OPINION - I can’t give up on a book, even a bad one. It’s weirdly addictive

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 (Natasha Pszenicki)
(Natasha Pszenicki)

Certain phrases get stuck in your head, however long ago you heard them. “It’s your own time you’re wasting,” is one for me. I can hear immediately the world-weary way they were delivered by my primary school teacher.

I find it annoyingly patronising now as I did then. But as the years go by I do see the sense in it more and more — and I see more clearly what annoyed me about it. Just this week, tired from a long, grey January day I decided to relax in the evening with an unchallenging book — the history of Antwerp’s golden years could wait another day. I picked up a book I’ve been on-and-off with for months and which is part of a long cycle of novels. Within minutes, though, my peaceful literary repose was in ruins. I found myself wading through awful prose, rolling my eyes at cardboard characters, and groaning at the glacial and dull plot. It was bad. I could have hurled it across the room. And yet… I didn’t. Worse: I kept reading. It was my own time I was wasting, but why?

I confess: I’m a stay-the-courser. Once I’ve started a book, I don’t stop until I’ve finished. Madness, a friend told me recently over dinner — until one of our companions interjected and said he had the same problem. When asked why I stuck it out, I could only gesture vaguely towards a desire to see things through to the end and a sense of loyalty. Loyalty? To a book? What’s it going to do, console me if my girlfriend dumps me? It’s an inanimate object — it’s not that it doesn’t care, it literally can’t care.

Still, I can’t break the habit of a lifetime. It’s worse, though, than just sticking with books you start. What’s really inexcusable is spending your time reading a genuinely bad book. If you want to have a lot of fun reading something without having to engage your grey matter, the world is your oyster.

Just browse the most popular section at WHSmith and you’re bound to find a page turner, where the stronger elements are so good they make up for its weaknesses. In short: good-easy books yes, bad-easy books no. Except I can’t seem to follow that rule. And I seem to have demonstrated one reason there’s such a booming market for influencers, self-help books and smart thinkers who tell us how best to manage our time. If we really will persist in making foolish decisions, someone can make fools like these…

No doubt I could have a better time by picking up a good-easy book. There are rollicking stories galore out there. To be fair to this one, it does have moments when the plot picks up. They come towards the end, leaving me wanting to pick up the next one in the (interminable) cycle. Think of a chapter cliffhanger on steroids. But the problem isn’t with the book or with time management. The problem is with me. I could make smarter decisions. I could recognise my failings. But maybe it’s not such a problem — and maybe in fact it’s one of life’s odd pleasures. It is my time I’m wasting. And I’ll waste it how I want.

In other news...

Ava Gardner shows that to be accepted as truly great, we like our stars to suffer

Ava: The Secret Conversations got a bit of a pasting from the Standard’s theatre critic, Nick Curtis. And while I agreed with every word of his review, I couldn’t help but enjoy the play. Let me explain.

Elizabeth McGovern’s Ava Gardner was the picture of faded glamour — and completely irresistible. Gardner was a Hollywood beauty plucked from obscurity who starred in the major motion pictures of the Fifties and had four husbands, including Frank Sinatra. She died in Knightsbridge at 67 from pneumonia. McGovern portrayed Ava as always having a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other. On stage she was both pitiable and fearsome.

Afterwards, I wondered whether that’s the price we charge those who want to reach stardom: that fame’s gilding covers up a life close to ruin. It’s a cruel toll, when you think about it, that to be accepted as truly great, we like our stars to suffer.

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