Anyone who reads knows that some books are better than others. You can feel it. Some books excite and edify. Others are impossible to get through. And once someone else disagrees by either loving something you loathe or loathing something you love, it can feel as if the world is somehow fundamentally flawed, unfair, and generally sort of a bad place.
We have now a wide array of tools to assign relative value to the books we read. Likes on Facebook, reviews on Goodreads, stars on Amazon, homilies or pans on blogs: all of these are in the service of separating the good from the bad.
The problem, though, is that there are no “good” and “bad” books, and so all this energy that goes into judging books is misspent, and I think does more damage to reading culture than it does good.
Look, I am smart and well-read, just like you are. I think Toni Morrison is better than E.L. James, but that’s only because Toni Morrison does more of what I want a book to do than E.L. James does. That doesn’t make her better, just better for me. That there is an unspoken, generally agreed upon set of things that people who majored in English look for in “good” books doesn’t mean that those values are somehow objective. They only just appear to be so.
The attributes of what we all generally agree to be good books are familiar, even if we don’t say them out loud: complex characters, realist psychology, technical mastery and/or experimentation, social and political awareness.
There are a whole host of other qualities that people look for in books, and not all of them are sanctioned by the critical/educational establishment: escapism, comfort, titillation, excitement, the exotic, education, humor, action, and still more.
So while for readers with a more literary sensibility, Pride and Prejudice is better than The Notebook, it isn’t “really.” That it ticks more of the boxes of what you want in a book says more about you, your taste, your education, and your experience than it does about the books themselves.
If you are looking for action and the exotic, for example, Pride and Prejudice is an absolute snoozer. This idea can be frustrating, especially to those of us who worship at the altar of the word, but I think it really should be liberating.
For one, it frees us from feeling compelled to wade into arguments and discussions about which is the “best” book of a given year or genre or author or nation or whatever. Secondly, it moves the discussion away from a futile search for a place of objective assessment to a much richer place of transparent subjectivity. By acknowledging that any discussion of a book is first and foremost a discussion about the particular discussants, we get to a place where we are talking to each other through books rather than to each other about books.
But most importantly, admitting that there is no ultimate measure of quality, no final rubric of accomplishment, opens up the reading world before you. Any compulsion to choose the “good” over the “bad” or frustration about hating the “great” books slips away. The felt obligation to read “great” books is replaced with the permission to be a great reader, one who reads widely, generously, and with joy—wherever that takes you.
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