Our Reading Lives

Stop Asking Me What I Read for Fun

Tracy Shapley Towley

Staff Writer

Tracy is a freelance copywriter, all-around ne’er do well, very-adult graduate of the University of Iowa, and occasional waterer of plants. Her hobbies include writing fiction, reading fiction, mixing together various flavors of soup, and typing letters to her friends on an old red typewriter that doesn't have a working period so all sentences must end in questions marks or exclamation points? She has read every Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and has a lot of thoughts on them. Her old Iowa farmhouse is shared by her husband Sean, a pair of cats, a pair of dogs, and the ghost of Kurt Vonnegut.

I like it when people talk to me about books. I like it when people talk to me about almost any book, including books I have no interest in reading. I will listen to someone tell me what they loved about Twilight and I will care and I will be excited because I am excited when people talk to me about books.

I’m less excited about talking to people about the books I’m reading. Why? Because apparently my favorite books, most of which are classified by the powers that be as literary fiction, are so dry and boring to most people that I’m too often met with blank stares and the frustrating question, “But what do you read for fun?”

If you’ve ever asked someone this, then let me ask you this: What do you mean by fun? I don’t mean to be pedantic, but really: If you’re using the word to mean “lighthearted pleasure,” then I guess I see your point, though I think it misses the larger, better definition of fun, which is “enjoyable.” I find reading books to be enjoyable. I get pleasure out of reading the books I read. Otherwise, I wouldn’t read them.

As anyone who’s read the Kama Sutra knows, there are billions of avenues we can use to reach pleasure. If I read a book with a fast-paced plot but flat characters, I don’t care how interesting or shocking or tense the eventual climax is, I don’t find that pleasurable. On the other hand, many people would really rather not read 20 pages of exposition, and they’d prefer not to invest 200 pages in a relatively plotless book just to see the protagonist gradually come to terms with something the reader figured out by page three.

I get it. I respect it. I don’t think that one is better than the other. I hear your complaints about literary fiction being saturated with white people whining about their white problems and I’m with you, it can be pretty fucking boring and precious-in-a-bad-way and I don’t have much more patience with it than literary-fiction-haters do.

Thankfully, there’s a whole new world out there of literary fiction. Thankfully, it seems that the canon-makers are starting to consider opening up a few spots for authors of color and women and stories that involve non-White-Europeans. Does that make it more enjoyable for me? You betcha. But I still need my unnecessarily long descriptions and my pedantic asides and my political and / or societal critiques and, generally speaking, I don’t want things to be neatly tied up.

I have the urge to tell you that I don’t want to defend my reading habits but the evidence seems to point to the fact that I very much want to defend my reading habits, especially when I see an article that sets out with the goal of defending “trashy romances,” and the very first line is about that obviously-known-fact that literary fiction isn’t “all that much fun to read.” And then I write this article that twice uses the world pedantic (no, now three times, if we’re really being pedantic – wait, now four . . .)

When other people tell me what they read, I ask them what they love about it. I don’t ask them, “But what do you read for academic rigor?” because I assume that the amount of academic rigor and pleasure and joy they get from the things they choose to read are the exact amounts they’re looking to get.

Books are personal. Taste is subjective. Reading and talking about books should be fun. And the word pedantic should never be used five times in a single article. Whoops.