...we are anxious about not having read the great works of literature. So we buy them to silence that anxiety. We present our purchases to the sales assistant with a superior look, and then cry a little inside on the bus home as we realise that we are now going to have to read the monstrous things in the bag on the seat next to us, some of which seem to be in foreign languages that we never took the trouble to learn.
But we only rarely overcome this anxiety. Hence reader's block. We start (War and Peace, Proust, Goethe, Anne Enright's Booker-winning The Gathering), but we don't finish: we leave them on page 42 in the loo, a constant reminder of our lack of resolve. That, incidentally, is why there is a global shortage of bookmarks.
Despite my appearance as a fervent bibliophile, I know this phenomenon very well indeed - suffered from it, in fact, for much of my teenage years. From being a precocious, voracious reader as a child, by the age of thirteen I found it difficult to commit to any book beyond the least challenging (although with characteristic and embarrassing intellectual snobbishness I wouldn't touch anything remotely pulpy - no Babysitter's Club, no Goosebumps, no Point Romance, no Judy Blume, even). This went in cycles, with six months of struggle followed by a period where I read everything I could lay my hands on, with the hunger of a person who hasn't eaten for days, and about as much discrimination. Even now, my reading is sporadic at best, because the last thing I want to do when I've spent all day in the library is to settle down with another book, and even in the holidays, I tend to waste my days reading blogs and watching tv on the internet (never daytime tv - see previous parenthesis on intellectual snobbery). Not because I intend to, but because once I've started it's hard to stop. Like chocolate.
In fact, I've come to the opinion that reading is very much like exercising. As in, you have to train for it. No-one would expect someone to run a marathon without training for months and drinking those scary energy shakes and mainlining carbohydrates. So why are we expected to be able to dive straight into Crime and Punishment and read it comfortably, beginning to end, no problem, thank you very much? Penguin published a bookmark for War and Peace on which was printed a glossary of the names and potted biography of all the important characters who appear in the book; that this was even contemplated shows how difficult the thing is to follow - no one printed such a bookmark for Winnie the Pooh, did they?
The fact is, to get to Tolstoy level, or Dickens level, even to get to Austen level (which, in the case of Emma, I still have yet to achieve), takes work. It takes adjustment, familiarity with a more complex syntax, unfamiliar vocabulary. It takes time and energy. We recognise the difficulty of reading a novel written in dialect - Trainspotting, say, or Londonstani - why not Dickens?* So rather than tackling the marathon head on, one must first run round the block; warm up with "easier" books and progress slowly to the harder, maybe with so-called "modern classics". After my GCSEs, I read Brideshead Revisited and Catch-22, making the most of my academic fitness, and having worked up to it by reading Vile Bodies (a similarly excellent Waugh book, in my eyes, and always sidelined).
The article includes six tips to beating reader's block from National Literacy Trust director Jonathan Douglas, all of which I'd recommend, all of which have worked for me. It's always worth giving up a book you're strugging with - it doesn't mean you're a failure, it just means the book isn't right for that moment. I had to start Wuthering Heights three times, before my interest was caught. And then I couldn't put it down.
Moreover, I resent any implication that unless you're reading Dostoevsky you're somehow Not A Proper Reader. My mother and I had a recurring argument for about seven years about how I didn't read "properly". Never mind that I wasn't out getting drunk or impregnated, she couldn't bear it that I wasn't devouring the classics. The classics bore me, quoth I, with the sweeping generality characteristic of teenage opinion. She practically disowned me on the spot, and I'm sure that my Professor of English grandfather was turning in his grave. I've moved on since then, and I romped through North and South last term (yea, verily, during termtime!) but that opinion remains only marginally unchanged. It currently stands at "Many classics bore me". But I feel fairly certain this will change as I grow up, although perhaps only if I keep myself in training. The signs are good: after all, the classics I've actually managed to get through are almost all now on my Favourites list - Middlemarch, Persuasion, Jane Eyre, Grapes of Wrath and so on. That they are scattered among Melissa Nathan's The Nanny, Eva Rice's The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets, and everything written by Terry Pratchett, or that His Dark Materials is counter-balanced by the Georgia Nicholson books by Louise Rennison, is neither here nor there. Leaving aside the fact that those books are excellent (and I will expound on why at exhaustive length given the slightest encouragement, so don't let me start), reading them keeps me in training for tackling the harder stuff, gives variety, and quite simply, is a lot of fun. Better to read a Georgette Heyer than nothing at all. But it's also worthwhile to give a "classic" a bash now and then, if only to see if you can do it. After all, you may surprise yourself, as I have, and discover a favourite for life. Or not, but at least you tried - and will be in good company.
*At least everyone admits Ulysses is virtually unreadable.