I’ve had a version of that conversation dozens of times, and what people don’t say then, but you can see it in their face and behind their eyes is a lack of understanding. “Are you really a reader?” they seem to be asking themselves. For some reason, there are people who think that if you don’t read classics, you can’t call yourself a reader. Or not a serious one anyway. These people tend to think that any self-respecting adult has read everything by García Márquez or Dickens (or Dumas or Lovecraft, pick your poison). If you prefer to read other, newer novels you’re still a sort of child in their eyes. What’s more, some may even think it’s a question of intellect, that maybe you’re not smart enough to understand the classics and that’s the reason you don’t read them.
There are two enormous problems with this frame of mind. The first one is that it’s like having reading blinders. You can’t see a wider picture and you miss so much because of it. For example, when people say they don’t have many women authors on their shelves. I find this shocking. How couldn’t they? There are so many great women writers out there today. But then I see that their shelves are mostly classics and I understand. Of course they don’t have many women on their shelves, they think that only the popular classics are worthwhile. After all, they are classics for a reason. Their bookish worldview is limited, and it leaves little place for diversity.
The other problem I’ve found is that when you judge people for the stories they read, it shames them into not reading. I have friends that don’t read because all their lives they’ve been forced to read the same books over and over. Be it 1984, The Catcher in the Rye, or Edgar Allan Poe, these are the books you read growing up. You are taught that these are the books that are worth your time. And if you like them that’s great! More books for you to enjoy! But what if you don’t? You’ll read (or find a trusty SparkNotes) to pass a grade and nothing else. You won’t find the joy and comfort of holding a book and seeing yourself within its pages. You will never find your way into books and the magic they hold.
People are readers no matter the type of stories they prefer. Of course we can have different tastes. And frankly, we should try to make others read diversely, because lifting other voices is just as important too. But when we do this, we all know it’s a conversation between readers. It becomes a question of “what are you reading?” and not “why do you think you’re a reader?” It’s about books, and not judging one’s identity. You simply can’t deny that a person is a reader because of the stories they love.
So am I a reader? Yes. No matter what I read, I’m a reader. I hold many books very dearly in my heart and none of them are classics. Can I be a better one? Definitely. We learn and grow on a daily basis, and it’s not too late to learn that reading diverse stories is important. It wasn’t too long ago that I decided to actively search for diverse voices to add to my library. If I can see myself on a paper, why shouldn’t you?