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Take it as Read

Read Friday, 7 Jul 2017

Should we listen to advice on what books to read? Ulterior motives often lurk behind book recommendations, writes Sophie Quick.

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‘No one wants advice’, John Steinbeck said, ‘only corroboration’. He was onto something there; the business of advice-giving is basically unwholesome. Beware of any person seeking your counsel on romance, career or even book recommendations. If they don’t want corroboration, they want to flatter you or steal your job/boyfriend/copy of The Argonauts. And people offering advice should be treated with even greater suspicion. Too often, advice is a sneaky form of self-expression, even more annoying than regular acts of guerilla self-expression because you’re expected to be grateful for it.

Most of us know this, or at least suspect it, and we’ve all been on the receiving end of bad advice. But we carry on trading in the degraded currency of advice as though we don’t know it. There’s something about advice – giving it, receiving it, even reading it – that’s compelling and surprisingly addictive. The long-standing popularity of advice columns (and their user-generated digital equivalents) is testament to that.

Too often, advice is a sneaky form of self-expression.

Even people who are on their guard about advice on personal matters tend to think book recommendations are harmless. But that’s not always the case. Should we take advice – from friends, teachers, critics or celebrities – on what books to read? Only if we have absolute confidence in their taste, and only if we can be sure their motives are pure. Whenever anyone presses a volume into your mitts, hissing ‘You must read this!’, ask yourself these questions: Is this person trying to brag? Is this person trying to tell me something about themselves and their own identity? Does this person have evil plans for my future? (My dad is always trying to make me read The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. Going by the title and the author, it’s not a super exciting prospect. Also, Dad once suggested I consider joining the navy after I finished school. The whole thing has the salty whiff of nautical conspiracy.)

Wide of the mark

Famous authors are usually reticent when asked in interviews to recommend books and authors to young, aspiring writers. They usually play it safe, with the sage and reasonable suggestion that it’s a good idea to ‘read widely’. Years ago, a friend studying journalism told me his lecturer had advised his class to read everything: newspapers, trade magazines, junk mail, spam, conspiracy websites, everything. This seemed a sound suggestion for wannabe reporters looking for story ideas, even if time-consuming and logistically impossible, and it echoed a quote I’ve always loved from Haruki Murakami. ‘If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking’.

In 2009, with these second-hand words of wisdom rattling around in my head, I embarked on a fateful experiment. I went to a secondhand bookshop, stood before the discount box, closed my eyes and put my finger on a book at random. The book was Cherie Blair’s Speaking for Myself: The Autobiography.

I’m not normally one for political spouse memoirs, but the experiment started off promisingly. It was an engrossing book, in a car-crash kind of way. (The passage on how baby Leo was conceived during a visit with Tony to the Queen’s Balmoral residence was very absorbing, though not for the squeamish.)

But in the end, unfortunately, the endeavour turned very strange. I brought the book with me to the hospital when I went to get my tonsils out, and read the last ten pages in the waiting room before the operation. Later on, as I drifted in and out of druggy slumber – my throat a mess of scar tissue and my mind thick and fuzzy from general anaesthetic – I experienced many terrifying Cherie Blair apparitions. Some were scenes from the book (Cherie leading members of the Boilermakers Union in a rousing rendition of ‘The Leaving of Liverpool’) and others were misty scenes from my own semi-anaesthetised imagination (Cherie in surgical scrubs at the end of my bed, offering me a steaming flannel).

After I’d recovered, I returned to my own actual tastes. There was a new Howard Jacobson book out – The Finkler Question, the same book everyone else was reading – and I gobbled it up in a spirit of great relief.

Read it and weep

Still I persisted with reading advice experiments. Some years later, I saw a bibliotherapist. The idea behind bibliotherapy is that literature can help people deal with psychological and emotional problems – and it’s a form of expressive therapy that’s gaining some ground across the Western world. A bibliotherapist may or may not have qualifications in psychology or psychotherapy, but they will have a great knowledge of literature and the capacity to match books to specific people and their problems.

And so I went along to the School of Life’s bibliotherapist a couple of years ago for a work assignment – I was writing a light-hearted feature about the phenomenon of bibliotherapy, and how it works, for a magazine. It was an assignment I approached with some scepticism; bibliotherapy seemed like a bit of a gimmick, something that surely existed for press alone, and which no actual, real-life punter ever actually did or benefited from. Well, I was wrong.

Before the session, I had to fill out a very detailed questionnaire about my reading preferences and habits, but also about my problems, anxieties and feelings. Since I’m a pretty cagey sort of a person, I was never going to tell a stranger about my real problems in a work context. Instead, I described my reading problems and talked them through with my therapist. One of them was that I thought I could enjoy the work of Henry James – and yet consistently did not enjoy Henry James. Well, my bibliotherapist fixed all that. She told me to start on Washington Square (as ‘gateway James’), which I did and loved. Then I graduated to The Portrait of a Lady and even went on to seek out the Jane Campion film starring Nicole Kidman. The film was revelatory in its own way and got me pondering all sorts of unexpected questions, such as: Is it weird to get sexy with your cousin on his deathbed?

Cures and consolations

A work of fiction is never a cure and never claims to be.

The more I thought about it, after that, the more I warmed to the idea of bibliotherapy. As far as forms of therapy go, and approaches for giving and receiving advice, its claims are relatively modest. After all, what can literature really do for the human soul? A work of fiction is never a cure and never claims to be. At best, it’s a consolation. It might distract you from your problems, it might enthrall you, it might inspire you, it might make you laugh. It might reassure you that even if you’re an arsehole, you’re not as much of an arsehole as Mr Murdstone was to David Copperfield. It might remind you that even if your life sucks, it probably doesn’t suck quite as much as Celie’s in The Color Purple.

In our most profound reading moments, we might see our own experiences or anxieties described better than we can ever hope to describe them ourselves. Those moments of communion between writer and reader can feel momentous – and incredibly comforting – even if they don’t go anywhere near solving our actual problems.

So it’s possible, I guess, that when friends or family members urge you to read certain books that their motives are benevolent. It’s possibly that the book in question has delivered to them those intense occasions of revelation or pleasure or consolation, and that their sincere wish is for you to experience what they have experienced. They might even be familiar with your specific personal problems and hope that the book will speak to those problems in a way that will resonate. If that’s the case – and they’re substituting a book for their own personal words of hard-won wisdom – it’s probably best to go with the book.

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The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which we work. We pay our respects to the people of the Kulin Nation and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, past and present.