Against Readability

From The Millions:

In 2008, Anheuser-Busch ran a series of perplexing ads extolling Bud Light’s “drinkability.” What could it mean to say that a beer is able to be drunk? That it won’t kill you? That it does not taste completely terrible? That it is liquid, and so will run down your throat so long as you remain at least vaguely upright? “Bud Light keeps it coming.” Under most conceivable interpretations, “drinkable” seems insulting: this beer is not good, merely drinkable.

. . . .

I have been reminded of these Bud Light ads repeatedly since when perusing, of all things, book reviews, where “readable” has risen to become the preeminent adjective of praise. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch: “brilliantly readable.” Jonathan Franzen’s Purity: “Superbly readable.” The Girl on the Train, Room, The Martian, Gone Girl: “compulsively readable”

. . . .

A micro-history of cultural gatekeeping: once told by the censors what we may read, then by critics what we should, we are now told merely what we can read. What could it mean to say that a novel is able to be read? Composed of words that you can pass your eyes over one after another and comprehend? “Readable,” like “drinkable,” seems almost an insult: this book isn’t good, but you’ll be able to finish it. Readable books are full of familiar characters, familiar plots, and most especially familiar sentences. They are built up out of constituent commonplaces and clichés that one only has to skim in order to process.

. . . .

“Readable” has become the chosen term of praise in our times precisely because so many of us find ourselves unable to concentrate as we once could or still aspire to. But to praise readability is to embrace the vicious feedback loop that our culture now finds itself in. Short on concentration, we give ourselves over to streams of content that further atrophy our reserves of attention. Soon a 1,000-word polemic seems too long to drag oneself through, and we resort to skimming. So websites post yet shorter articles, even warn you how many minutes they will take to read (rarely double digits; will they soon warn us how long one takes to skim?).

. . . .

Readable fiction is not the problem; rather, “readable” as a — especially as our highest — term of praise is. Readability tells one precisely nothing about the quality of a novel. There are good and bad readable books; high, low, and most definitely middlebrow ones.

Link to the rest at The Millions

PG finds books about the Ottoman Empire readable. YMMV.

24 thoughts on “Against Readability”

    • That’s not what they’re using “readable” to mean, though. “A great read” is not the same as “greatly readable” which basically just means, “I could really read the heck out of this thing!” Like … congratulations? It sounds like the kind of thing you’d say if you can’t actually think of anything good to say about the book. The characters were crap, the plot was boring, the prose was dull, but dang, those words were able to be read.

      • That makes sense, but words don’t have to make sense — “readable” doesn’t just mean “able to be read”, it means “engaging, interesting, compelling”. Just like “walkable” doesn’t just mean “able to be walked”, but “convenient and simple to walk around in” and “loveable” usually just means “cute”.

        • Right.
          A readable book doesn’t need a dictionary or reading circle discussion to figure out. It also doesn’t put you to sleep in five minutes flat.

          It is inherently a pretty low bar but the fact that it is in play is proof that too many books fail to clear it.

        • +1
          my thoughts too. It means I was engaged with the content enough that the pages and hours flew by.
          As opposed to so many books that meander and drag and make me give up after just a chapter…

  1. Readability is such a common review tag because too many establishment-acclaimed titles aren’t. And at current prices experiences like THE GOLDFINCH have scared off many a buyer from litfic.

  2. I agree that it does sound like a sort of insult rather than praise. It also sounds pretty lazy, like the reviewer couldn’t come up with anything to actually say about it, so they’re basically just saying that they were able to continue reading the words until there were no words left.

  3. Readability appears to be shorthand for ‘i couldn’t put it down’, and there are certainly books like that. I don’t think it’s a reflection of the quality of the book. that is, books aren’t bad-but-readable. They can be bad, and they can be good, and they can be easy to put down or hard to put down.

    • I read this anecdote so long ago that I can’t possibly paraphrase it well, but I’ll try. Some snob said of Isaac Asimov’s prose, “It’s so clear. It’s so simple. Anyone could write that.” And one of his defenders responded, “Go ahead. You try it.”

      I aspire to Asimov’s level of readability. He both amused and educated me for most of my life.

  4. Readability, in regard to literary fiction is an apology for past literary fiction being too dull and a promise this one is different. It’s the result of too many readers being burned by book reviews in the past.

  5. I like this one and I agree with most of it.

    What I don’t like is when, in the [OP’s] comments, people take offense to his naming names and then call him an elitist snob (because trending toward average dullard or ignoramus is so much better for society).

    No. If you don’t like his stance, then pose a counterargument. Defend your dear book. Literary criticism isn’t about trying to protect anyone’s feelings. In fact, its practitioners have been, throughout history, utterly scathing–perhaps even more scathing than art, film, theatre, and music critics.

    S.T. Joshi is fun to read when he’s criticizing anyone but Lovecraft: he’s grown too fond of the man.

    (General “you” in my post. Yikes.)

    • The fundamental issue with the original article is he conflates readability of the prose with the quality of the book when the two qualities are totally independent.

      A book can be readable or “challenging” and be total crap or a masterpiece, independent of the readability factors.

      Examples abound in all four quadrants.

  6. Readable = easy to read. Accessible to most readers lacking a graduate degree in English Literature. If you have to be Harold Bloom to be able to read certain books, then they aren’t very readable.

    • This makes me think that, as a review, it only makes sense for literary fiction, since genre fiction is usually ‘readable’ by default and only remarkable in this way when it’s not.

  7. Buy my book: you are literally able to read it, because it’s readable, and you are literate. Enjoy!

    Seriously, though, I do find it high praise. To me, it means something about the book is compelling, resonates, and leaves the reader satisfied. That’s what I want in a book! If someone with the same tastes as me (or very similar) says a book is readable, it’s one I’m going to be interested in checking out.

  8. On beer: a minor moment of history here. Safe, drinkable water coming out of the tap everywhere in the USA is a pretty recent invention. (I know, it happened before the writer went to high school, so it’s Ancient History… but cultures change a lot more slowly than you think, and Ancient History still informs what we do today.) Therefore, there’s always been a demand for beverages that aren’t intended to be savoured, or lingered over; they’re intended to be drunk to stay hydrated. Bud Light et. al still fill this cultural role: if you want something to drink at a party, or at a sports game, or elsewhere, you want something that’s pleasant, not filling, keeps you hydrated, and won’t quickly get you drunk. Thus, Bud Light, Miller, Pabst, Rolling Rock, etc abound. As do Pepsi, Coke, Fanta, and so on, as well as the prevalence of coffee and tea in many parts of the world. The beer isn’t the point, and shouldn’t get in the way of what you’re doing.

    Similarly, there’s a great demand for genre books that are brain candy; they’re there to be an emotional catharsis, an escape, a pleasant diversion or bulkwark against boredom. They’re not meant to be full of “self-reflection” and “layered symbolism” or non-standard plots against modern storytelling: they’re there to entertain, and they’d better be entertaining enough to be worth beer money to the nurse who just came off a bad shift and wants something to take her mind off the past few hours and her sore feet.

    In summary, yes, there’s a lot to be said for a book that’s readable, paired with a beer that’s drinkable, while getting over a day that’s interminable.

  9. As a teacher I dealt with readability scales on a regular basis and various assessment tools were use to come up with the readability of a specific book. It was a matter of determining what age/grade the vocabulary, grammar and content would be best suited for.

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