Have you ever started a book that everyone glowed about and you just could not get through it? Maybe it hit the NYT list, maybe it got starred reviews from everyone and God, but it made you roll your eyes by page five and by page twenty-five, if you made it that far, you wanted to spot check the rest of the readership for actual brain waves? Maybe–and I know every one of you has known this one–maybe it was considered a classic, a masterpiece, and you secretly hated it.
Welcome to the weirdest aspect of the entertainment world: guilt for not enjoying the material.
I don’t know of any other art form or entertainment where the participants feel actual guilt for not “getting” the material or enjoying it as happens with books and reading, and I think that’s significant, culturally. How are we creating readers, if we browbeat them into thinking that every book needs to satisfy some internal English critic or create an essay on themes and comparative merits? What does that mindset say about how well books and reading are marketed to the general public?
Maybe there are other concerns that create frustration — dollars spent, time spent, but those issues create aggravation, not guilt. It’s the guilt that stumps me. (Not that I haven’t felt it–but that I’ve allowed myself to feel it.)
I started thinking about this during the week after hearing Julia Keller‘s NPR piece on the unfinished book, where callers talked about why leaving a book unfinished bothered them so much. Some people admitted to trying to read some “great” work for years, before finally giving up.
One woman (and I’m paraphrasing) explained that she felt particular guilt about books because when she couldn’t get all of the way through it, it sat there on her shelf, mocking her. If it had been a TV show, she could have just turned the channel or if it had been a movie, she could have left and never worried about it again, but the book sat there, on her shelf, evidence of her failure. And my first thought when I heard this was, “Why not give the book away?”
Why do we feel the need to turn reading into some sort of gauntlet, the literary equivalent of the Navy SEALs Hell Week?
Why is it not okay to recognize that where we are in our lives influences what we want to spend our time doing? reading? That mood and crises play as much a role in what we’re able to comprehend as our education? And where is it taught that if it’s fun, it must not be good for us, and therefore, isn’t of value? When did reading become the equivalent of taking medicine?
Sometimes, a work just doesn’t speak to us. And that’s okay. Sometimes, we’re in the wrong mood, and nothing that work could do, nothing that it had done well for others, would work for us. The work didn’t change between all of those accolades and our read. But most of the time, instead of saying to ourselves, “This isn’t what I’m in the mood for,” or “This isn’t working for me,” we instead feel like we’ve failed. That somehow, we aren’t smart enough (or current enough, or well read enough) to make the connections that obviously everyone else made, so what’s wrong with us? And that’s where the guilt starts.
This issue goes deeper than just the “literary vs. genre” wars that crop up every now and again. It goes all the way back to middle and high-school, where we often teach reading with the enthusiasm of a sadist–they are going to learn what “good” literature is, dammit, whether they can stomach it or not. And in the process of being absolutely determined to show young readers what “good” literature is, we manage to turn millions of them off reading forever, because they cannot relate. They don’t “get” it, or they are simply bored, and they don’t have enough points of reference in their lives to realize that literature encompasses an extremely wide-ranging cornucopia of choices.
In one of the talks that I give to grade schoolers, I ask them to name their favorite TV shows or their favorite movies. We usually write down the list and when we have a nice collection, I point out that someone wrote those stories. Then we move on to favorite books, and for every one they name in a genre, I try to name two or three others that have something in common, that I think the kids will love. They’re almost always in shock, that there are these worlds out there. (Except, of course, for the one or two bookworms in the room, who are finally the ones who are cool, because they read.)
Now, I am all for great literature being taught, and all for vastly different types of stories, from genre to whatever it is that we call literary nowadays (which, frankly, is a misnomer–because many genre books can also be literary–these terms are not mutually exclusive). I’m glad to see that many reading programs in schools include current popular books, Caldecott or other winners, but I wonder if we aren’t also missing a huge opportunity when we don’t include things like favorite popular books in the different genres? I have bought at least ten copies of Ender’s Game, for example, and given it to boys over the years and every single one of them not only loved it, but started reading other books afterward, when they hadn’t been readers before.
I think one of the reasons the Kindle and now the Sony and the iPad are going to continue gaining in popularity is that people don’t feel judged for what they’re reading, because no one can see. Many people don’t want to be judged, don’t want to be taken as frivolous, or seen reading something less “important” than a great literary classic.
So I wonder, how has the publishing industry and marketing of books failed to erase this perception of reading? Is there a solution? (Or is the solution in process–the upswing of popular YA literature?) Is there anything that could be done to show how much fun reading can be? And finally, fess up — what book did you start and not finish? (Are you glad you didn’t? Or do you plan to try again?) Or was there a book you were forced to read (for school) and as much as you anticipated loathing it, ended up loving it? [I have way more questions than answers today! I’m hoping our backblogger ‘Rati will chime in on why these things bother you.]
For me, the “put it down, feeing guilty for it” book it was Follet’s PILLARS OF THE EARTH. I had heard such rave RAVE reviews, I bought it without reading any sample; I barely started it, and my eyes just kept wandering off the page. I just could not hook into the story, as much as I admired the quality of the writing. I suspect I was just not in the mood for it at the time, so I will try again, later. Eventually.