thoughts on reading and shame

via the Londonist
Yesterday, I was standing in a coffee shop near work waiting for my morning latte and reading Shaping Our Mothers' World: American Women's Magazines by Nancy Walker (University of Mississippi, 2000).

"Oh! Are you working toward your PhD too?" came the excited voice of a colleague, also waiting in line.

"Oh -- no," I responded, startled. "I mean, I have my Master's in History, but -- no, I'm just reading this. It's in my time period but -- no, I'm just reading it for fun. Because."

"It's so nice to see people reading books like that for pleasure," she continued. "So often when I'm on the T or standing in line I see people reading romance novels or stuff like that."

"Well, those can be fun too!" I blinked, thinking, Well, I did spend three hours last night reading fan fiction erotica ...

"Yes, well," she retracted slightly, "I personally like to read detective fiction, that's my habit."

I mumbled something encouraging about supporting reading generally, and ducked away to grab my bagel sandwich.

Then later in the day, this post by friend Shoshana @ Walk the Ridgepole caught my eye:
About half the adult customers buying The Hunger Games are still acting embarrassed about reading a YA novel. I've seen virtually none of that shamefacedness from the customers clamoring for Fifty Shades of Grey. Not that the latter group (which I'm sure overlaps with the first) should necessarily be embarrassed; from what I know about it, I think I'd have some issues with the dynamics of Fifty Shades, but to each his/her own. Still, it's odd to realize our culture has reached a point where reading about sex in public is largely okay, but reading a novel (in this case, a critically acclaimed novel) originally marketed toward teens is still something to be ashamed of.
You can read the whole thing here.

Why do we ascribe moral weight to the act of reading? As a librarian, I know, I'm supposed to champion reading per se as though it can make you a better person. And while I believe that participating in artistic and cultural activities can deepen our experience and promote well-being, I don't actually believe that reading in and of itself is somehow morally superior to having lunch with a friend, playing World of Warcraft, sketching in the park, or blogging.

On the other hand, I do believe the act of reading -- when done for the pleasure of it -- should be celebrated as one of the joys in life. We don't need to justify reading by reading only "worthwhile," morally-upstanding texts. Reading just is.

Yet the act of reading -- something that in the past was vilified as a suspect, erotic activity (especially for women) -- has been turned into a virtue in our modern-day educational realm. And I think that's where we run into trouble. Okay, yes, we're a print-based society and literacy is highly correlated with social and economic efficacy. But I hate how we've not only deified the act of reading, but further turned reading into a hierarchical activity in which some kinds of reading are more virtuous or worthy than others.

"Adult" novels are more virtuous than "young adult" or "kiddie lit" -- at last if you're a grown-up human being. Similarly, we have so-called "genre" fiction (shameful) and "literary" fiction (laudable), "real" fiction (legit) and fan fiction (not, in fact, "actual"). And swaths of fiction -- for example romance novels -- that are coded as guilty pleasures, something we all indulge in but speak about like a group of self-loathing women gathered around a pan of brownies. Why is it such a shocking or shameful thing to read romance novels, fan fiction, mystery novels, denigrated-category-of-choice for pleasure?

I'm not arguing, here, that doing something "for pleasure" of "for fun" means we aren't allowed to critique a specific example or trend in the written word and its effect on the well-being of ourselves and society. My point is that -- assuming our reading habits aren't actively harming others and/or we're involved in ongoing analysis of the messages said literature is conveying -- we should never have to apologize for reading in genre X, on topic Y, or literary medium Z. I don't want my nonfiction reading to somehow grant me an aura of respectability over the person three up from me in line at the coffee shop who's tossed Best Lesbian Erotica 2012 in her purse this morning (full disclosure: sometimes, I am that person) or even, let it be said, the young man across from me on the T who's engrossed in Eclipse (yes, male-identified folk do read Stephanie Meyer). Critique specific content all you like, but no literary form exists that deserves wholesale derision as being lesser than.

I just want my reading to be, and for all of us to acknowledge the written word, fictional and non-, genre or not, amateur or professional, for the pleasure it is.


  1. There's also the hierarchy of mediums of literature which have fascinated me. I've written about the weird snobbery folks have against audiobooks, especially when it comes to the study of literature - it's as if getting the words through your ears instead of your eyes is somehow cheating. I think now there's a sense among some that people can't read e-Books "properly" (although part of that may be in our reduced capacity to judge strangers on what they are reading).

  2. Absolutely, Goldfish! I just had a (very mild) argument with Hanna about whether audiobooks counted toward our annual GoodReads reading challenge. I will count any book that I haven't read before, print or audio or e-book, whereas she doesn't see listening to audiobooks as an act of reading.

  3. 'And while I believe that participating in artistic and cultural activities can deepen our experience and promote well-being, I don't actually believe that reading in and of itself is somehow morally superior to having lunch with a friend, playing World of Warcraft, sketching in the park, or blogging."

    I feel like I've been waiting for someone to say this! I completely agree. I adore books and reading, but whenever people say "Well, we should be glad people are reading at all", I think "I mean, sure, if they enjoy it." I don't think books are inherently better than TV as a medium. I don't think reading has any superiority over video games. It's great entertainment, and it can be incredibly thought-provoking, but it's not the medium itself that is better.

  4. Yes! I think occasionally there's fun in calling something a "guilty pleasure," especially if it's one that friends (IRL, online, or both) can share. But let's save actual guilt for when we actually do something wrong.