Against the “Serious Reader”

I would like to set fire to the term “serious reader” and throw its ashes into the sea. That is my thesis here. Into. The. Sea.

There are lots of reasons I wish to drown the flaming corpse of the Serious Reader. For one, the term is, frustratingly, both nebulous and limiting. It is clearly intended to be an identity to which people should aspire, but I have not seen anyone able to properly define it or to justify why it is the best kind of reader to me. I have seen a lot written about what a Serious Reader is not (a young person, a person who reads on a device instead of paper, a person who reads “genre,” especially genres like romance that are dominated by women). I have also seen a lot of implication and suggestion of what a Serious Reader might (exclusively) read, which leads me to my most significant objection to it: the term is a kind of literary dog whistle sexism/racism.

Much of the valourization of the Serious Reader is from middle-class white men who suggest a Serious Reader is the best kind of reader one can be and coincidentally the kind of reader who reads exclusively white people, largely men (mostly dead but some living in Brooklyn) and a few women (definitely dead). Serious Readers either are white dudes or those who let said white dudes dictate their reading. This is bad. I don’t need to say more about why this is bad because lots of other smart people have already done so.

What I will say is this: it’s also boring. I mean, serious. Imagine! Imagine “serious” being the best, most worthy and important adjective you can think of to attach to “reader”! What a tremendous lack of imagination that belies!

Don’t get me wrong, I am all in favour of taking your reading seriously (although as with most things I think it is important to maintain a sense of humour reading). I am in favour of reading books that intellectually excite you. I am in favour of thinking deeply about the books you read. But dear god, let’s none of us hang our hats on being a Serious Reader when there are so many more kinds of reader we can be.

On that note, here are a few of my suggestions for alternative types of reader you could be:

Be a voracious reader. Read a tremendous volume of books. Read incessantly. Take a page from Angelica and never be satisfied … with your book count. See also: insatiable, unquenchable, indefatigable

Be a passionate reader. Read as widely or as narrowly as you choose but whichever books you do read, care about them immensely. Read with a hammering heart, knots in your stomach, and tears in your eyes. See also: emotional, obsessive, engaged

Be a curious reader. Read to answer your own questions. Read to figure out how things work, what they mean, or how they came to be. Read to learn new perspectives on the world or just fun facts for the next sloppy pub trivia night. See also: inquisitive

Be a diverse reader. That sea we threw the ashes of “serious reader” in? Yeah, chuck the Western canon in there, too. Read as many different books from as many different brains from as different many walks of life as you can. It is a great big world out there so why confine yourself to a shoebox? See also: inclusive

Be a generous reader. Share the books you love with people you think might love them, too. Vocally support your favourite authors and communities, especially if other people aren’t. Be quick to see the value in others’ recommendations to you, too. See also: enthusiastic

Be an incisive reader. Read deeply then re-read.Take the books you read apart in your head and put them back together. Let your busy brain be forever scanning for meaning, patterns and significance. See also: analytic, critical

Be a hedonistic reader. Read exclusively for your own pleasure. Revel in the gratification of your own desires as your primary motivation for doing something. See also: indulgent, escapist

Be all of these kinds of readers alternately or simultaneously. Or decide not to be any particular kind of reader. Be “just a damn” reader. I don’t know your life! Honestly don’t even listen to me. Who the hell am I to tell you what to do? Just promise me you won’t listen to anyone else either. Let’s all ignore the people who would try to make us feel inferior for our reading habits and who believe only they know the right kind of reader to be. Let’s choose our own adjectives and choose them wisely and widely.

Who knows: with so many wonderful adjectives to turn to, we might not even need to set fire to “serious.” It might just wither away and die of neglect on its own. But maybe we might like to anyway? A seaside bonfire is always so lovely.

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