Friday, June 6, 2014

Read What You Like

By now, you've probably all seen the Slate article "Against YA" which maintains that adults should only read books written for adults. The tagline of the article is "Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you're reading was written for children."

This article was clearly meant to provoke. It's the usual formula: the author proposes an idea they know will be unpopular so we'll all react to it, and we do. It's almost not worth even responding to. But as a librarian I feel a particular responsibility to emphasize what this author is so dismissive of: that we should all read whatever we want. I was going to respond to some of her points, but realized none of them matter. All that matters is that this person seems to think we should be ashamed of our reading tastes. So all I'm going to address is why that is simply wrong.

Reading by Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoy, 1863
Why do we read in the first place? Maybe to learn something new, to broaden our horizons, to step outside of our experiences, or to validate them. We read for fun, for pleasure, for entertainment. We all get something different from books, and if you're like me, you probably get something a little different from each book you read.

I think most of us at this point believe that we shouldn't tell others how to live their lives. We're becoming more accepting every day of people having relationships different from ours, choosing whether or not to have kids, whether or not to go back to work if you do have kids, loving whoever you want of whatever gender, or identifying with a different gender than you've been assigned to. So why in the world would we think it's ok to judge people on something so minor as what sort of books they like to read?

Nobody - especially not a stranger - can tell you what sort of book you'll get something out of. I've read young adult books that have made me look at life in different ways, and adult books that I found so utterly pretentious I couldn't get through them. Adult books that were completely trite and meaningless and poorly written - though, if you like those very same books I didn't, by all means go ahead and read them. That's why they're there. I've read picture books written for children that I found beautifully artistic and which reveal simple truths about our lives. Every book is a surprise and often you don't know if it's for you until you open it and begin reading.

To me, reading only literary fiction written for adults is confining. Doing it only because that's what you think you should read means cutting yourself off from experiences that could be enriching, powerful, or transformative. In our lives we rarely walk such a straight and narrow path that we exclude anything that is simply enjoyable or piques our interests without adding some sort of educational or cultural value. (I mean, you've watched tv, right?) Why would it be any different with reading?

If you truly enjoy reading your way through lists of books that have won literary prizes, then by all means carry on. But if you do so only because you think that's what you should do then you, my friend, are wasting your time. Don't be the person lying on a bed at the end of your life thinking, I should have traveled to Europe, I should have married that other person, and by god, I should have read the Harry Potter series. It is so easy to read what you want. Why deny yourself that pleasure?

The truth is, even those of us who don't read young adult novels aren't all sitting around reading Proust. This article doesn't speak to different genres, but many have been maligned over the years. Chick lit and romance are big ones. Science fiction isn't taken seriously either, which is why those which are well-reviewed are rarely categorized as sci-fi even when they clearly are. Mysteries can be totally formulaic, and writers like James Patterson hire people churn out books like a factory. I can think of some young adult novels that I think are more worth my time than many of these, but it doesn't matter.

All that matters is that you're getting out of it what you want. I'll continue to keep reading YA, and chick lit, and romance, and literary fiction. (But probably not Proust.)

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