A funny thing sometimes happens when a non-reader meets a book lover: they get defensive about why they don’t read, and they feel like they need to justify why they don’t read. They might say that they don’t have time, or that they used to read but recently life and mindless television got in the way. A similar thing sometimes happens when book lovers and readers meet too, but instead of explaining why they don’t read, they justify their preferences for books that are deemed less worthy; they admit to guilty pleasure reading or reading “trashy” genre fiction novels. Or they won’t even admit to reading certain books because in their view, those books lower their capital as readers.
Both of those interactions and justifications tie back to the idea of reading as a pastime with an inherent moral value. More than many other hobbies or leisure pursuits, reading supposedly makes you more intelligent, more empathetic, and generally a better person. This isn’t some vague notion that a few elite scholars have, this is a view that is held by governments, librarians, teachers, literary critics, booksellers, parents, and even by us here at Book Riot.
This isn’t a new notion. When you look at the history of public libraries in the UK and the U.S., and examine what the founders of those libraries back in the 19th century were thinking, they were building libraries as a way to ‘improve’ the citizenry. Libraries were a place for education and self-improvement, where the average man (and back in those days it was usually a man, though eventually libraries started to add reading rooms for women too) could better his lot in life and make himself a better worker and citizen from the books that he read. However, the books he had to read to become a better person were a particular kind of book. In libraries in the 19th century, fiction was seen as a different and lesser type of reading, a kind that wouldn’t make you a better citizen, no more educated or self-improved having read it.
When you move into the 21st century, the ideas of reading as a way to improve lives still proliferate. In Australia, there are government-sponsored reading programs that encourage schoolchildren to read more books (like the NSW Premier’s Reading Challenge), and government-endorsed programs that support libraries and reading initiatives. Across the world, there are events like Children’s Book Week, National Simultaneous Storytime, Library Lover’s Day, and World Read Aloud Day. Basically, there is no shortage of events across the world that encourage reading and implicitly suggest that reading is A Good Thing. Similarly, the debates about whether fiction should be stocked in the 19th and early 20th century libraries remind me of the debates we have now about whether some forms of reading are better or more worthy than others. Is literary fiction better than popular fiction? The book industry and the discourse surrounding literature and reading suggests that it is. There is value in reading literary award winners, but not so in the so-called ‘beach reads’ or ‘airport thrillers’ or, God forbid, in reading romance.
And so I’m left to ponder this: does it matter? Personally, I do think that there are benefits to reading, and I do think that the more you read (both in terms of actual numbers of pages read but also the variety of books read) the better you will be as a writer and communicator. Reading is great for learning, escaping, imagining. None of these are bad things, and although I wouldn’t put it in quite the same way as the proponents of 19th-century librarians, I do think there is an element of self-improvement that can be gained from reading.
But — and here is the big but — I don’t care if people don’t read. If I think of reading as a leisure pursuit in the same category as hobbies like scrapbooking, bird-watching, and hiking, or any other way people may want to spend their time, then why would I care about whether someone reads or not? I don’t care if someone is into crafts, or woodworking, or music, or art. People don’t feel a need to defend their lack of participation in other leisure activities, so I don’t think reading should be any different.
The same applies to what people read. I don’t care if you read, and I don’t really care what you read. If you ask me for book recommendations or my opinions on certain books, I will happily give them to you, but I don’t think that if you’ve read all the literary award winners of the past year that makes you a better reader than someone who reads only fast-paced thrillers or romance novels. Read what you want. Or don’t read! You don’t need to feel defensive about not reading, or reading popular fiction. Reading has broadened a lot more since the 19th century to encompass so many different types that I don’t think the inherent moral and educational benefits of reading are as explicit or relevant as it was then.
I did a PhD on public libraries and reading. I write for Book Riot. I run a children’s book review website, Baby Librarians, with a fellow Rioter. I volunteer at my local library. You might say that I’m a book person. But I’m a book person not because I think that this makes me smarter or better, but because I love books and reading. I get plain old enjoyment out of picking up a book and getting immersed in its story. And I understand that not everyone feels this way. So, non-readers? If you meet me, and feel the need to defend how you spend your leisure time, you don’t have to.