THE BLOG

Reading Books Will Ruin Your Life

26/04/2013 17:55 | Updated 26 June 2013

The more books you read, the more miserable you are.

I know this because I work in a bookshop and you simply cannot find a person who has read more books and is more miserable than me.

Booksellers generally fall into three categories: pathological bookworms, frustrated writers and people who, regardless of age, haven't quite figured out what to do with their lives yet. Some of us are all three. Most are underachieving intellectuals and many are depressed, because bookselling is a very depressing business.

For one thing, we get paid very little to know rather a lot. We are paid to sell bad books and books we haven't read, though we always pretend that we've read everything. In fact, we are actually paid in books, which we have trouble finishing.

The hours are long and hard and there is a lot of shelving involved, moving books from one place to another in hope that they might sell better somewhere else... under the window perhaps, or next to the fire escape. There aren't many customers, or staff, or even books on occasion. Those who leave the company are not replaced and those who remain are rewarded their responsibilities, like some eerie, bibliophilic dystopia. The place has the feel of a sinking ship adrift in the ocean, a legendary ghost town of days gone by, a place of which people have fond memories but no longer care to visit.

Today's well-connected customer comes only to browse the books they will later buy online, or not at all. Some bring coffee and notepads, staking out sofas and breaking spines in order to finish their term paper on tax law. Teenagers descend in packs, howling as they finger through compendiums on ghosts or Satanism, abandoning books in amusing, strategically-placed locations -- the Bible in Fantasy, Harry Potter in Gay Fiction... You can't stop people reading in bookshops, can you? Though many a bookseller may dream of it.

For a while we will fight valiantly against the modern age. People will still buy books but from the marauding Amazonians or at Tesco when shopping for groceries, reducing high-street bookshops to antiquated literature museums. Eventually, inevitably, technology will leave us behind. The reading-machines will take over.

Yes, times are hard in the shadow of the tyrannical Amazon, which, in its desire to take over the world, has turned bookshops into libraries.

My bookshop is very old and historic, Grade II listed. It looks more like a Dickensian library than a bookshop, with a towering glass ceiling and an imperial staircase leading to a mezzanine with palatial cornices and pillars. From the outside it appears to be a magisterial building but really it is a sandcastle, a labyrinth of powder and bones, full of phantom rooms and doors to condemned corridors. It is old and mould infested. The roof is leaking. The walls are crumbling. The clock symbolically stopped ticking long ago. There are cobwebs and moths, birds in the attic and everything is dusty, especially the books.

One day, books will be like antiques. A standard paperback will cost hundreds of pounds depending on the year and edition. War and Peace will be out of print. And I will be an old lady with only dreams of ghosts of cats, telling the illiterate kids on the block how these same streets were once paved in books, each one costing less than a halfpenny.

Perhaps it is for the best. There must be a bright side to this literary extinction. After all, as I have already established the amount of books one reads is directly related to one's level of depression. For once you've gone in search of Moby Dick, stolen dragon gold with Gandalf and sailed on the Hispaniola, real life seems dispiritingly oblique.

The power of fantasy is that it is more real, more evocative and profound than reality itself. It parodies reality and caricatures it; it exaggerates and elaborates it. Its tragedies are more tragic, its romances more romantic, its comedies funnier and its dramas more dramatic.

As children we first become disenchanted by the betraying deceit of fairytales, by the absence of dashing princes and anthropomorphic sidekicks with lively one-liners. The wardrobe does not lead to Narnia. There is no Platform 9¾. As adults we fail to find romantic partners we covet more than our Byronic heroes. Eventually we will retreat into a hermitic cocoon, a swaddling bird-like nest. We will build a fort with our many books and become literary recluses.

Most people will tell you that reading is an enriching experience. They will tell you that if you don't read books you're an ill-educated moron and they're almost certainly right, but you'll be far better adjusted as an ill-educated moron, I guarantee it.

If it weren't for books I might have been normal. I might have been happy. But books ruined me. Even now, so many years later, I am still their faithful slave. I love and I hate. I long to be free but I can never escape. I am like a mad Jeremiah ranting uselessly at God: "O BOOKS, you have enticed me and I was enticed; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed!"

So let this be a warning - if you read too much you'll get wild ideas in your head. You'll think yourself Ulysses or Don Quixote. You'll go off in search of the all-encompassing experience but you'll never find it. You'll be a washed up almost-thirty-year-old who works thirteen and a half hours at a dilapidated bookshop with no future. You'll think you're going to be a great writer when you grow up one day, penning the kind of fantastical tales that made your life such a sad disaster, thus ensuring the prolific disappointment of generations to come. But you'll probably be wrong.

That's just reality.