Is it alright to read books that are just alright?

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Are you throwing away the best years of your life on books that just aren’t worth it? When I looked back on the books I read last year, there were some that I could barely remember reading (more worryingly, some of them were books I’d read and reviewed).

I’ve become increasingly impatient of bad books, and if I’m not enjoying a book from the start, I’m much more inclined not to finish it than I used to be. About the only time I do plough on is if it’s an author I’ve previously enjoyed or a book that everyone insists is great. (The silver lining is that I find the reviews of books I’ve hated much easier to write!)

But what to do about books that I don’t hate but are just okay? The kind I finish, give four stars to on Goodreads and never think about again? There are so many great books out there that I’ll probably never get to, shouldn’t I stop wasting my time on books that are just alright?

In practice it’s not that easy. Isn’t it inevitable that large chunks of our lives will be just alright? Alright conversations, alright holidays, alright meals. Saying you’ll only read great books is like saying you’ll only go to great parties. You just don’t know till you get there.

Sometimes I’ll deliberately choose not to read a book I think will be great. If I’m feeling all scratchy and tired on a wet Wednesday night, I know I’m not going to read with my full attention. I’m not going to be moved by lyrical prose and attuned to every nuance of character in the way I’d like to be. I wouldn’t want to disrespect a great book, or let it go to waste. I just want something that’s good enough to turn the pages and help me unwind.

And don’t you sometimes need something that’s comfortingly ordinary, just for contrast? It’s like when you’ve been on holiday, dressing up and eating out all the time, and you just can’t wait to get home to your old cardigan and beans on toast.

Still, I do want to try and read fewer alright books. Lately I’ve felt that about most of the books I’ve read, which makes me suspect it’s not them, it’s me. Perhaps I need to read fewer books of all kinds.

So I’m going to cut back on the books I request for review. A good test is to only ask for books I’d otherwise be willing to buy. I’ve tried this before and failed. There are so many books on offer, and there’s always the fear of missing out.

I’ve discovered a few favourite authors by reviewing books I wasn’t sure I’d like. More often though, I’ve felt I should take a look at a book because everyone’s talking about it or because it’s a big name or just because it’s shiny and new.

It’s such a privilege to live at a time when we have so much access to free and cheap books, podcasts, TV etc. But it does bring the challenge of how to choose.

What about you? Do you feel you read too many ‘alright’ books? Or is that just the price you pay for being open-minded and reading widely?

17 Comments

  1. Great post. Totally agree with you. I was only talking about this type of thing to a friend the other day. I think in life be it holidays , food, books what ever. If your lucky, rich, whatever enough to have all the good stuff then doesn’t that just become ‘all right’ then where do you go for ‘great’ stuff. You need the ‘all right’ books to bench mark the great ones.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, I sometimes think that in trying to make everything great all the time (as per all those productivity/pop psychology books) you can end up exhausting yourself and feeling more discontented. Sometimes alright is alright!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. My own experience is very similar.

    1: Sometimes I don’t want an amazing, thought provoking book. Sometimes, a lot of the time even, I prefer a decent time-passer.

    2: Not every book will be amazing, and you need decent books to benchmark against the best and worst ones. You need a middle-of-the-road team to provide a point of comparison for the

    What I’ve found is that “just alright” books are harder than normal to REVIEW as opposed to simply read. Reading-yes, they’re good time-passers. Reviewing-well, it’s hard for me to say “it’s formulaic but all right” in detail compared to “I liked it a lot, here’s why” or “I didn’t like it, here’s why.”

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  3. I definitely found my percentage of “just alright” books went up when I discovered review copies, so I made a determined effort to do exactly what you suggest – I try to only request books for review that I would buy anyway. I also found joining the Classics Club concentrated my mind and got me back into a better balance of “good” books and “alright” books. But sometimes I just want something that doesn’t require a lot of brainpower or concentration, so on the whole I’ll always read some books that I don’t expect to take up permanent residence in my mind…

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    1. An interesting point, Anne. I find with ‘just alright’ books that there is almost always some spark of an idea that I can focus on so as to squeeze a bit of worthiness out of it: it may be an unusual viewpoint, a parallel or connection with another book or real world issue, or maybe a distinctive character that for me will lift it out of a three star category to a four. I may never read it again but looking for that germ of a concept often helps me write a difficult review that would otherwise be bland or, indeed, pointless.

      As for ‘forgetting loads’ (which I often do too!) I tend to keep a notebook handy to jot down notes (quotes, page numbers, key words, even timelines and family trees) and my own speculations, in the hopes that the subsequent review will be more coherent than otherwise! Doesn’t suit everyone, I know, but it works for me. 😊

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  4. Maybe three or four. I think if a book’s well written but doesn’t speak to me I’ll still give it 4, but if I think it’s flawed but still okay I’ll give it 3. But it’s not very scientific – sometimes it’s just about how I’m feeling on the day! It’s why I’m not that keen on star ratings.

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  5. I stopped asking for books to review from Goodreads and LibraryThing some time ago—life is indeed too short to spend on mediocre or just plain boring reads, as most of these I received were.

    But I still acquire more books—secondhand as well as new—than I am passing on for others to read, a bad habit I’m finding hard to kick. This habit is akin to yours of requiring comfort reads: they’re there as a fallback when I’ve had enough of ‘worthy’ reads or ones which are just too long to sustain interest at that time.

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  6. Agree on all. Sometimes your mind just needs a break–a “fluff” is ok. Sometimes great literature can be too much. I’ve been disappointed many times recently with historical fiction (a love of mine) when there are so many inaccuracies that should have been caught with basic fact-checking–something that apparently isn’t done anymore. On the whole, I think reading anything is fine. We all have moods to satisfy. Those aren’t all solved with works for the ages.
    Very good post!

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  7. i suppose in theory I would like to read only great books but, in reality, I tend to zoom in on one or two things, about whatever I’m reading, that seem pretty great and maybe, overall, the book would weigh out to be “alright” if all the aspects were judged simultaneously, but I’ve chosen to focus on the bits that I found worked for me in that moment. Maybe that’s just a story I spin for myself so I don’t feel so badly about all the time I spend reading what someone else would call mediocre? *laughs*

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  8. I think as long as you’re enjoying what you’re reading that’s good. I suppose what I was feeling was I was spending a lot of time not enjoying my reading, or wondering why I’d bothered to finish certain books. They aren’t necessarily mediocre, just books that don’t move me. In fact often it’s because other people have loved them that I feel obliged to find out what all the fuss is about!

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    1. Oh, yes, I do get what you mean there. Quite a few of the books in my stack are there because I feel like I need to keep an eye on the market or on what is resonating with a lot of readers in a given moment in bookish time, and often those are the books which I don’t find across-the-board satisfying. *nods* Maybe you can put a few pieces of fruit in the pudding, arrange the stack so you know you have a reliably good read in the next bite, even if you’re not chewing on it right this second, to mitigate the bland bits.

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