Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Sunday Salon: It Isn't What You Read--It's How You Read

Last week, Both Eyes Book Blog asserted that people shouldn't give up on reading the classics and that adults should read more than YA. At least I think I'm understanding her point to be that prize winners and enduring classics are the best reading has to offer and that while you may find them boring and difficult at times, if you persevere you will be rewarded.

I found this hugely problematic to my "read and let read" philosophy and have bounced all over the place this week trying to figure out exactly why. I have talked about it with fellow book bloggers. I have talked about it with people in real life. I almost brought it up with complete strangers.

It isn't that I believe that there isn't a standard of craft or artistic element to books. I definitely prefer books I feel to be well written. I can be really picky about that. But that's me. When it comes to words like value and worth and the best use of the days of your life, I can't in absolute terms tell you which books you should be reading.

Because we are all different. Because different things appeal to us, different life experiences shape us, different themes speak to us, different words touch us.

What I can say is this: whatever you it with your whole heart. Read it with an open mind. Read it because you want to. Read to know, to learn, to embrace, to feel, to experience the world, to escape the world. Read to discover, to think, to be challenged, to laugh, to remember, to forget, to cry, to get mad, to make a difference. Read because you can. Read because reading matters...because you get out of reading what you put into it. Because any book might THE book..the one that changes your life. It doesn't matter what book you pick up, anytime you pick up a book you are inviting someone else into your mind, into your life. So for the love of all that is good, just read. But don't do it halfway, do it like you mean it.

Happy Sunday all!



brizmus said...

I kind-of agree with you. Reading should be a pleasure. Read what you want and what speaks to you; that is what is most important.
At the same time, I think it's good to at least TRY things out of your comfort zone (be it YA or classics or whatever) - you may end up being rewarded or pleasantly surprised.
If not, at least you tried! :-)

Sandy Nawrot said...

I love it when you say that the next book might be THE book. That is so true. Books are like possibilities. I get excited every single time I open a new one. As far as what people read, I guess I think this is a personal choice. Just the fact they are reading is a good thing.

caite said...

I am a bit torn on this one. I can see both sides of the argument to a degree.

I think a lot of people..maybe not so much people who are blogging about books, who certainly read more than the average person, but ordinary reading folk...sometimes stay away from the classics, feeling they are too 'difficult' or something. In reality, I think many of the classics are that, classic, because they speak to timeless themes that resonate with many, many people. But also because many are just ripping good stories.

On the other hand, people have to find the books that speak to them, whatever that book might be. Otherwise they simply will not experience the magic of reading.

The danger of that is we can become very self limiting, yes, getting stuck in that comfort zone and missing so much more that may be out there for us. That is one reason that I think movie versions of classics are good (although I rarely go see them) because they tempt some people to read the orginal.

heatherlo said...

I understand what Jessica was trying to say, at least in the fact that I agree that certain books are like "brain candy" and they don't really have much substance. BUT I agree with you more in that I'm more concerned that people are reading, that they are reading with their whole heart, than what specifically they are reading. If you're a lover of the classics, I can see why you'd want to to encourage others to try them out. But same goes for other genres - I know plenty of people that aren't interested in YA and I love to tell them about all the AMAZING YA that is coming out these days.

Great post. :)

Chris said...

We've talked about this elsewhere so I'm not going to blather on about what I already said ;)


I tend to agree with Caite. If people gave classics a try, at least, they might find that they like them. If they find they don't, then that's okay.

Anyone who goes to my blog will see that I read a good mix of books. Hopefully this makes me a well rounded reader. We should give everything a chance.

bermudaonion said...

Great post, Amy. Sometimes other parts of our life dictate what we need to be reading at the time and it really doesn't matter what the genre is.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Reading something is better than reading nothing!

Laughing Stars said...

What a lovely post! I go back and forth on this argument. And I go back and forth in my reading choices. Some years I'm immersed in classics, and some years I'm into mysteries or YA lit (and I am 43!) I think the balance and variety is what works for me, though I do need for the books I read to be well written. I'm adding you to my feed reader so I don't miss any more of your posts.

Rebecca @ The Book Lady's Blog said...

I kind-of agree with you, and like Chris, I won't rehash our entire conversations here.

At the very bottom line, I think it's important for people to read and to read critically and to connect with what they read, whatever that may be.

(even though, as I've said before, it makes me sad to think that some people will die thinking that Twilight was the pinnacle of literary achievements)

But I also think that it's important to read the classics and books that have become critically and socially important because having a working knowledge of them enables us to understand cultural and literary references and participate in the larger conversation.

Nymeth said...

My reading philosophy is pretty much the same as yours. I didn't follow the conversations about this this week, so I might be repeating points that were made before, but - I really don't see "literary" and "entertaining" as mutually exclusive categories. I have a problem with the term "literary fiction" exactly because it implies that it's above "genre" lit (or YA, or children's books, or GNs) in terms of quality, merit, depth, meaningfullness, etc - and I absolutely don't accept that. (And this even though I love many of the books the term is applied to.) As for classics, I absolutely agree that people should be encouraged to read them. But it's funny to think that many of them were dismissed as fluff in their time.

This is part of the reason why I decided to go to library school instead of continuing with an academic career. I just don't see these categories as clear-cut at all. They're conventions, and even if we accepted that literary quality can be defined objectively, they depend on a lot that goes beyond that (namely gender, but I could write a whole post on that).

Amy said...

brizmus..I agree that reading things outside of your comfort zone is a good idea and I realized actually, that I'd written posts similar to Jessica's in that idea (obviously minus word count and vocabulary issues) to encourage people to read more children's books. Basically, I think a good story is a good story and you should seek those out wherever they may be found.

Sandy--I know! That's what I love about books. You never know what's going to happen. ;)

Caite..I'm not suggesting people don't read classics, and as I said to Brizmus I realized I had written a similar post about reading children's books. I think encouraging the reading of classics is a great thing, but I don't know that I can honestly say that reading classics is a better experience than reading other kinds of books for me. One of my favorite books might be considered a "classic" but it was written in the 20th century so it's not a very old one. But I do agree that we can get stuck in our comfort zones and it's always good to get out of them--in all areas of life!

Heather...I think you can get out of a book what you put into it. :) In other words, I think every book offers something for you to think about and consider even if it's not readily apparent, or obvious as to being the major themes of life. But I can concede that some reading experiences will be less thought provoking and perhaps easier. And yes...I can also agree that I have written posts about the value of reading children's books so I agree on the idea of encouraging people to read outside of their comfort zones..but not because I think one kind of book is a more valuable reading experience universally but because a good story is a good story.

Chris...same can be said for all genres! But it's also unfair to assume that people haven't tried classics simply because they read all chick lit or something. Maybe they did try! :)

Kathy--this is so true. And some people have very little reading time. They need to read what works for them.

L. Diane Wolfe--yay for reading!

Laughing Stars--aw, thank you! I know I read a variety and that just happens to be what works for me! :)

Rebecca--I think things like Twilight while maybe not being well-written still serves something to society by revealing what stories capture our imagination and obviously what themes are resonating during our times. And while we may find those themes disturbing we can't blame it on Twilight we need to look more deeply at what's going on in our society.

I also have a lot of opinions on this based on my experiences with adult literacy. I have tremendous respect for anyone who reads who doesn't find reading easy at all. (which by the way is not a symptom of lack of intelligence but rather how they were taught to read) A lot of times, adults who don't find reading easy will gravitate towards books with what we call simpler language, shorter chapters, less complex sentence structure, etc. Which I believe is more the reason that we have best-sellers that reflect that. We have a literacy crisis going on in our country, but we should probably address our energies towards education rather than people's reading choices.

Amy said...

Nymeth...I do agree that we should encourage people to read outside of their comfort zones (whether that be classics, or some other kind of genre) and I like what you said about literary fiction which is basically what I was unable to articulate this week! You're so articulate! :)

debnance said...

Good for you. I agree totally. Of course, I love it when people try the tough read, but, if it doesn't happen, oh well. Read what you like, folks. We are grownups.

heidenkind said...

I love this post, Amy, and I couldn't agree with you more. I think that reading is such a personal experience, telling people what they should and shouldn't read can be pretty insulting sometimes (depending on the circumstances, of course). I'm always open to suggestions, but I read what I want to when I want to. Period. I also like your point that a book is really what you bring to it, so this idea that some books are better than others--yes, that is true, but not every type of book is better or worse to the same people.

PS~I think you should pose this question to random strangers and see what they say. :D

Debi said...

Oh Amy, I loved this post!!! Probably because I pretty much agree with 100%. :)

Florinda said...

I'm glad you revisited this. I agree that SOME reading is better than none, and that whatever one chooses to read, one should approach it as you describe here. What resonates with one person may leave another cold - taste is definitely a subjective thing.

At the same time, I do think "literary merit" is a more objective thing; maybe not easily quantified, but based on elements like quality of writing, complexity of themes and characters, and how it challenges the reader's thinking. Literary reading certainly has its place, but a balanced reading diet should include lighter fare too - and without guilt!

S. Krishna said...

This is a great post, Amy. I think it's all about your personal reading goals and reading whatever resonates with you regardless of genre. I love it when people are reading, but it makes me sad when people write off an entire genre ("I don't like literary fiction." "YA should only be read by teens" etc.) without even being willing to give it a try. I totally agree that we should read books that challenge us, which is why I'm a huge fan of literary-type books.

Natasha @ Maw Books said...

I totally missed Jessica's post, so I had no idea that this is what sparked all the conversation this week.

No two books were created equal to begin with so to try to compare one genre, reading level, or book as not being equal to another is just hogwash. I think that there is room for all books and even if a book has no merit to one doesn't mean that it will hold merit with aonther. I like the idea of reading outside of our comfort zones and trying things that are new. But to immediatly decrease the merit of a book just because it's YA instead of a "classic" (which I'm sure that many classics could be reclassified as YA in today's standards) doesn't ring true to me.

Great post Amy!

Vasilly said...

I just love this post, Amy! You did great.

Cara Powers said...

Beautiful post, Amy. I believe that there is a right time for any given book. Sometimes you pick one up and it's just not the time to read it. Then you can pick up the same book a couple weeks later and become completely engrossed. (Boneshaker this last month for me.) Sometimes you need something purely escapist because you're stressed out. Sometimes you want something challenging. Personally, I find good science fiction to be far more challenging than what we call "literary" fiction. Sure, the language and sentence structures in "literary" fiction tend to be more complex, but science fiction presents the most challenging ideas. The best science fiction makes us examine ourselves and our society. I guess that's my genre rant for today. What I'm saying is that none of us should be snobby about what we read. Sometimes we want to stretch ourselves and challenges are great for that. Sometimes we want literary comfort food. That's ok, too. Like I say on my introductory post, "I think every book is worth reading if it meets your needs at the time." Sorry, for the ramble.

Carrie K. said...

Very well said, Amy. :)

Amy @ My Friend Amy said...

debnance...I like it when people read the books I love, too. But no it doesn't always happen. :)

heidenkind...I think you're fabulous have I ever said that? :) and I may just ask some strangers after all.

Debi--I knew you were cool! ;)

Florinda...I agree there are objective terms in which craft can be discussed but there's a chemistry to book and reader that just can't be broken down into measurable terms. Therefore different books have different value to different people. ;)

Swapna...I also feel sad when people write off entire segments of books (Christian fiction being one that I am vocal about, YA being another) but that doesn't mean that they aren't finding value in what they read. Also, I think different things challenge us. The reader that enters every book with an open mind and the desire to learn may find themselves challenged unexpectedly.

Natasah...I agree. Not to mention that reading level can't even be agreed upon, and several books cross multiple reading levels. Reading level does not equal value to me. And I think you're right that several books that have endured could be reclassified into genres today.

Thanks Vasilly!

Thanks Cara! I think it's great if you want to stretch yourself personally as well and you're right, challenges are perfect for that and there are a lot of challenges focused on classics!

Thanks Carrie!

Chris said...

No Amy I don't assume that. But I do think people make assumations about classics. They are not all the same. There's a pretty wide variety. That books you like you don't know whether it's a classic or not, probably is.

Tracie Yule said...

I kind of think it depends on where you are coming from in order to form an opinion.

For example, my boys in 6th grade wanted to read nothing but picture books. They were technically "reading" but I knew they could do better. So, well, I made them do better and said that they had to read novels (no pictures).

I think that many youth will read what's easier when given the chance, but if prompted will read heavier material (classics being an example). I think it's really about what we expect from them.

My opinion for adults is different. Read whatever you want, I just hope that someone along the line helped you push yourself into reading heavier material.

Amy @ My Friend Amy said...

Chris...okay I believe you. I just get the sense that the most ardent defenders of reading classics feel that people who don't love them haven't tried to love them enough.

Tracie...yes I believe in teaching shared texts (classics) in school. I do think that with kids there are other things going on to do with reading ability. I was reading YA when I was 8 so it can't be a blanket rule that kids will always take the easier way.

Jessica said...

Well said.

You summarized my argument beautifully. I also agree that the reason I, for one, defend reading classics is that I feel people haven't tried hard enough to love them. (Or, perhaps, have met all the wrong ones).

If I had one wish, it would be that I never wrote the post that started all this. Despite my personal reading record, the general trend of my posts and reviews, and my statements that I read a broad variety of stuff and would never look down on anyone for what they read, I've still managed to come off as a big snob. Clearly I did it to myself. The backlash has completely undermined my intended message and made me question whether to keep a blog at all.

Thank you for reminding me that not all readers are looking for the same thing.

justicejenniferreads said...

Sounds like you hit on a pretty divisive topic. I for one, am on your side. I agree with what you said. For me, reading is a very personal experience, and I hate when people tell me what I "should be reading." For one, i have not read many of what people call "the classics." When people discover this little fact about me, they make assumptions about my education or my reading habbits and I absolutely hate that more than anything else in the world. I read whatever sparks my interests. For various reasons, the classics didn't seem to be around much when I was younger so I didn't cling on to them like many others do. This doesn't mean I won't ever get around to discovering the magic that other people see in them, it just means my literary journey has taken me a little longer to get there. Still, I feel like everyone reads at their own pace, they discover different books a different times and relate to those books in different ways. But I agree with you, the true gift of reading is giving your all to every book you read regardless of what other people think about it. Great post, and your ideas really hit it on the neail for me.

Eva said...

I TOTALLY agree with you. And I think broad sale judging of books to be better quality because they're classics or they won an award is silly. That's all I will say. ;)

Jen said...

I totally agree with you on this Amy! I think the "classics" are what almost ruined my love of reading in high school. People (especially children) should be encouraged to read whatever appeals to them. To me, a great book is a book that makes me forget all about my own life for a little while because I'm so lost in the story and characters. A great book makes me think or want to learn, but I don't think it should be a struggle.

Toni said...

I love this conversation. I am way out of the loop to leave a super informed comment. I love classics, when the appeal to me. Sometimes in college I got help from a great professor and the veil was lifted and I got this really cool insight to the brilliance. Sometimes not. As an adult I have respect for a classic, but if I can't get through it...then I quit. I read about it and see what the hoolah was..and then just decided if I can see that or not. If I can't it is not for me. I can't always unlock the mastery of a classic. Even thought I might try and try, I may just not get it. I didn't get some of the classics in high school and some even closed my mind at the time. However I do think that it is great to be exposed to the classics so that we can open ourselves up to literary conversation...if that is what we desire. My daughter loves to read but has zero interest in reading classics at this time. And even if she NEVER does I think her reading experience will be to her what it is for the next. I have rambled. Love the conversation that this topic brings up.

justareadingfool said...

As always, you bring a lot of thought to your subject, as is evidenced by the number of responses here. I'm not sure what I think about it. I can see both sides: yes, classics are underrated, but sometimes pulp fiction like Harry Potter and maybe even (gasp, I can't believe I'm saying this) the Twilight books are underrated too. Either way, thanks for making me think about this morning as I catch up on my blog reading.

Amused said...

I couldn't agree more. I think reading is becoming a lost art and I think anything that makes people read is a good thing and we shouldn't judge people on their taste. I like to challenge myself with award winning books but I don't always find that I like them. I do find that having discussions with people who also love books is some of the most fun a gal can have! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this!

Rebecca @ The Book Lady's Blog said...

Am a few days late to respond but just made it back. I appreciate you response to my comment and think I need to clarify a bit.

When literacy is a challenge, any reading is certainly better than no reading. And in those cases, I am all for people reading whatever they need to read in order to find something to connect with and that makes them excited about reading. Because that will make them better readers...and eventually, they'll be able to read better books.

An adult who is reading a less complex book because reading is a challenge for him or her is in an entirely different situation (at least to me) than an adult who is perfectly capable of reading something more complex but never does.

Literacy is a gift that we should exercise as well and fully as we can, and that means growing into more difficult and substantial books as our ability to read and comprehend grows.

And as Florinda said, balance is important. Some light reading is all fine and good, but I don't think it should be everything.

Rebecca @ The Book Lady's Blog said...

Okay, I swear I'll stop commenting after this.

But it just came to me that what I really make of this whole debate is that my philosophy is that people should read to their fullest potential.

If literacy is a challenge and you need to read something that is less complex, then by all means, do so. Read it. And then read some more. And keep on reading because that's how you build the muscles and improve your skills.

But if you have all of the skills to read difficult, substantial, better books, it's a shame and a waste not to. And that's what makes me sad---seeing people who could read such great books stop with the easy reads because they're easy

Jen Forbus said...

Amy this is a stunning post. I absolutely love it. I can't say that I agree that people should be reading "more difficult" books if they can. I know (because I did it) that I'm fully capable of reading ULYSSES. I would deem that a more difficult book than say THE COLD DISH. However, I don't feel that ULYSSES is a better book because it is more difficult. I actually would rate THE COLD DISH a better book because it does more for me as a person and a reader. I grew more as a reader.

Society's measures of "difficulty" are often assigned to create an elitist group...those who can versus those who cannot. I see reading as a way to grow, and however you accomplish that, in whatever genre or format or environment...just read!

And more than anything, don't pass judgement. Because you like something or don't like it, don't force that on others.

Jenny Girl said...

This is such a sweet and heartfelt post! It is so true. Reading is what you put into it and should be something you enjoy, not something that is boring or bad.
Reading is growth and enjoyment :)

Amy said...


I do think you should keep a blog! And I don't think you're a snob and I think your post sparked some good discussion. I personally feel that there's a subjective nature to the value placed on books and that book choices are personal. As I've said in the comments here, I understand encouraging people to read outside of their comfort zones, I've even done it in the past with children's books.


funny enough I went through an intense literary snob period when I was in high school and would only read the classics. Life is weird..but I agree we are all on different reading journeys.

I've heard a lot of people say that :( I'm glad you still read, though!

I'm not opposed to reading classics or required reading. I'm thankful for the required reading I had! But I've read plenty of other books that weren't "classics" that have been deeply meaningful to me.

Thanks! I've really enjoyed thinking about all of this too. :) and you know what? I don't like Twilight but I get irritable when I constantly hear it being written off. It's so strange. :)

I think that what is substantial is different to different people..which is why I think it's more about how you read than what you read.

Beautifully said. Thanks for being so articulate!

Jenny Girl--
why yes it is! :)

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