Should Reading Be a Pleasure?

classics It’s a old and tired controversy but an article from About.com started me thinking whether this question was more an evaluation of our society rather than a specific relationship between contemporary readers and their chosen texts. For the record, I have always contended that a person’s chosen reading material is highly subjective: you should read what you want to read. But the analogy is to food, eating, and nutrition: if you want to eat cream-filled sponge cake loaded with preservatives and lacking any food value, it is your fundamental right … but so is getting fat and having your teeth fall out.

So, following through with the analogy, are you happy because you enjoy the flavor of high fructose corn syrup or are you happy when you can bite into an apple and walk ten blocks to Otmar’s Iron Den (put another manhole cover on the lat machine).

And the parallel question is: are you happy because you read popular fluff and best-sellers or are you happy when you stimulate your gray cells by reading difficult and challenging books? My standard answer is to constantly challenge yourself in your reading but not to be afraid to read something with no redeeming value every once in a while just for fun. The danger is to insist on either extreme: academician’s read challenging books because it is their job but they shouldn’t expect the waitress at Bob’s Big Boy to follow suit, and at the same time the auto mechanic shouldn’t denigrate the professor because he (or she) studies classic literature any more than she (or he) should criticize the professor for not reading the 1998 Chevrolet Parts Manual or 50 Shades of Gray.

The article in About.com is titled Books to Beat the Classics Slump! Thrilling Titles to Jumpstart Your Reading. I urge you to read the article and consider for yourself what your relation to reading actually is. For now, here are the books suggested for reading in the article:

The first rule of reading – even when reading the Classics – is that it should be fun! Sometimes, though, even the most avid and enthusiastic of readers will find herself in a bit of a slump. This can be especially true for those who try to read one piece of classic literature after another.

So, if you find yourself trying but failing to read large tomes, like Herman Melville’s Moby Dick or Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, it might be time to take a new approach. After all, classic literature doesn’t necessarily mean the books have to be particularly lofty, lengthy, or dry. Why not try a shorter work, or a different genre? Perhaps you could try something from a different century, a new author, or another country.

  • Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Bronte
  • Little Women (1868) by Louisa May Alcott
  • Gone with the Wind (1936) by Margaret Mitchell
  • The School for Scandal (1777) by Richard Brinsley Sheridan
  • Rebecca (1938) by Daphne du Maurier
  • The Haunting of Hill House (1959) by Shirley Jackson

ClassicsThere’s not much to argue about in this list unless you consider that recommending well-known and often-read titles is not of great value; but at least no one can contend that the recommendations represent the fluffier side of literature: they are commonly found on Junior High reading lists. Take a minute and think about the seven novels (or plays) you might suggest. Here is my list of alternate suggestions:

  • Appointment at Samarra — John O’Hara
  • The Snows of Kilimanjaro — Ernest Hemingway
  • Typee — Herman Melville
  • Cry, the Beloved Country — Alan Paton
  • Kitchen — Banana Yosimoto
  • The Nonexistent Knight — Italo Calvino
  • The Importance of Being Ernest — Oscar Wilde

Truth is, I could make lists like this over and over. They’re not fluff but they are entertaining and not too challenging.

3 responses

  1. This is a really interesting debate, and I think the analogy to eating is a good one. That said, I’d personally frame it more in terms of reading outside of your comfort zone rather than reading “difficult” books per se, for a couple of reasons. For one, I’m wary of writing off all popular fiction as the literary equivalent of empty calories; I’m sure there’s a lot of junk, but these books can engage with serious topics (The Hunger Games’ depiction of mass entertainment, class conflict, etc. comes to mind). Not to mention, of course, that a lot of “classics” were once popular entertainment. More broadly, though, I wonder if the value of reading works that are challenging is (or should be?) less an intellectual one than an ethical one. That’s not to say that there’s no value in reading something for the mental exercise, but I wonder if maybe we’d do better to push people to read books by, say, authors of different races/religions/genders/etc. rather than just books that we’ve collectively deemed “literary” (and I say that as someone with a deep and abiding love of the classics). I think it’s easy for people–even “professional” readers–to get into a rut of reading books that address a relatively narrow range of concerns, and, for me at least, that’s when the guilt over reading habits starts to set in.

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    • Reading teaches you about life, often the parts of life you may never experience first-hand but which can enrich your relatively short time here on earth. Of course you can find lessons in the most frivolous of texts—an Archie comic book or a classic Dr. Suess—but I would call this experience “stealth enrichment” since, for the most part, comic books and such are defined more as entertainment than as literature.

      I am a strong advocate for challenging yourself with your reading. Sometimes this means a difficult text, like Kant or Joyce, other times it means reading outside your comfort zone, like Lolita or Blood Meridian. Actually, Lolita is an excellent example of both types of challenge—well crafted prose and tense subject matter—but I tend to hear more complaining about the horridness of the subject from those more squeamish readers.

      I suppose we might offer another question to expand on the discussion: what do we mean when we consider someone well-read?

      I will admit that I have read The Da Vinchi Code as well as Finnegans Wake, but I will only admit to being ashamed of wasting my time with one of these books.

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      • Complaints about the subject matter of books are actually a pet peeve of mine. I suppose I can understand where they’re coming from–I still remember how grueling it was reading something like Jude the Obscure–but I get the impression that a lot of people simply aren’t willing to engage with anything that doesn’t end in rosy happiness. (On a side note, I have to admit that I haven’t gotten around to reading Blood Meridian, despite having a copy of it on hand. I did enjoy–if, again, that’s the right word–The Road, so I’m actually looking forward to it, even knowing a bit about the subject matter).

        I think the definition of what it means to be well-read has certainly shifted as the literary canon expands to include a more diverse range of authors, but at the same time, I still and hear a lot of comments that implicitly equate being well-read with having read the major “dead white men” (plus a few women). It’s a difficult subject for me to tackle, because I have to say that I do enjoy reading a lot of those writers, and I think there’s something to be said for pushing people to see those kinds of works as something that can be enjoyed. At the same time, though, I wonder if they don’t then just end up functioning in a pop culture-like, comforting way. I have to say that that’s one reason why I personally don’t really care for Jane Austen; I get the feeling that a lot of readers like reading her novels because they can enjoy the sense of reading something “worthwhile” without really having to think about much that’s unpleasant or unhappy.

        And “stealth enrichment” is a nice way of putting it–I’ll have to remember that!

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