He starts of discussing our (almost) pathological need to slag certain books and authors off. For me, V.S Naipul is one of those authors as is Kazuo Ishiguro, and for the life of me I cannot see why anyone would enjoy the God of Small Things. That apart, this is what really stood out for me:
I love his honesty, by the way. I definitely feel very smug when I've read something the whole world and its uncle has recommended, and I come out feeling distinctly underwhelmed. The Line of Beauty is an example.
We often read books that we think we ought to read, or that we think we ought to have read, or that other people think we should read (I'm always coming across people who have a mental, sometimes even an actual, list of the books they think they should have read by the time they turn 40, 50, or die); I'm sure I'm not the only one who harrumphs his way through a highly praised novel, astonished but actually rather pleased that so many people have got it so wrong.
More important though is the 'ought to read'. I do this all the time - I look at the Booker shortlist and Pulitzer nominees, not to mention the Orange Prize, and I make a conscious effort to read those so-called 'good books', even if I knew that I would not like them. I read them because they are 'worthy' and as a bibliophile I am expected to read them. A while back I became totally overwhelmed with the sheer volume of what I could read, and as a result, the first thing I cut out was pulp, stuff like Robin Cook and Ken Follett. (I have to say I don't miss those).
Again, Hornby puts it incredibly well:
I find, taking my steps in the adult world of actually having to work for a living, that I have less and less time to read. This is in part due to the fact that I am attempting to read books that are hard work. So even though I begin reading it, its extremely slow going, because after getting home from work, what I want to do is watch TV (especially since there is such a plethora of good programming on), or in my case, download episodes of my favourite shows and watch them on Scheherazade (my laptop, for the two people who read this blog).
I am not particularly interested in language. Or rather, I am interested in what language can do for me, and I spend many hours each day trying to ensure that my prose is as simple as it can possibly be.
But I do not wish to produce prose that draws attention to itself, rather than the world it describes, and I certainly don't have the patience to read it. (I suspect that I'm not alone here. That kind of writing tends to be admired more by critics than by book-buyers, if the best-seller lists can be admitted as evidence: the literary novels that have reached a mass audience over the past decade or so usually ask readers to look through a relatively clear pane of glass at their characters.)
I am not attempting to argue that the books I like are 'better' than more opaquely written novels; I am simply pointing out my own tastes and limitations as a reader.
To put it crudely, I get bored, and when I get bored I tend to get tetchy. It has proved surprisingly easy to eliminate boredom from my reading life.
And boredom, let's face it, is a problem that many of us have come to associate with books. It's one of the reasons why we choose to do almost anything else rather than read; very few of us pick up a book after the children are in bed and the dinner has been made and the dirty dishes cleared away.
We'd rather turn on the television. Some evenings we'd rather go to all the trouble of getting into a car and driving to a cinema, or waiting for a bus that might take us somewhere near one.
This is partly because reading appears to be more effortful than watching television, and usually it is; although if you choose to watch one of the American HBO series, such as The Sopranos or The Wire, then it's a close-run thing, because the plotting in these programmes, the speed and complexity of the dialogue, are as demanding as a lot of the very best fiction.
One of the problems, it seems to me, is that we have got it into our heads that books should be hard work, and that unless they're hard work, they're not doing us any good.
Of course, this is an incredibly personal choice to make - which book to read. One person's opaque may be another's accessible. Like Hornby says:
I am not trying to say that the book itself was the cause of this anguish. I can imagine other people racing through it, and I can certainly imagine these two people racing through books that others might find equally daunting.And then he rakes the media over for their part in fostering the need to feel intellectual by reading 'good' books:
It seems clear to me, though, that the combination of that book with these readers at this stage in their lives is not a happy one.
If reading books is to survive as a leisure activity - and there are statistics that show that this is by no means assured - then we have to promote the joys of reading, rather than the (dubious) benefits.
I would never attempt to dissuade anyone from reading a book. But please, if you're reading a book that's killing you, put it down and read something else, just as you would reach for the remote if you weren't enjoying a television programme.
Your failure to enjoy a highly rated novel doesn't mean you're dim - you may find that Graham Greene is more to your taste, or Stephen Hawking, or Iris Murdoch, or Ian Rankin. Dickens, Stephen King, whoever.
It doesn't matter. All I know is that you can get very little from a book that is making you weep with the effort of reading it. You won't remember it, and you'll learn nothing from it, and you'll be less likely to choose a book over Big Brother next time you have a choice.
'Indeed, the carriages are full of people exercising their intellects the full length of their journeys. Yet somehow, the fact that millions daily devour thousands of words from Hello!, The Sun, The Da Vinci Code, Nuts and so on does not inspire the hope that the average cerebrum is in excellent health. It's not just that you read, it's what you read that counts.'
This sort of thing - and it's a regrettably common sneer in our broadsheet newspapers - must drive school librarians, publishers and literacy campaigners nuts.
In Britain, more than 12 million adults have a reading age of 13 or less, and yet some clever-dick journalist still insists on telling us that unless we're reading something proper, we might as well not bother at all.
But what's proper? Whose books will make us more intelligent? Not mine, that's for sure. But has Ian McEwan got the right stuff? Julian Barnes? Jane Austen, Zadie Smith, E.M. Forster? Hardy or Dickens?
Those Dickens-readers who famously waited on the dockside in New York for news of Little Nell - were they hoping to be educated? Dickens is literary now, of course, because the books are old.
But his work has survived not because he makes you think, but because he makes you feel, and he makes you laugh, and you need to know what is going to happen to his characters.
And that, gentle readers, is why we should read: not because it makes us feel like we're intelligent, but because it gives us pleasure. Don't be apologetic if you loved the DaVinci Code, or if you couldn't care less about The Brothers Karamazov. If its hard work, it may be worth it, but if its hard work and you hate it, well, this isn't your job. You really can just choose to not read it.
And on that note - comment, and then go read.