, sometimes the book is just plain boring. There are writers who can fill up 300 pages with so much bombast that were it to be eliminated it would all come to less than half of the pages. Don’t be too hard on yourself.
Don’t intimidate yourself. I’d also recommend that you read what you think would interest you and not because it’s a popular read. Popular reads can sometimes live up to their reputation but don’t forget that we are different and what we like and enjoy is different. I know someone who’s not a reader and they started with Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss, and they attempted to read it novel-style. Have you seen the size of that thing? He hasn’t read anything since that attempt.
So, I’d suggest that you start small and simple. You are reading for your own benefit and there’s no obligation to explain to anyone what your book is about. While we’re at it, to deal with the worry of having to understand or explain to people, read The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson.
You’re not reading a textbook and you’re not reading for marks so drop the classroom habit of reading. Read for you. If you don’t get it, toss it and try another one. Just keep on reading, it’s a journey worth taking.