The short answer is, obviously, whatever the hell we damn well want.
It probably comes as no surprise that this blog post is prompted by a piece of ‘journalism’ in The Guardian by some bloke. I don’t know the fella and I don’t especially want to link to the piece directly because it’s a piece of cynical clickbait that doesn’t deserve the hits – but in the spirit of knowing what you’re arguing against, it can be found here.
The substance of the article is that life is too short to read unworthy books, and that these books can be determined without having any knowledge of them whatsoever. And people who enjoy this lesser kind of work are lesser kinds of people. To sum up: Jane Austen good; Terry Pratchett bad. Yawn.
It was heartening to see my Twitter TL explode with rage at such nonsense. This tweet by Laura Lam sums up how I feel about reading:
Being a literary elitist is so boring. Read whatever you like. I read ‘highbrow’ literature. I read ‘bodice rippers.’ I contain multitudes.
— Laura Lam (@LR_Lam) August 31, 2015
Book snobbery is incredibly boring. I’ve worked in bookshops my whole adult life and one of the best things about that is having access to all the types of books. Today I might fancy reading something from the Booker Longlist, tomorrow I might fancy a picture book. Or a graphic novel, or a kids’ classic, or a Regency romance, or a contemporary YA, or a cosy crime, or some hard sci-fi, or an epic fantasy. Or, you know, some non-fiction.
How and what I choose is my business. If I don’t want to read something I don’t have to; reading is a leisure activity and that means we get to choose how we spend that precious time. If I don’t like the look of something, I can simply choose not to read it. I don’t, however, get to pretend my choices are better than someone else’s, and I certainly don’t get to tell everyone else that they shouldn’t be reading something because I’ve decided it’s mediocre WHEN I’VE NOT EVEN READ ANY OF IT MYSELF. That would just be stupid.
For the record I am not writing this as a diehard Discworld fan leaping to the defence of a favourite author. I’ve read a few but they don’t connect with me as they do for so many other people. But the joy that they bring to people, the brilliant conversations I’ve had with customers about what the books mean to them, the excitement on publication day of a new title – that’s one of the other best things about being a bookseller.
There are many books that live within me: Tales of the City; Riders; Interview With The Vampire; The Darling Buds of May; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; Ender’s Game; Jane Eyre; The Sunne in Splendour – to pluck just a few from my head. They are from different genres, written at different times, and by very different authors (some of whom are problematic, but knowing this after committing the book to my heart means the story is still lodged there). None of my choices here could be considered highbrow, but then I’m not entirely sure I know, or care, what that means. I’ve never worked in a bookshop where the highbrow fiction was shelved differently to ‘the rest’. And if I had my way, I’d de-genre the whole of fiction anyway and let people explore shelves and shelves of stories free of the constraints that genre labels bring.
I read for many different reasons. Sometimes I want my brain to fizz with new ideas, sometimes I want to be comforted by an old favourite. And sometimes I read because the world is horribly overwhelming and I need the ritual of sitting with a book, turning pages and concentrating on someone else’s words to give me space to breathe and be. And I don’t need anybody policing my choices. It’s thoughtless and unkind to denigrate other’s reading choices. We are all free to not like certain books, and it is certainly possible to construct an argument about why a particular book is not for you, or to point out serious problems in books you have read. Just don’t pretend your reading choices are superior, it’s a nonsense.
I will continue to read widely and voraciously, scooping up treasure wherever I find it. I might even re-read Mansfield Park, because to be truthful I can’t remember a thing about it.