As readers, we often pride ourselves on our open minds and our willingness to consider the world from multiple perspectives. After all, that’s what books do, right? They give us insight into other experiences that we wouldn’t normally have access to. Reading a novel with a really well-developed protagonist can be like putting on someone else’s life for a while. The lives we experience through literature can be as enriching as anything we experience in our non-bookish lives.
So why do I feel, lately, like the bookish internet is turning into a bunch of Larry David Readers? To understand what I mean by this, you need the context of the following video clip from Larry David’s HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm.
To paraphrase, the reading world is like <–T–H–I–S–>, and you want to make it like ->this<-.
Like Larry David in the clip above, it seems to me that readers are spending an awful lot of time trying to make life smaller, by constructing walls around their definitions of what they will and will not read. And readers of all stripes are guilty of this: I have read blog posts by people who exclusively read YA because there are no compelling stories in literary fiction (complete lunacy), who believe that genre fiction cannot possibly offer anything worthwhile (total ignorance), who believe anything bestselling must be inferior (snobbish and asinine), or who think non-fiction contains the only truth (utterly arbitrary). And so instead of letting the joy of reading lead to a fuller, richer life, they build meaningless boundaries that separate themselves from stories that could move, change, or charm them in ways they’ve never anticipated.
Talk about a waste.
There are lots of reasons why these boundaries have appeared. Genre-specific boundaries tend to be a defence mechanism from readers who have felt maligned or marginalized for their book preferences. Saying YA is the only place to find compelling storytelling is a useful (if insane) way to defend as meaningful something that is derided. The anti-genre folks are often driven by a sense that they have to defend the realm of Serious Literature from the marauding infidels of genre fiction, who have found power and audience on the bookish internet. People who hate popular things just because they are popular have always existed (and I have always tried to avoid them at parties).
And I think the bookish internet, which by design rewards niche readers for speaking to a particular subset of a broad reading audience, encourages the walls to go up. And from behind our MacBook screens we throw things and act like children, wildly defending our right to not eat bookish broccoli, in whatever form we believe it takes.
All of these things may fuel pageviews and may make us feel a sense of superiority over those we perceive as unenlightened. But in the end, it only limits our lives. If the walls you’ve drawn mean you’ve missed an amazing story or an exquisite work of prose, then the walls aren’t serving your best interests. If the way you’ve constructed your reading life means you’ll never read an Alice Munro short story, or We3, or The Picture of Dorian Gray, or a Laurie Halse Anderson novel, or a Tomson Highway play, or Ender’s Game, or a Langston Hughes poem, you’re doing it wrong.
Our reading lives should open us to experiences, not shield us from them.
Life is big. Embrace it.
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