Reading as a Passion, Not an Assignment
I see it more and more here lately. The trend of ‘shelfies’, where book lovers posts pictures of their bookshelves so eeeeveryone can see just what they’re reading (just as contrived, of course, as the actual selfie. And a good deal more full of intellectual back-patting). A quote from Ovid, culled lovingly and out of context for a Facebook profile. And any more, if you DARE misuse an apostrophe in a comment thread, God save your soul from the grammar Nazis lurking in the next comment with a Final Solution for you.
Hurr, hurr. Aren’t you all very clever.
I was an English major in college (no, I didn’t graduate). I’m not well educated, but I’m not poorly educated, either. I’m not a literary genius–however, I’m pretty far from being an idiot too. What I am is a writer. What I am is a lifelong lover of books.
So let me ask you this, earnestly and directly:
Please stop using my lifelong passion as your selfish intellectual coup de grace. Please Jesus. Please, please, please.
Every book website I check into, EVERY ONE, has a list of ‘Classics To Read Before You Reach This Arbitrary Age.’ Because, tee hee, you’re nothing if you haven’t read Anna Karenina by the time you’re thirty! How on Earth can you ever hope to fit in with your well-read friends and eventually marry a well-read man if you don’t know shit about Dostoyevsky? (Also, here’s a list of thirty really popular romance novels you can sneak on the side while you finish those Russian monsters. Don’t tell your lit teacher.). But reading like totally benefits you and makes you a better person. It’s like Echinacea. Feeling foggy today? Take a book!
When the fuck did reading ‘great literature’ become a task we completed so our family and friends could give us approving nods, or so we could be one step closer to realization on our self-improvement programs? When did this awful self-perpetuating trend of doing ‘smart things’ just so you can benefit begin?
(For that matter, when did everything become a matter of self-improvement and lifestyle affirmation? Part of life is learning to roll with the punches, and if everything you surround yourself with gives you a warm glow inside and a friendship with likeable characters then you, sir or madam, are not learning to roll. Folks need to learn how to enjoy disagreement, how to debate and dissent without personal hard feelings. But that’s neither here nor there.)
We need to de-mystify the purpose of reading, especially reading classics. I might argue we need to de-emphasize the importance of ‘classics’ altogether. You read Ulysses? So what? I can read Ulysses too. So could any child old enough to know most of the words. The question is, really, did you enjoy it. Did you connect with it. Not did you read it. (We won’t even enter into the stratosphere of ‘did you understand it’. I’m not even certain Joyce understood it).
I have never read Anna Karenina. I haven’t read it because I’m not a big goddamn fan of Tolstoy. I like his shorter stuff, but I made it like halfway through War and Peace, got tired, and took a nap. I never even made it to Anna. Does this mean I’m an idiot? Um, no. Does it mean I’ve missed some vital piece of my existence? Maybe, but if I have I so far haven’t noticed it. If I ever feel it calling to me, I’ll try again. But so far, I haven’t. Kreutzer Sonata, on the other hand–there’s a great damn story. I enjoyed it.
I repeat: I did not read this great classical work of literature, Anna Karenina, because I wasn’t interested in it.
I repeat, also: reading is my passion. I love books. Like, looove them love them. The first men I ever loved were men in books, the first women I ever wanted to be ‘besties’ with were characters on paper. I read hundreds of books a year. Hundreds. Not because that’s cool (it’s, um, not) or because I have a set number of books I need to read to feel literarily educated. I read them because I’m interested. I read them because I like to read and I get caught up. Could I tell you exactly how many books I’ve read this year? No. Fuck, no. Because I don’t keep count. I’m too busy reading.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying reading can’t improve you as a human being. Reading a book, after all, is a great way to see places you’ve never been, feel things it is otherwise physically impossible for you to feel. A great book is an uncomfortable experience. It makes you feel things, sometimes, that are taboo, inappropriate, misunderstood. It makes you question your own value system and what you know about the world around you. It lets you into other peoples’ lives, other times, other cultures. And, sometimes: it’s just plain good. You just plain liked it. And that’s nothing to be ashamed of.
So. The short version of what I’m saying: never read something because it is expected of you to read it. Don’t read for the promise of life change. Don’t read for the promise of learning.
Read because you’re interested. Read it because it’s a good book and you like it. If the only thing you like is Harlequin romances, well, so what? They might not be putting your portrait on the wall at Columbia anytime soon, but you’re going to be a happy camper. Maybe not the most empathetic and educated camper, but again, so fucking what?
Otherwise, with every volume you dry-swallow because you’re supposed to read it and it’s ‘great literature’, you’re on the road to becoming one more person, in a world filled with these people, who doesn’t enjoy reading. With every sentence you underline because you ‘feel it relates to your problems’ and it’ll make a great facebook quote later you are becoming one more cog in the great grinding self-involved culture machine. Let a book take you outside of yourself, not farther in. The world isn’t all about you, and your reading shouldn’t be either. Not everything written ever is going to validate your lifestyle and your beliefs, and you shouldn’t expect it to.
When you’ve finished a good book at four AM, and the house is quiet, keep staring for a few seconds at that final page. Take a deep breath. Put it down. And if it’s a good book, if you really cared about it, for the rest of the day you’ll catch yourself thinking about it.
Not because it’s Great Literature and you know you’re supposed to. Because you can’t help yourself. Because it’s part of you now, and you have to.
Here are fifteen books that’ve done this for me. Some of them are classics, because, y’know, classics tend to be pretty good. Check ’em out if you want, you might like them as much as I did. I’d leave a note here that some of these books might not tally with your personal value system or your view on the way the world should work, but frankly, I don’t give a good goddamn. Some of them don’t tally with MINE. And I liked them anyway. Words are words. They can’t hurt you.
The Left Hand of Darkness (Ursula K. LeGuin)
Midnight’s Children (Salman Rushdie)
A Wizard of Earthsea (Ursula K. LeGuin)
Dead Souls (Nikolai Gogol)
Native Son (Richard Wright)
The Twelve Caesars (Suetonius)–sooooo much more entertaining than Tacitus. So. Much. Make yourself some popcorn and learn about the Julio-Claudian dynasty.
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (Alison Bechdel)
Women (Charles Bukowski)–I know what you’re thinking here. Lewd bunch of crap. You’re thinking that because you had a strong reaction to it. Therefore: read ESPECIALLY if you are NOT a chauvinist pig.
The Good Earth (Pearl S. Buck)
The Woman Warrior (Maxine Hong Kingston)
The Darling (Russell Banks)–A book all Americans who feel woefully exposed when they travel should read right about now. If you read it and you don’t understand why I said that, message me and we’ll talk.
The Secret History (Donna Tartt)
McTeague (Frank Norris)
The Monk (Matthew Lewis)–this is hands-down the best Gothic novel ever written. It has monks, a pure young heroine, crypts, foreign locales, the Devil–screw you, Ann Radcliffe. Screw you.
The Immoralist (Andre Gide)