Against readability

Here’s a post by Ben Roth at The Millions: Against readability

This is the part that caught my eye:

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?

Yep, that’s where I laughed. Roth goes on:

… 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. … 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.

This post is, I’d say, highly readable … and yes, okay, that term does sounds strange, in a way it didn’t before Roth got going. Fine, then: it’s an entertaining post, though not necessarily too persuasive. That is, I’m not too sure about the direction Roth takes.

“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.

Uh huh. We, who? One rather has the idea that Roth does not include himself in the group of people who “find ourselves unable to concentrate.” This particular use of the first person plural is a way of saying, “Not ME, of course, and possibly not you, dear reader, but those other people — the greater part of the unwashed masses.” It makes me suspect condescension lies at the heart of this post.

Anyway, Roth then goes on to talk about readable fiction, meaning undemanding fiction sort of masquerading as literary fiction, and I do indeed lose interest because, yeah, whatever, literary fiction.

But this whole thing reminds me of another current term: relatable. I don’t like it. Now I wonder if part of the reason I don’t much care for the term is that, similar to “readable,” it seems to offer praise without much substance. “Relatable” — able to be related to — is this saying the reader finds the characters easy to relate to, perhaps without much effort or thought? Is that a good thing?

It strikes me, in other words, as sometimes trying to be a synonym for “likable” without quite using the term.

Because likable always sounds like a way of saying nice, I find myself suspicious of character described that way. I know I’m not alone, either. You see comments about “likable” characters fairly often.

Well . . . drinkable, readable, relatable, likable . . . those are words I don’t find myself reaching for when trying to describe anything. Perhaps Roth got that much right: none of those “able” words seem to actually say much.

The converse of each word seems to communicate much more vigorously, on the other hand. If I say I found a book unreadable, that’s a strong statement. Funny how putting un- in front of any of those words says more than the words themselves.

Anyway, “readable” — have you noticed the word recently and do you agree with Roth that it is at best faint praise?

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1 thought on “Against readability”

  1. I can’t say I’ve noticed the word “readable” as praise, but I’ve definitely seen the term “unreadable” as criticism. Now that I’m thinking about it, though, that does seem like hyperbole. No matter how poorly written a book is, it is still presumably able-to-be-read.

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