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All Books Are Good, If We Want To Expand Our Minds

Posted at 12:20PM Thursday 26 Apr 2012

MARC LAMBERT, head of the Scottish Book Trust, argues that we should never be limited in what we read

It is often said, by those who are made desperate by the poor reading habits of others, (usually their children), that it doesn't matter what they read, as long as they are reading.

But this is true only up to a certain point. Because, no matter what age you are, it does in fact matter what you choose to take into your brain by way of reading content.

At a simple level, we can say that if you confine yourself exclusively to Mills & Boon type titles (like my sister-in-law), not only are you missing out on many other books which deal with the same issues more sophisticatedly (Austen's Pride and Prejudice for example), you may also be reinforcing a somewhat unreal view of relations between the sexes.

Sure, this may be harmless enough (unless you end up paying the price emotionally), but it does represent a kind of self-limiting which is against the agency and spirit of reading itself: as Alberto Manguel once said: "We read to encounter minds that are larger than our own."

This is very much my view too. Literature in all its forms is a playground; we should not be afraid to plunge in and have fun by reading widely and adventurously.

Equally we should not be afraid of ditching a book, however "worthy", if it is boring us. The best reading is ecumenical: it takes in as wide a selection of texts as possible in order to develop a rich and healthy reading diet.

In my own reading I derive huge enjoyment and profit from texts as diverse as Tintin, DC Comics, children's books, scifi, crime, non-fiction and high literature such as Tolstoy or some other master of the written word.

All of it is mine, and all of it adds to my world. And the same goes for everyone, potentially.

Self-limiting is as bad in reading as it is in any other facet of life. A self-limiting reader denies themselves the chance of the discovery and revelation that might expand their world and their mind. And there is a decidedly darker side to this too.

Take, as an extreme example, Anders Brevik, the sociopathic Norwegian who is currently standing trial for killing over 70 people last summer in an utterly cold-blooded and monstrous way.

From everything he has said since then, it is clear that his view of the world and especially multiculturalism and Islam has been formed by reading hate literature.

Brevik had a distinct project, and everything that he read needed to conform to that. Whatever didn't he ignored, since it didn't reinforce his prejudices and sociopathic desires.

Things might have been different if he had bothered to inform himself properly by reading, for instance, something like Jonathan Lyons' marvellous The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization.

The same kinds of issues pertain also to the recent London Book Fair, which this year had China as its featured nation. Here, limiting was taking place too, albeit on a state-sanctioned level, as the Chinese writers and publishers involved had to be approved by the Chinese Government.

This, quite rightly, gave rise to protests, not least from Ma Jian, (one of my favourite writers), who smeared himself with red paint in protest, declaring: "In this book fair that looks so modern, so impressive, so beautiful, you will not see the ugly reality that lies behind, you will not see the Tibetan lamas who have set fire to themselves, you will not hear the voices of the writers who are persecuted in China."

And, he added, the situation was "a dishonour to the values that make western civilisation so strong".

This last phrase represents a serious admonishment to us. What in fact are the values to which he refers? That's a very complicated question, and one I don't have the time or space to address here. But of one thing we can be sure: they do not include literature as limitation. Literature exists to expand our world, not make it more narrow.

Marc Lambert is CEO of Scottish Book Trust, Scotland's leading agency for the promotion of literature, reading and writing. Visit for suggestions of great books that you might like to try.

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