Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Reading is the Point, After All

I'm not sure why this even needs to be said, but the recent spate of articles suggests that it might.  I refuse to link to what I readily admit is likely clickbait, but suffice it to say, in recent weeks, those who read and write romance, and adults who dare to read YA, read comics, read sci fi and yes, even Pulitzer Prize winners, have all been told they should be ashamed and that they are not reaching as high as they ought to, by choosing to read things that may end happily and therefore provide nothing enlightening or edifying. 
This bothers me on so many levels it's hard to think straight, but I shall try. 
1. Reading is good for you.  There are lots of studies about readers being more empathetic, better wage earners, more aware of the world, etc.  As far as I'm aware, this is true whether you read Pulitzer Prize winners, Rita award winners, Newberry winners, or things that have never won awards. 
2. Reading is not vegetables.  The point of reading for pleasure, is, well, pleasure. If reading about people in war-torn countries or robot invasions makes you happy (or interests you) do that.  If you want to read about people falling in love, do that.  If you want to read about serial killers do that.  If you want to read about teenagers, do that. 
3. Generalizing about any category or genre of fiction is almost always a losing battle.  Sure, I understand that journalists have space constraints and time constraints.  A little simplification is bound to happen.  But, if you try to tell me that all YA novels end simplistically and happily, I know you haven't read many.  Or read with the intention of proving your pre-determined point.  And yes, by definition romance novels, and mystery novels provide, going in, a certain promise of resolution.  However, the journey is different each time.  Some may seem predictable, many aren't.  And if you try to tell me they are all the same, then, again, I know you haven't read many.
4. But let's pretend, for a moment, that people these days are reading books in great numbers.  (Oh, wouldn't that be lovely.)  But that everyone (whoever everyone is) was only reading things that had happy endings.  So what?  Why is that a problem?  There often seems to be a concern that readers will start expecting life to work like books do, they will start expecting shirtless men to sweep them off their feet, or expect that a kindly wizard will tell them an ancient prophecy indicates that they must save the world.  But I haven't seen any evidence that people have been waiting on street corners for these things to happen.  Just like I haven't seen that reading about death, despair, illness or abuse leads people to expect only the worst of humanity.
5. This is just my theorizing, but, hey, maybe people like books that promise a certain type of ending because real life often lacks the type of narrative closure you can sometimes count on books to provide. 
6. The other assertion I saw floating out there in the void is that reading isn't the whole point.  Only reading things that enlighten and educate you will make you stronger.  (Insert big grunt here!) Maybe this is so. But that assumes that the same kinds of books are enlightening and educating to all people.  Or that genre fiction, or fiction designed for younger readers cannot also be enlightening and educational.  I tend to stand on the side of reading anything is great, but even if it's not (I have seen no evidence of this) eliminating whole categories of books as bad for you seems ridiculous.  Remember, in it's time, Shakespeare was analogous to "General Hospital".  (Note: I am not at all suggesting there is anything wrong with "General Hospital".)
7. People tend to assume that adults who read YA are doing so out of nostalgia for the time period.  I have the utmost respect for teenagers, but there is not enough money in the world to make me be a teenager again.  I certainly did not have a tragic teenage experience, but no.  Hell to the no.  For me, YA books appeal because of the immediacy - both in their often speedy pacing, and because teenagers feel so deeply about things.  Reading about that time I get to relive it and then put the book down and return to my adult life. 
8. The thing people tend to forget about genre fiction readers - is that a lot of the readers within are super readers.  The average reader in the US reads about 5 books a year. (And remember, that excludes the folks who didn't read a book at all.)  Certainly the online reader community is skewed towards super readers, but the folks I know reading YA and romance are reading at much higher rates.  So rather than trying to shame them about their reading choices, I think they should be lauded.  (And not just because I happen to be one of them.) 
9.  Read at whim.  I saw this mentioned by several people on social media, and managed to track down the source.  From an essay in a collections about liberal arts for Christians, Alan Jacobs talks about reading widely, and concludes: "Reading for the sheer delight of it—reading at whim—is therefore
one of the most important kinds of reading there is. By all means strive to be a better reader, to grow in attentiveness, responsiveness, and charity; but whatever you do, don't forget to allow yourself to have fun." I couldn't have said it better myself.