I am a public librarian. As such, I’m obligated to read books, and taken at face value, this isn’t a problem for me. Reading is my greatest pleasure. I wouldn’t be here otherwise. I’ll read the hell out of Clive Barker’s classic The Hellbound Heart. Talk fish hooks and torn flesh to me. Shatnerquake, which includes William Shatner using a jeep as a battering ram to simultaneously pulp and behead the murderous physical manifestation of one of his own characters, is among my favorite books of all time. That’s my jam. I want to see hearts break and bad guys win and I want it all to happen in an unapologetic, unstoppable soaking rainstorm of blood and viscera.
Unfortunately, what my patrons want to read are historical dramas set in the 20th century.
Recommending books I hate
When a patron asks me for a recommendation, I am not normally in a position to push The Emerald Burrito of Oz, John Dies At The End, or Rico Slade Will Fucking Kill You. These books, which are my guilty pleasures, would not meet my patron’s requirements at best. At worst, the person I was helping would think that I was some kind of serial killer. They want magic sewing shops where the owner solves mysteries. They want the duke, the lady, and their single delicately described sex scene. Risky reading, for them, is The Heart Goes Last.
Don’t get me wrong. There are tame books with a ton of merit and many that I like very much. I know this is the case because I’ve had to grit my teeth and read them in order to know how to help my patrons. For example, I just finished The Book Thief. It was technically well written, and better yet, I can now recommend it. Thank goodness. I finally have a go-to for heartbreaking World War II dramas. Of course, I have to read The Nightingale next. And then I’ve got to get through A Gentleman Of Moscow. These books are what my patrons want to read. They are also the Sisyphean rock keeping me from the likes of Jeff Strand’s Ferocious.
Resisting a catastrophic de-evolution event
On a certain level, I understand that I’m being rigid if I stick to gorecore and bizarro. Reading The Round House not only won’t kill me, but will make me a better person. (Maybe.) If literary fiction literally improves you, I’m going to go ahead and assume that short stories about cannibal demon babies accomplish the opposite. I’m grateful to my patrons for this reason. They’re probably all that stands between me and some kind of massive de-evolution event.
I think back to Eileen Gonzalez’s awesome piece about true geekery and realize that my ability to measure up to a reading standard isn’t necessarily about belonging to my tribe. My tribe is Tiffany Scandal and Laura Lee Bahr, and we’re already tight, thanks. I can’t belong to the mainstream reader crowd because I already feel like I’m obligated to be there. I’m a tour guide at best, a poser at worst. I don’t need to be happy reading my patrons’ favorite literature, I just need to get the job done.
Reading broadly = reading diversely
But there are other reasons that I ought to read broadly, more than just my patrons’ interest in sensitive human dramas. Bizarro is male-dominated and overwhelmingly white. While the genre can be used to address issues like gender inequality, healthy relationship dynamics, and toxic masculinity, it can only do so much in the context of a homogeneous author landscape. I believe in reading diverse literature because certain important perspectives are simply unavailable to an author with maximum social privilege, no matter how well-meaning they are. This is why I worry that I can’t find a single Black bizarro writer.
My concern is that I like the books I do because they are inherently safe. Despite the gore and edgy violence, they don’t actually require me to step far outside of my white, masculine, cis privilege. For all I know, that could be the reason that I find them fun. Maybe people with less privilege would just find them offensive and disturbing in ways that I’m not sensitive enough to notice.
On the other hand, by branching out into science fiction and horror by women and authors of color, I can fool myself that I’m both having fun reading and preparing to assist. If I ever meet that library patron who wants to read some good Lovecraftian horror, I can enthusiastically recommend The Ballad Of Black Tom and She Walks In Shadows. But then I’m stuck again, not just with the paucity of diverse authors in horror, but with the nagging fear that I’m still reading in a white male bubble. Then it’s back to the literary fiction, long slogs that make me want to scream, but which also make me better in more ways than one.
Be mindful already, dammit
But there’s something I’ve noticed about reading mindfully that most of my patrons probably wouldn’t like to hear. The books that I read to be a good librarian and a good person—Hunger, for example, which I just finished—often fall on the glazed eyes of people who read nothing but “good” books. Instead of absorbing with effort, these readers regurgitate the author’s talking points without digesting the information. When I read a book toward which I’m not inclined, I at least have to think about why I need to read the book. I have to put in effort. I read Hunger because I had never read a book by a fat black woman about being a fat black woman, and even though I probably would have had more fun with a literary bloodbath, I feel like I learned something more important about the world from Roxane Gay’s life story.
This goes back to why we ought to read. I hate to agree with Melvil Dewey on anything, but to an extent, he was right that books ought to improve us. Reading shouldn’t always be easy because ease doesn’t prepare us for the fraught, challenging social landscape with which we must deal justly every day. As a librarian, I don’t just need to recommend good books, but I need to deal well with people whose experiences diverge from my own, sometimes very sharply. Since I can’t bodily step into someone else’s life, I need to do the next best thing and read about their perspective. That’s not something I’m going to get from the likes of Warrior Wolf Women Of The Wasteland.
Gelato and Bizarro
That’s not to say that I’m going to give up bizarro and horror. Hell no. If I can eat a pint of gelato once a month, then I can read some nonsense now and then too. However, I’m not going to give myself the dubious gift of reading only literature that I love. I will not KonMari my reading habits and restrict them to genres that spark joy. Instead, I’ll keep cluttering them with books in which I’m not particularly interested. Not only will this improve me as a human, but it’ll make that occasional indulgence sweeter. My patrons will get their comedian biographies and books about goshawks. And someday—some glorious day!—I will be rewarded: a patron will walk into my library and ask if I can recommend something really weird.