Monday, November 17, 2014

Are there rules in reading?

Few booky bloggery types have missed the recent rash of articles about reading; each one gets a response and some discussion.  Most of the pieces seem to be about how readers are just doing it wrong.  Everyone has a different complaint, but the main point is that you are all reading wrongly and you should stop it.  A few examples:

Charlemagne is skeptical of these arguments.
If you're an adult, you should be embarrassed if you read YA books, because YA books are fundamentally not deep, gritty, or ambiguous enough for adults.  They are too pleasant and tidy.  (On this theory, Nicholas Sparks is deep, because his novels are for adults.)

On the other hand, YA books are probably too violent for actual teens and may encourage them to be violent.  (From which it follows that the 70s and 80s must have seen a huge rise in teen incest and axe murder--after all, every kid I knew read almost nothing but VCA and/or Stephen King.)

Science fiction has way too much gender binaryism, which needs to be stamped out.  "SF that presents a rigid, unquestioned gender binary is false and absurd"--which assumes some things that I don't think are actually true, and ignores the plain fact that SF has always played with every cultural rule and permutations of gender--more than any other genre.  If you wish to encourage more, fine, but there's no need to scold everyone who doesn't happen to be doing that in every story.

Rick Riordan is probably feeding kids intellectual pap that will keep them from ever reading anything more complex.  You'd better start requiring them to read books they don't like so they can read Henry James later on.  (Oddly, this was a response to a Neil Gaiman talk about letting children read what they want.)

At the very least, if you start a book, you had jolly well better finish it, or else.  Not finishing books is not allowed; you should develop character and show respect for the author by finishing the book you start, even if you hate it.

There are more, usually articles lamenting that people read for entertainment and that they don't read enough Henry James.  I don't know why Henry James gets cited so often, but he does.  We could have a whole discussion about each of these, but I'm going to go all meta on you.  It seems to me that the overarching theme here is that some people seem to think that reading has rules.  Or it should have rules.  This is sometimes called the "literature as broccoli" approach: reading is good for you and you should read it so you will be healthy, whether you like it or not.  It treats leisure reading like assigned reading for school.

Now, it is certainly my belief that some books are of a better quality than others.  I am not post-modern enough to argue that a werewolf romance is, aesthetically and morally speaking, just as good as King Lear.  Some books are more challenging, more morally interesting, or more beautifully written than others. 

But reading is one of the most individual and deeply personal activities we can engage in, and everyone is going to experience a book a little differently.  Once I open a book, it's just me and the author.  The author lays some ideas out, and I think about them.  It's likely that 95% of my reaction will never be recorded anywhere but in my own mind, and some of it might not go into words.  I don't think we can make rules about something that individual. 

Reading cannot be planned and evaluated according to a nutritional pyramid chart for the mind.  Are we talking about reading and loving literature and expanding our horizons and exploring strange new worlds, or are we talking about a forced march to attain an arbitrary standard of mental virtue and fortitude set by someone else?  What gives 'someone else' that power?

Doesn't work for books.  (Doesn't *entirely* work for food.)

I love to see people reading interesting and challenging books, but nobody can dictate which books qualify for that or what people should read.  There just should not be rules about reading.  We all get to choose for ourselves, whether we want to relax at the end of a difficult day, learn something new, or explore complex ideas.  I decide what challenges I want to set for myself; that's what makes it fun. 

Reading these articles makes me wonder why they get written so often.  Have we gotten so used to following rules, taking tests, and checking off lists of achievements that it seems like a good idea to have standardized standards for leisure reading too?  Is this what you get if people think programs like Accelerated Reader are a good idea?  Does somebody out there want to certify and quantify and make a graph to file away in a government report?  I suppose it's really that people like to tell other people what to do and show off their smart-person credentials, but I do not approve.

The Classics Club has a tagline for the Spin.  The Spin is a game we play with ourselves and each other, and the admins always finish with "as always, the prize is the reading experience."  That sums it up for me.  When we read, our reward is the reading.  There is no certificate, no outside standard to reach, no finish line.  There is just the freedom to read what we like, and have thoughts about it.   No rules needed.

13 comments:

Jean said...

PS Today I picked up a book that I started yesterday, looked at the third chapter, and realized I didn't want to read it. So I took it back to the library. Maybe some other time. So there, Miss Finish Your Book!

Cat said...

Well said! These articles actually make me laugh - some people just need to hear the sound of their own voice sounding off a load of rubbish. Best ignored!

Nancy Leek said...

No rules! You anarchist, you!

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

I'm with you in theory, and also in practice, but the strange thing is that often when people write posts responding to these calls for rules the response is more rules! See So many Books for an example, more in the comments than in the post. Rules for how many pages to read before giving up on a book, for example.

At least these rules are not meant to be for other people.

A commenter on a similar post at BookRiot said she always finishes books because that allows her to indulge in her true pleasure, checking books off her list.

Readers sometimes come across as a little bit neurotic. No offense. Or not much offense. I have wondered if a reader has to be at least a little bit neurotic to finish any book.

Jenny @ Reading the End said...

I suppose the reason these posts keep getting written is that many readers come up with ideas of how to maximize their own reading joy, and then they get carried away and think that their way of reading is the BETTER way of reading than whatever everyone else is doing. But I'm with you -- people get to decide for themselves what pleasures and rewards they want to derive from reading, and how they want to go about attaining those pleasures and rewards.

On the other hand, even when the "rules" articles you're talking about are poorly argued, it can be fun to read the responses to them. I like seeing how different people approach their reading. It's a conversation about values, nearly always, and I love a good conversation about values.

majoringinliterature said...

Hi! I just came across your blog and having read this post, I have to say that I absolutely agree with you; there really shouldn't be 'reading rules'. I'm definitely of the persuasion that reading anything is valuable, whether it's 'good literature' or 'popular fiction'. And I do think that as far as children are concerned, they should be allowed to select what they want to read, rather than having a certain kind of book handed to them. Reading is a very personal experience, and everybody does it differently. As long as they get some kind of knowledge or enjoyment out of the experience, I see no reason to try and restrict how/when/why/what people read. :)

Ekaterina Egorova said...

I love just about everything in this post! How right you are! One needs different books in different life periods, so even one person's "right way" may change, to say nothing of how different are the needs of different people! (whew, that was a lot of repetition)

I think that people write these articles to get a lot of reaction. People react more when they do not agree and start to defend their point of view. And as you've said, reading is so personal that I can imagine people want to argue!

Jean said...

It is interesting to see all the reaction and have the conversation. :)

Emily Hubbard said...

Oh, you're so right! I have nothing to add. :)

Phinnea Ravenscroft said...

I tend to think with children it should be a combination of free choosing and assignments. I very likely would not have read half the things I enjoyed if someone hadn't assigned it. And yes, I read a bunch of stuff I didn't enjoy, but I think it's valuable to have a certain level of familiarity with what's been considered important in the past.

As for making rules about it, once you're out of school, I think we all make our own rules, but I also think finding out other peoples' ideas on it is worth thinking about. I DNF lots of books, although many it's not on purpose. And I think saying you'll never read kids books or YA is cutting yourself off from some great books. I think part of why these articles come out though is worry because there are so many people who are ignorant and a good course of reading would do them a world of good, though they're probably the last ones to take up such a plan. I admit it, I think that people who don't read or who read nothing but YA or romance should have some literary broccoli once in a while.

Phinnea Ravenscroft said...

I tend to think with children it should be a combination of free choosing and assignments. I very likely would not have read half the things I enjoyed if someone hadn't assigned it. And yes, I read a bunch of stuff I didn't enjoy, but I think it's valuable to have a certain level of familiarity with what's been considered important in the past.

As for making rules about it, once you're out of school, I think we all make our own rules, but I also think finding out other peoples' ideas on it is worth thinking about. I DNF lots of books, although many it's not on purpose. And I think saying you'll never read kids books or YA is cutting yourself off from some great books. I think part of why these articles come out though is worry because there are so many people who are ignorant and a good course of reading would do them a world of good, though they're probably the last ones to take up such a plan. I admit it, I think that people who don't read or who read nothing but YA or romance should have some literary broccoli once in a while.

Phinnea Ravenscroft said...

I tend to think with children it should be a combination of free choosing and assignments. I very likely would not have read half the things I enjoyed if someone hadn't assigned it. And yes, I read a bunch of stuff I didn't enjoy, but I think it's valuable to have a certain level of familiarity with what's been considered important in the past.

As for making rules about it, once you're out of school, I think we all make our own rules, but I also think finding out other peoples' ideas on it is worth thinking about. I DNF lots of books, although many it's not on purpose. And I think saying you'll never read kids books or YA is cutting yourself off from some great books. I think part of why these articles come out though is worry because there are so many people who are ignorant and a good course of reading would do them a world of good, though they're probably the last ones to take up such a plan. I admit it, I think that people who don't read or who read nothing but YA or romance should have some literary broccoli once in a while.

Jean said...

Oh, I agree that kids can be assigned reading. I was speaking here of leisure reading, which kids need as much as anyone--but I certainly assign books to my kids. (Especially the 11yo, who would only read dragon books if allowed.)