Reading Hard Books is Good, Actually
I’ve been book blogging for more than a decade, and in that time, I’ve seen attitudes shift. In the early days of book blogging and BookTube, there was definitely some elitism in the reading community — which makes sense, because before the bookish internet, book media was mostly made up of critical reviews. Young adult books and anything “genre” (romance, sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, etc.) were looked down upon. There’s a reason that one of the founding principles of Book Riot is “We eschew snobbery.“
Luckily, although snobbishness continues in pockets of the bookish internet, it’s no longer the default view. There has been an explosion of book blogs, BookTube channels, and BookTok accounts celebrating YA and genre books. It makes sense, since “genre” books make up by far the majority of books being bought. Most readers pick up thrillers and mysteries, romance novels, fantasy books — not literary fiction.
I’m very glad that attitudes have changed, but I’ve noticed a strange trend: in some places, the pendulum has swung completely. Where genre and YA readers faced judgement in the earlier days of the internet, many bookish communities now roll their eyes at people reading the classics or literary fiction. For example, when users on the books subreddit ask about how to tackle more dense literature or how to deal with the barriers they face getting into classics, there is always a strong contingent in the comments saying, “Don’t.” Don’t make yourself read challenging books. Read what you have fun reading. Set aside the dry and boring texts.
I absolutely agree that no one should feel pressure to read the “canon” (I shudder just writing that), and there’s nothing wrong with reading for pleasure 100% of the time, if that’s what you want to do. There are plenty of challenging, thought-provoking, and even distressing TV shows and movies to watch, for instance, but I am a strict light TV watcher. When I watch TV, I only want to be comforted and entertained. For plenty of people, that’s what books are for: an escape and a comfort.
All that being said, I do think there is a benefit to challenging yourself to read more difficult books: books that are rich in metaphor and symbolism, books with lyrical language you can lose yourself in, books with messages that challenge you, books that are complex and may require a second reading.
I’ve been reading a lot of YA lately, and I enjoy it. (Did you know we’re in a golden age of queer YA?) There is a ton of variety, covering every genre and tone. What they tend to have in common, though, is a readable, clear style. They’re generally quicker to read than the average adult novel, which is partly why they appeal to me. Last week, though, I picked up a literary novel for the first time in a while — actually, a literary fantasy novel — and immediately noticed a difference.
I felt as if some part of my brain had just roused itself from hibernation, yawning and shaking off the dust. YA novels can be challenging in many ways: some of the most emotionally devastating and heavy-hitting books I’ve ever read were YA. But the act of reading something that wasn’t immediately accessible, that requires the reader to interpret and engage with the text, was something I realized that I missed. It isn’t anything I thought to seek out, but I know now I need as part of my reading diet.
My favorite part of being in English classes, both in high school and university, was being able to delve deeply into a text and pull out the messages I might not have noticed on first glance. I now see that my critical reading muscles have been underdeveloped lately. It’s possible, of course, to read YA critically, and I’ve likely missed a lot by not doing that. It’s a lot easier to remember to be critical, though, when a book is challenging. It makes me think deeper about and look harder at the narrative I’m taking in.
I do think it’s beneficial to challenge yourself as a reader, whether that means reading poetry, the “classics,” dense nonfiction, or literary fiction. I’m still surrounded by my YA TBR, and I look forward to getting to them, but this was a wake-up call to mix it up periodically. We can only grow as readers by stretching a little past what is comfortable.