Our Books, Ourselves

By January 24, 2012Writing about Writing

Question time: would you think less of someone for reading a certain book or kind of book?  Might you form an opinion about the person sitting across from you on the train based on whether they were reading James Joyce or James Patterson?  Reading this great article by Madeleine Crum got me thinking about how genre – in this case, “literary fiction,” a particularly tricky animal – guides our perceptions and preconceptions about a book and, by extension, the person reading it.  What does genre really mean, and what does it mean for the reader?  For instance, to Crum “literary fiction” too often implies a lot of other things about the book – White, Male, European, “modernist,” etc.  It’s also a value judgment, as Crum notes, when we distinguish between “literary fiction” and “genre fiction” (i.e., sci-fi, mystery, horror, and romance).  High-brow and low-brow, in short.  What does this mode of classification mean for us as readers, though?

I pride myself on reading a variety of books but I’ll be the first to admit that there are books I wouldn’t admit to reading (or at least, wouldn’t brag about reading).  It might be enjoyable, even defensible, to read a certain genre, but it’s also true that some people are going to form opinions about you based on what you read.  Whether it’s papering over the cover of Good in Bed by Jennifer Weiner, or the strange looks you might get for reading RPG novels on the El, we all judge people by their reading habits – and knowing we’re being judged can make us leery of publicizing our more adventurous selections too widely.  It’s the “guilty pleasure” feeling, but what really makes us feel guilty?  Are we worried that the picture our reading habits paint of us will be incorrect, or too correct?

Crum talks a bit about BookLamp and tagging as new (or less judgmental) ways of classifying books, but the question of the reading stigma is still a fascinating one.  Do we feel more comfortable reading books that our society (or favorite review site, or professors, or friends) has approved, or safer?  What is it about the stamp of approval that makes us less afraid of someone’s judgment falling on our reading material?  Should we form our reading habits to be acceptable, or do we just take the plunge and read what we like?  How can we turn “low-brow” reading into a subversive or revolutionary act?

The thing is, everyone has a different view of what an “embarrassing” or “guilty pleasure” book would be, so how can you anticipate others’ feelings?  I would think that reading a John le Carré or horror fiction would be just fine, but my professor might disagree.  You can’t please everyone with your reading habits, so I say why try to please anyone except yourself?  My advice is to read openly, and read widely.  High-brow, low-brow – read what you read, but read it proudly.  Bring up your reading in conversation, and who knows?  You might find a kindred spirit.  And now I put it to you, UCWbLers – what are you reading, and why?

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • bibliopirate says:

    After a few years of working in a bookshop I’ve lost most of my book judgments. I’ve seen too many people reading too many things to judge them based on just one book. In order to get to know someone from their books you basically need to view their entire book collection.

  • Mia Amélie says:

    I’l like to say that I’m not someone who judges a reader by his book cover, but I hesitate at whether or not that’s true. I certainly have indulged in some “guilty pleasure” reads (as a “True Blood” fan, I most recently read a few of Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels… before deciding to stick to the TV series) and would hope not to be judged for it. What I do know for sure is that I do become very opinionated about books I don’t like as much as books I do like, and when I see someone reading a “don’t” book, I struggle to hold back my opinion of the book. Recently, I’ve been getting dangerously outspoken about the Twilight series. Although I don’t judge the people who read and love Meyer’s vampire romance, I do have strong feelings about Meyer’s novels. I’ve already spoiled a few peoples’ enjoyment of the books by raging over the way the story encourages domestic abuse, pedophilia, and misogyny. Is it right for me to try to ruin reading experiences in the name of fighting the status quo? I don’t know.