I recently read a non-fiction book called The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller. The author felt embarrassed about not having read enough “Great Literature” – especially as he’d claimed to his friends to have read many books that he actually hadn’t. So, to make amends, he set about drawing up a “list of betterment” which then became the premise for his book.
It was an entertaining read, but as he struggled through Middlemarch, War and Peace, Moby Dick and 47 other challenging tomes, I found myself thinking, why do this to yourself? (Unless, of course, you plan to write a humorous book about the experience and/or want to impress people.)
At university I struggled through a long list of “Great Literature”, namely French classics – only a handful of which I actually enjoyed. When I finished my degree, I almost felt like never reading anything again. But then I decided to celebrate my liberation from imposed reading by going out and buying Jilly Cooper’s Rivals. It was like downing a Gin & Tonic after years of being restricted to green smoothies. However, when reading this doorstop of frivolousness in public, I’d shield the cover from view – I didn’t want people to look down on me.
How ridiculous that some books should carry shame while others carry kudos. At a time when reading stories is not the go-to choice of entertainment for so many young people, literary snobbery is something we should be stamping out. And yet we continue to perpetuate it by keeping schtum about the books we’re too ashamed to admit we enjoyed – if not vocally damning them. (I’ve lost count of how many authors and critics have enjoyed publicly bashing Dan Brown. So what if The Da Vinci Code isn’t Pulitzer Prize material? Good on him for making a story accessible for thousands of people who struggle with reading.)
There’s a growing understanding among schools and libraries that in order to encourage kids to read more, we should encourage them to read anything – comics, graphic novels, non-fiction books, picture books, magazines, newspapers, ebooks, poems, blogs – to keep their appetite for reading on a positive trajectory. Perhaps it’s time we extended that ethos to adult reading habits, too.
We should be vocally celebrating the books we love – regardless of how uncool they may be in other people’s opinions. And we shouldn’t feel ashamed if we’ve never read any Jane Austen and can’t be arsed to either. It’s not a competition. You only lose if you deny yourself the pleasure of reading what you truly want to.