Gareth Roberts Gareth Roberts

The worst excesses of the Saintly Reading Cult 

Virginia Woolf (Credit: Getty images)

I read a lot of fiction. I always have. It’s not unusual for me to have three of four books on the go at the same time, which I read in rotation, a chapter at a time. I say this not as a brag. It just is. I do it because I really enjoy doing it. The fact that it might seem like a brag leads me to my point: there is nowadays an air of saintliness about reading, particularly reading fiction, that is very irritating. 

A publisher has just slapped a trigger warning on, of all things, Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse – and not for any specific reason, but just because it’s old so there’s probably something ‘wrong’ in it, somewhere. This follows the recent tradition of warnings and rewrites by the hallowed class of sensitivity readers, the monks of the new intersectional religion. 

The idea that a lot of reading inevitably makes you a lot wiser is obviously nonsense

Yes, they will preserve culture, but there will be notes appended and bits removed, in much the same way as translators once left the supposedly shocking bits of ancient texts untouched in the original Ancient Greek or Latin. Which, of course, only succeeded in sending schoolboys racing to the dictionary. 

I think this is just the most obvious manifestation of treating fiction with a hallowed tone. Being a reader has an air of saintliness. Reading is good for you, so you should be getting plenty of roughage and nutrition and books should come appended with a little official box listing their fat and salt content, and telling you if they count towards your five-a-day. 

We see this hushed, reverent attitude to fiction in its purest form with the children’s writing competitions, the less than subtle vying for status of pushy parents with their sprogs’ World Book Day costumes. Then there are the book clubs, the ghastly staff recommendations in bookshops and on Audible for improvingly correct righthink titles based not on their quality but on the politics or, worse, the mere physical appearance of the author. 

And then we have Goodreads, the source of much of this madness.

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