Friday, March 30, 2012

Some thoughts on "serious" books and reading

Apparently we must be going through another wave of book snobs looking down on plebeian readers. This week I have seen at least two pieces on the subject of the serious reader:

  • Via Book Riot, "A Very UnSerious Reader, Indeed" by Dr. Brenna Clarke Gray. This is a defense of the non-serious reader pretty much. 
  • Via The New York Times, "Adults Should Read Adult Books" by Joel Stein. I came across it at the librarian hangout of FriendFeed here, where Stein's "satire" (as it has been suggested) has gotten some attention. If it is satire, I think Mr. Stein needs to go back and look up the definition of the word satire. 
 This debate seems to flare up any time you get some over-hyped, popular, and light (or perceived as such) book. The Hunger Games, to pick the current example, is probably many things, but it is not War and Peace nor The Feast of the Goat, again, to pick some contrasting examples. The debate flares up once the hype hits a certain mass-- lots of people are reading it, readers of various ages and demographics; the book is covered in every book blog and news source to the point of saturation, and if Hollywood makes a movie out of it, then the snobs really take off. We got the same phenomenon when the Harry Potter books came out, and it will happen again when the next big hype book comes along. It's a cycle pretty much.

The latest manifestation of book snobs versus free readers makes me reflect a bit on my own reading philosophies, beliefs, and habits. I would say that I fall in the latter camp: I read freely, and I encourage others to do so. As I often tell others: I read what I want when I want. In addition, I don't go on to tell others what they should be reading or not. I think every reader should find their bliss. Some readers may need a little advice or assistance, and that is where Reader's Advisory (RA) can come in.

"I said I never had much use for one. Never said I didn't know how to use it."  --Matthew Quigley, from the film Quigley Down Under.

As a disclosure note, I was trained to be a "serious" reader as well as trained to teach how to be a "serious" reader. I've got an advanced degree (in addition to my MLS) and a lot of additional credit hours to prove it too. I've taught literature. To some extent I think people should be exposed to some classics, or great books, or whatever you want to call them, in order to learn a bit about life and the human condition we all share. I will leave to others the evolution of "the canon" and what should be in it or not; I do believe it is (or should be) an evolving thing. But once you get that done, learning a bit about the classics that make our shared experience, explore and read away to your heart's content. One of the things that always irked me as a public school teacher, way back when, was the inability to encourage my students to read, officially at least. There was a curriculum. There were certain books you had to cover, and that was that. Today it has gotten worse with the whole testing movement. That our daughter has held on to being a reader in spite of public school education is a bit of a miracle (that and all the encouragement and supplementation we do at home. We are all readers in our house, and she always grew up encouraged to read). Unofficially, yes, I did try to encourage my students to expand their horizons a bit.

These days, I may know what makes "serious" books (ok, I know quite a bit, but even I am smart enough to realize I do not know it all by a long shot), but I have little use for such. Life is too short to be boxed in books some people think are good for you or that you ought to read to be seen as cultured or "serious." Sure, there are books I dislike or care little for. Every reader, whether they admit it or not has such books and genres, but every reader also has the books and genres he or she enjoys. Find your bliss in reading whether it be The Hunger Games, some steamy erotica, some porn (lo and behold, I have no problem with porn. Watching or reading the more visual forms of it in open public may be a bit of an issue, but it is not due to the content), classics, westerns, science fiction, or graphic novels. Tell the Joel Steins of the world what they can do with their "adults should read adults books" snobbery.

And keep on reading.

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