Sunday, May 20, 2012

You can like what you like

No one has the right to tell you what you read. What you choose to read is your right and yours alone.

One of the things I love about reading is how much it allows me to connect with other people who also enjoy reading. But more than that, I've discovered the more that I read -- and not just books, but blog posts, newspapers, magazines, comics -- the more I'm able to think about the things I'm reading and the more I'm able to draw connections among different stories and worlds. The more I'm also able to help other people connect to the things that would give them a great reading experience.

I read with a critical eye, even when I'm reading "fluff" material. But never for one second does that mean I think everyone reads with the same level of intensity that I do nor that I can't separate the critical portion of my brain from the part that wants to enjoy a story. I can find satisfaction in reading a story at the story's level.

Sometimes -- like right now, actually -- I find myself reading through books that have made gads of lists for being poorly written, for spreading terrible messages about any number of topics I'm passionate about, for being nothing but bad books. And you know, sometimes the joy is in that exactly: dipping into what is little more than junk.

Sometimes, too, I find myself connecting to a story on a level I never expected to. Earlier in the year, I read a book that tapped into something I'd packed away a long time ago, and I found myself revisiting some pain I thought I'd never think about again. It wasn't a book about that issue at all. It was a book about something else entirely.

I love to pick up a literary tome periodically, too. But not because I'm trying to balance out the YA reading I do or because I'm trying to make myself smarter or a better person for doing so. I pick them up because I'm interested in the reading experience.

Because I am interested in reading.

I have a huge problem with the notion of a guilty pleasure. If something brings you pleasure, there should be no guilt associated with it. The reason people find themselves talking about guilty pleasures is because someone has taken their right to enjoyment from whatever it is that they like doing. It's because someone has asserted themselves as an authority, as a person with privilege, and cast judgment upon an activity.

No one has the right to tell you what you should or shouldn't like.

Regardless of what your education level, your financial status, your job, your haves-and-have-nots in life, what you choose to spend your free time doing is your choice and your choice alone. But more than that, it's your responsibility to respect that for yourself and respect that for others, too. You should never feel guilty for what you enjoy, and you should never make anyone else feel guilty for what they like, either.

We all go to reading for different reasons, be they for entertainment, for information, for understanding craft and story, for escape from the world, for connection to the world (your own, pop culture, or any other definition of world). Sometimes a book can bring all of these things at once and sometimes, a book does one and does it really well.

Let me say this because I think it's important and essential and gets missed in many discussions of reading and the power therein: I believe there are people who don't like reading. And I do not, even for a second, think they're wrong. I think there might be books perfectly tailored for them, but if someone is not interested in reading, I'm not going to force them to be a reader. That puts me in a position of power and privilege, suggesting to someone that their interests and disinterests are wrong.

They're not wrong. Their interests aren't any less valid than mine.

They're just different.

When someone in a position of huge trust -- such as a librarian -- suggests that there is a right way and a wrong way to read or that there are right things or wrong things to read, they're exerting false authority. They're using their opinion and their belief to belittle and shame someone else. They're saying that it's not okay to like what you like.

These people are abusing their power.

But more importantly, it doesn't matter what your background is. There is never an okay time to shame someone for what they're reading (or what they're not reading). There's never a need to make an argument about whether what someone is reading is good or not or whether it aids in their intellectual development. That doesn't matter. Reading is an activity sought out because it brings something to someone. That we become obsessed with trying to define what that something is is in and of itself the problem.

This goes to a bigger issue worth touching on: we live in a world where the louder you are and the more you talk, the more perception of power you have. Where the more you produce, the more you're valued. It's unfair, but it's true. We're a world that focuses heavily on the notion of product and of end result and one that shies away from thinking about or exploring process in and of itself. We want a tangible outcome, a defined start and finish. In being this way, so much of the beauty in the act of doing something is overlooked and devalued. So often we chide ourselves if our process to do something takes a long time or requires more than we expected. Rather than allowing ourselves or others to allow the pleasure in the act of doing, we reward based on the result.

Reading is a process, not an end result.

While we can walk away with something from what we read, what matters to those who are readers is the act in and of itself. There are no better options when it comes to reading. There are only other options. There is no shame in liking what you like and there is no shame in enjoying reading for what it is: an action.

Want to read more about how it's okay to like what you like? Spend a little time with Liz's post and Sarah's post.

16 comments:

  1. FANTASTIC... I'm sorry to say that I have, at times, been in the place of criticizing for reading things I don't like... But this has both encouraged and convicted!

    Jo
    In Which We Start Anew

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  2. Afreakingmen.

    The term "guilty pleasure" is one in particular that really, really frosts me.

    For me (and I'm sure this has much to do with my academic background in women's studies), when I hear "guilty pleasure" in the context of reading, I hear someone passing judgment (and believing that their privileged position entitles them to do so) on genres that are popular among women. It assumes that the only "right" reading is that which has the Very Important Gatekeepers of White Male Literary Culture Seal of Approval. It reminds me of when the Pew study of reading habits came out awhile back and these same gatekeepers were decrying that such a small percentage of respondents said that they read "to be challenged." In much of the commentary I read (and it was even worse on Twitter), there was a lot of,

    "What do you expect in a country where Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey are best sellers?"

    And my immediate thought when I read things such as that is,

    "Who are the consumers of those books? Who are making those books bestsellers? It's women."

    For me, what the real issue with these folks decrying the consumption of "guilty pleasure" reads is that they're decrying that the Very Important Gatekeepers of White Male Literary Culture don't have the power to which they believe the privilege of being part of that culture entitles them.

    I know I'm teasing out a long thread with my reaction to the notion of "guilty pleasures," but it's where my mind goes *immediately* when I hear the term--and nearly invariably it's pretty easy to find (and I instinctively look for it because of my background) a subtext of gendered language within the discussion of "guilty pleasures."

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  3. I present you with ALL THE AWARDS.

    That is all.

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  4. Such an important post. If people ask what I read or what I don't read, I'll tell them my personal preferences but I will NEVER tell another person what he or she should read and expect others to do the same!

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  5. I definitely am guilty of using the phrase 'guilty pleasure.' Of course, reading your article, I could not help but question my use of said phrase. I mean, I am very much a person who does not believe in being embarrassed by the things that you like. I've been there (k-12 was not a good time for me), and I much prefer the person I am now who can admit that I love listening to Britney Spears' "Toxic" even though intellectually I know it's terrible. I enjoy it and that's enough for me. With music, books, television shows, I will listen/read/watch if I am entertained, and I should not be ashamed of any of it, even One Tree Hill, which I am watching for some unknown reason.

    When I use the phrase 'guilty pleasure,' I think what I am trying to imply is not, in fact, a sense of shame, but that I know how awful the book/movie/etc in question is and like it anyway. Obviously, this is not the phrase's actual meaning, so perhaps I need something new to describe precisely what I'm trying to get across.

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    1. I don't think there's anything wrong with the phrase, per se, but I think the way it's used is problematic, especially when we get into conversation about personal enjoyment/satisfaction/etc. Sarah's comment above pretty much nails it.

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  6. I agree wholeheartedly, but I also (as a teacher of English lit) reserve the right, as a teacher, to establish reading guidelines *within the confines of my class/syllabus*! If you take a line drawing class, you can't do photography for your coursework; but you aren't required to do nothing but line drawing for the rest of your life. If you take my lit class, I expect you to read with a critical eye. But that doesn't mean that you have to only read Dickens and Derrida (neither of which I have ever assigned, since I teach children's/YA lit). I hate when students apologize for their reading tastes, and hate even more when they've had really good books turned sour by the command to like them because they are "good." Being able to move across a range of kinds of books is a glorious skill to acquire, and once you have it, you're an *even better* judge of the books YOU like and want to read.

    And I also agree with Sarah's remarks above about the genderedness of responses to "fluff" or "guilty pleasure" (i HATE that phrase. I never feel guilty doing something I like!). I also wonder if some of this loops back to previous conversations elsewhere about the way publishing/reviewing is dominated by men....

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    1. There is absolutely a difference between guidelines, especially in a classroom, and judgment making. And obviously, you know that too :)

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  7. Can I just say Amen! I see this in so many places - what people are reading, when people say tv is junk - frankly, even in the World of blogging where even the types of comments left are now being judged ... must leave a thoughtful comment - no "excellent review" or simply "Amen" :-)

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  8. Beautiful article. So well remember librarians attempting to convert me away from romance novels that I read as a teenager. I needed them at the time to fill a well of need inside of me, eventually I moved on when I didn't need that anymore. I agree-there is no such thing as the right book or reading material. It is all valid because it is about you, not about impressing people.

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  9. Wow, what a great post.
    Whenever someone talks about "guilty pleasures" it frustrates me, because IMO there's no reason to feel guilty about reading a book you enjoy. Enjoying things brings fun and happiness into your life and what could be more important than that?

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  10. I have to say that I love everything about this post from beginning to end. I could expound for paragraphs, but it would really just be reiterating the fact that I agree with you 100%. As librarians, it's our job to help people find what THEY want not what we think they should like or what we think might be best for them.

    I've been extremely careful not to pass judgement on many of my friends and family who have been devouring 50 Shades of Grey. Not at all my thing, and I can judge the material myself and think there are issues with it, but more power to those who find something to enjoy. I will respect that, and what's more, I will suggest other books for them that I feel they might enjoy based on their preferences--even books I myself would not read!

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    1. The key to your comment and the thing I wish people would recognize is this:

      "I will suggest other books for them that I feel they might enjoy based on their preferences--even books I myself would not read."

      EXACTLY. What matters is not what YOU want, but what THEY would want.

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  11. I so agree with you about the phrase "guilty pleasure." I also really dislike people talking about chocolate (or things like that) as "sinful." Chocolate is a wonderful thing! What must you think of God if you think eating it is a sin? Now, mind you, we can go overboard with any and every pleasure. If I read all night (as I have been known to do upon occasion), I will bear the consequences. And there are definitely side effects to too much chocolate. But bottom line, I'm with you -- pleasure is a good thing! Let's drop the guilt and the shoulds.

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  12. This post made me feel warm inside. Too often, I hear about open-mindedness in the library world from people who turn around and declare, "you're reading THAT?" or mistake readership for endorsement, aka "you must agree with that author or else why would you read that book."

    Keep preaching the process. You are good at it.

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