Reading is an intellectual activity. It involves the gray cells in recreating a narrative imaginatively which is realistically only a pattern of words on a page or video screen. But just as intellect is measured from low levels to high levels, so too is reading.
I often think of books in terms of crossword puzzles: there are the Easy puzzles which do little to tax the brain but do offer satisfaction to the solver, if only because they were able to finish the puzzle. True, these Easy puzzles use the same obvious clues over and over, but the solver is never forced to pick up the dictionary and learn a new word nor is the solver very much challenged to grow intellectually. Easy crosswords, like many popular books, are a mild soporific that leaves a pleasant taste on the tongue but little else.
We can continue the analogy through Medium and on to Difficult crossword puzzles. If you’ve ever flipped through your old Aunt Wilma’s stack of crossword puzzle magazines you might have noticed that the Easy puzzles are all finished; the Medium puzzles are much more scattered with some finished, some unfinished, and some barely started; but the Hard puzzles are, for the most part, as clean and virginal as the day they were printed. Maxwell Slaughter may have finished the New York Times Sunday puzzle every week using a ball-point pen, but Aunt Wilma uses a stubby pencil and only works on puzzles that please her.
What kind of reader are you: Aunt Wilma or Master Sargent Maxwell Slaughter?
But let’s return to the analogy and notice that there are far more Easy puzzles in the magazine than Hard puzzles. This is also true of books and reading: bookstores are full of recently published fiction with enticing covers and glowing praise alongside a relatively few recognizable classics and contemporary successes. We all know that most new fiction being published today will disappear in ten years, sometimes in one year. But since we don’t know what will last, we tend to read a lot of books that are less than adequate and might even be considered a waste of time (the intellectual equivalent of kissing a lot of frogs looking for a prince).
Why would some books be considered a bad choice? Well, there are the obvious answers: they are poorly written, they are blatant copies of other successful books, they are exploitive, they are too commercial, etc. But I can think of more than one book that was an obvious grab for profit and even though extremely derivative with ghastly prose and a narrative that tripped over its own structure, and they were still very successful in the readers’ marketplace. Why is that? Maybe it’s like the hot dog. I love them as do many others, but does the popularity of the venerable tube steak make it more tasty, more nutritious, or more desirable than a well-aged fillet larded in thick bacon with a dollop of sauce Bernaise on top and served rare with a meaty lobster tail on the side and plenty of drawn butter?
The steak dinner is not for everyone but generally it is recognized for its culinary and dietetic superiority to a boiled frankfurter.
Are you a food snob to prefer eating steak to mystery meat in a tube? I don’t see it that way. I prefer the steak (although I’m not a big beef fan, maybe we should change it to a pork chop?) but there are times when only a red-hot will satisfy me, preferably dragged through the garden. I also recognize that Anna Karenina is a superior novel to anything by William Goldman but I still read WG regularly at one time. Also, I have to admit that I intensely dislike liver and cranberry sauce and am amazed that other people actually enjoy eating such scary food stuffs. I also dislike Hemingway as a novelist, am underwhelmed by DeLillo, and find no redeeming value in Harry Potter. Others do. I don’t understand this aberration but à chacun son goût.
My opinions on literature are personal but supported by years of reading and studying literature. It’s the old Carnegie Hall routine … practice, practice, practice. Would you expect a beginning pianist to play like Glenn Gould and be invited to the Kennedy Center for a concert? Unlikely. But with practice, it becomes more of a possibility. Same with literature … read, read, read. One day you’ll discover you have turned into a literate reader, maybe even an intellectual. It could happen, but don’t be content with playing “Chopsticks.”