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A Very UnSerious Reader, Indeed

Brenna Clarke Gray

Staff Writer

Part muppet and part college faculty member, Brenna Clarke Gray holds a PhD in Canadian Literature while simultaneously holding two cats named Chaucer and Swift. It's a juggling act. Raised in small-town Ontario, Brenna has since been transported by school to the Atlantic provinces and by work to the Vancouver area, where she now lives with her stylish cyclist/webgeek husband and the aforementioned cats. When not posing by day as a forserious academic, she can be found painting her nails and watching Degrassi (through the critical lens of awesomeness). She posts about graphic narratives at Graphixia, and occasionally she remembers to update her own blog, Not That Kind of Doctor. Blog: Not That Kind of Doctor Twitter: @brennacgray

I feel like this phrase “serious reader” has been thrown around a lot lately.

Of course, we all know Jonathan Franzen wants us to understand that “serious readers” should only want paper books (and especially his paper books), which seemed to kick the term “serious reader” into high gear. We employ the phrase  “serious reader” here at BookRiot pretty often, I guess to distinguish from “silly readers.” (Jeff once used the phrase twice in the first sentence of a post.) It seems to be a phrase designed to create community around people who like a certain kind of book and treat reading in a certain kind of way: people who take reading seriously, I suppose.

The phrase “serious reader” gives me hives.

But maybe that’s because I’ve been hearing that phrase a lot for most of my scholarly life. It usually precedes a dismissal of something people like.

“I’m a serious reader, so I don’t typically read comic books / romance / sci-fi / YA / bestsellers.”

Those people really do italic that shit with their voices, too. They’d fake a British accent if they thought they could get away with it. In that context, the term “serious reader” drips with disdain. “Serious readers” also don’t own television sets but have to tell you all the time about how they don’t own television sets; they seem to sit around waiting for a TV show to come up in conversation just so they can announce they haven’t heard of it. “Serious readers” call movies cinema and refuse to see anything shown in a commercial movie house. “Serious readers” loathe musical theatre and think the eight hour production of Gatz on stage in London right now leaves too much of the good stuff out.

“Serious readers” think you’re an idiot.

I’m supposed to be a “serious reader;” I have been trained to be one. I went to school for an absurd number of years and spent most of them being paid to read. From September 2007 to August 2008, my only job was to read 300 books.  All of them very weighty, serious, grown-up, literary books. Or theories about such books. Then I spent the subsequent two years writing about books, at the end of which I stood in a little room and pontificated about books to other people who took books very, very seriously indeed. Then I took a job teaching other people to read and write about books. (BTW, I am “dr b” on Book Riot mostly because there was already another Brenna here, which, PS, kind of blew my mind, and because this nickname was bestowed upon me by a student and I find it delightful.)

It’s a pretty privileged existence, man. And somewhere in that process, I grew suspicious of “serious readers.”

It started off early in grad school, when I was too new and young and idealistic to know I was supposed to lie to people. In breaks between classes, someone would ask what people were reading for fun, and I would launch into an excited discussion of Marvel’s Runaways series or the Civil War storyline. And then the “serious readers” at the table would stare at me, blink very slowly, and explain that their “light” reading this week was some of Foucault’s early essays. And I would stare back at them, very confused as to what fun and Foucault had in common beyond phonetics, and feel like an idiot.

I realized along the way that to be a “serious reader” in the way those people are “serious readers,” you have to fundamentally believe that some books are more worthy. You have to believe that the concept of a universal canon is worthwhile (I’m much more interested in individual, personal canons). You have to believe art needs gatekeepers.

And that’s fine, if you do. More power to you! But I don’t. And realizing that was the nexus of why I couldn’t hang with the “serious reader” set. It also helped me realize that, as a newly-minted UnSerious Reader, my real interest is in story and community. To wit:

  • I want to read whatever is super popular so that I can talk to people about it.
  • I’m not super interested in reading something no one else has read because I won’t be able to talk about it. Unless I super super love it and I can talk other people into reading it immediately after. The best part about teaching is making people read stuff so we can talk about it together.
  • I’m much less interested than I feel like I should be, professionally, in what is “good” and “bad” literature.
  • I don’t care what shape my story comes in. It can be an ebook or a dusty tome or a tattered paperback or an unsolicited PDF. It can be a fantasy or a romance or a YA novel or a graphic text. It can be fiction or non-fiction or somewhere-in-between-fiction. If the story is good, I will engage. For that matter, it can be a TV show, a movie, a comic book, or a video game and I will engage that, too.
  • If you want to sell me on a book, tell me what it meant to you, how it shaped you, and why the story grabbed you. Talk to me of cultural impact. Tell me how you were gripped for hours, days. Don’t tell me it’s “important” unless you can tell me why in real terms.
  • Don’t tell me I “should” read something, unless you follow it immediately with “BECAUSE YOU’LL LOVE IT!!”

This, I think, is my philosophy of reading. Which is why I was so surprised and confused last week when, in the comments of my silly 50 Shades of Grey flowchart, a commenter wrote that she felt my post was “a dig at people that don’t read the ‘right’ books.”

Here’s my deep, dark, terrible, doctorate-revocation-inducing confession: I don’t think there are “right” books. Or “wrong” books. I just think there are books. And I feel really, really lucky that my work and non-work time is wholly devoted to exploring books — even if I do it as an UnSerious Reader, indeed.