In Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell popularised the theory of the ‘10,000-hour rule’, saying that in order to master any given subject to a world-class level, you need to devote at least ten thousand hours to practicing it.
I’m not sure if I’ve spent that amount of time writing yet, but I know I have spent tens of thousands of hours reading.
I am a world-class reader.
I was lucky enough to have parents who read to me and my sister at night time, and who didn’t think that books were a waste of time or money.
My mother would take us to Clonakilty library every Saturday, and I would sequester myself in a little nook, completely captivated by whatever world I had found myself in that day. I was a child who needed to read; it was as important to me as food or sleep.
When I went to a friend’s house, the first thing I would do is check her bookshelves to see if she had any novels that I hadn’t read. I got into trouble in school for for reading under my desk when I was supposed to be studying, and for bringing my book to the playground at lunch and ignoring all my friends.
At night, I pretended that I was afraid of the dark and asked my dad to leave the door open, and would then read in the sliver of light from the landing.
When my parents became wise to my game, I saved up my pocket money and bought a torch. It’s a wonder I’m still alive, given my predilection for walking down the road, my head stuck in a book, oblivious to the traffic. My habit was becoming expensive, and libraries saved me from going broke: Firstly, the library in Clonakilty; then, at Trinity.
When I moved to New York, the first thing I did was find my local library in Brooklyn. (Fun fact — apparently, Cecelia Ahern was the most popular Irish author in Cortelyou Road library; they had all of her books.) I didn’t have a smart phone and I had an hour-long commute to the ELLE office in midtown, so I did what I always did to keep my brain occupied: I read books.
When I came home to Ireland, broke and unsure of my future, I went back to Clonakilty library and renewed my library card. Within a few months, I was on first-name basis with the staff. The library felt like a safe space, where books and stories and words were important, sacred, worthy of love; just as the library was when I was a child and I would walk through its doors on a Saturday morning, wondering at the worlds I would visit that day, the lives I would inhabit, all without leaving west Cork.
Today, I’m sent countless copies of advance novels and I also try and buy as many books as I can, as a means of supporting both my local bookshops and the authors.
However, I still hold such affection for libraries and I will argue with my dying breath that they play a vitally important role in our communities and must be protected at all costs. So, I ask you: if you’re not a member of your local library, why not? It’s a brilliant way of saving money (and the author receives a small royalty whenever you borrow their book!), and it affords you the opportunity to take risks, to read that book that you’re not entirely sure of, but don’t want to spent €15 on, in case you read two chapters and abandon it.
Libraries have free newspapers and magazines, you can borrow DVDs, there are often author talks and book clubs, not to mention free internet access, and, speaking from experience, they are a wonderful place to bring your children, if you want to foster their imagination and creativity.
If you’re afraid of that €20m you owe on a book you borrowed in 1998 and never returned, fines were recently abolished for overdue items. The national library website says that “we are encouraging members of the public to return undamaged, overdue library items… there will be no overdue fines to pay and we would be happy to reactivate your library membership, for you to begin using your local library again.”
So, what’s your excuse? I know there can be a snobbishness around literature, as if the act of reading a novel somehow bestows on you a moral superiority over people who prefer music or television or movies. I don’t subscribe to that.
I think that idea is exclusionary, especially to those who have literacy difficulties. (Maybe that’s why I love libraries so much, because it’s a democratisation of literature; it is, by its very nature, intended to be inclusionary.)
But, please, don’t be put off by the mythologising — it’s as simple as finding the books that you enjoy, rather than the ones the critics have deemed worthy. Don’t class them as ‘guilty pleasures’; there is no shame in pleasure! Listen to books on Audible or CD, if you find reading difficult. Books are just stories, and stories — the act of telling and the listening to them — are what make us human.
Someone Great on Netflix. After being dumped by her boyfriend, Jenny decides a wild night is exactly what she needs. Funny, fresh, and a banging soundtrack? Sign me up.
The Goop podcast. I know many people find Gwyneth Paltrow insufferable, but I really like this podcast. With guests as varied as Gabor Maté on addiction, Alain de Botton on relationships, to Oprah on, well, Oprah, it’s thought-provoking stuff.
- Louise O’ Neill is the author of Only Ever Yours, Asking For It, Almost Love, and The Surface Breaks