On Cultural Obligations

I was reading through the comments section of a YA literature think-piece1 on the AV Club the other day, and a lot of people2 seem to share the belief that readers (and note, we mean all readers, not just adults) shouldn’t waste their time on the “mindless pap” that is the YA genre when they could be reading Literature (pronounced “capital-L literature”). Because apparently reading for pleasure is not good enough; all reading should be challenging and character-building.

This is bullshit. What follows is a super disorganized exploration of why this is bullshit:

Amazon currently has over 3 million books in its Literature & Fiction section. Granted, there’s probably some double-counting going on in that total, due to books with multiple editions or whatever. But still. That’s a shitload of books. Certainly more than one can read in one’s lifetime. So let’s just consider their Classics section–that gives us 277,026 books (again, some double-counting may be involved) ranging from The Odyssey to To Kill a Mockingbird to A Secret History; probably every book that someone has said you “should” read is on that list. Let’s even narrow this down to the books in the Classics section that are available in English on Kindle, since that’s apparently the future, and that have been rated 3 stars or more–12,109. Eat healthily, exercise regularly, and live to 100–you need to have been reading more than 2 books a week every week since birth to make it through that list, and this is a list that includes 800 page fuckers like The Brothers Karamazov. And that’s if you ignore large swathes of non-fiction, contemporary books that may become classic in a few years, niche genres, etc. (we will use the double-counting in the list to account for re-reading, though).

There are a shitload of books in the world that “everyone should read”, and it’s almost impossible read all of them in one lifetime, even if you don’t read anything else. The idea of only reading things that you “should” read is sort of bullshit–no matter what you do, there are going to be gaps, so why not focus on reading things you genuinely enjoy and occasionally feel extra pretentious when the lists intersect?

This is probably a good time to note that I had a Big Nihilist Revelation™ at some point3 in undergrad because we can’t really discuss the Purpose (or Lack of Purpose) of Art and Like, Should Anyone Really Do Anything without touching on that. So as briefly as possible–let’s say you accept that existence is meaningless and you are insignificant and nothing has any inherent value and morality is a social construct and all that other shit, but still acknowledge that you’re human and able to experience pleasure. Then it only really makes sense to choose your actions to maximize your pleasure, because why else even do anything?

From our Enlightened Nihilist Clearly Seeing the Truth of the World perspective, then, the sole purpose of reading a book (or watching a movie or listening to a song or consuming [insert art form here]) should be to experience pleasure. And pleasure is a pretty broad term; it can be the experience of being completely absorbed in a story or the satisfaction of finding a quote that perfectly articulates a sentiment that feels so specifically true to you or the sense of superiority you get from being able to name-drop “difficult” books in conversation. Or the long-term pay-off from reading a required book to get an A in your high school English class to get into a good college to get a high-paying job to have enough money to do whatever the fuck you want. Or a shit-ton of other things, none of which are necessarily more or less valuable.

I “should” read Great Expectations, but I doubt that I would derive any enjoyment from it or have my perspective of the world at all changed by it. I more or less already understand the significance of Great Expectations and Charles Dickens in popular culture, so what do I gain from reading Great Expectations? The satisfaction of crossing GE off of the list of “Works of Literary Merit” that I still have saved from AP Literature? A sense of accomplishment for the simple task of reading every word in the novel even if I may not have synthesized the words into anything meaningful? Pretension points for reading a book that many average people have read because they were forced to in high school? For me, none of those are quite worth slogging through 500+ pages of how much it sucked to be poor in 19th century England. For someone else, they might be, and if you’re an English major or claim to be a connoisseur of Victorian literature, you certainly do need to read Great Expectations if you expect anyone to take your opinions seriously. But the point is: Great Expectations itself is not inherently valuable.

In fact, the place Great Expectations holds within our culture as one of the books “everyone should read” probably actually devalues it. If you were forced to read it in high school, you either hated it because it was boring homework or still claim it as one of your favorite books because you want to sound smart4. If you read it as an adult in a bout of self-improvement (“My New Year’s resolution is to read at least 10 classics!”)–well, maybe you really did find it uniquely enjoyable and totally understood what Dickens was going for. But I think it’s more likely that you kind of just read it so that you could cross it off your list and tell all your acquaintances how Valuable and Life-Changing the experience was; reading Great Expectations then becomes less about whatever the unique qualities of Great Expectations are and more about the act of reading a Book of Cultural Significance, and all Books of Cultural Significance then just sort of become interchangeable.

I graduated college in May and finally read Fathers and Sons and The Picture of Dorian Gray for the first time this summer. Both of these are required reading for a lot of high school lit classes, and I’m not going to insult the intelligence of teenagers by claiming that either book is too difficult for them. I might have even enjoyed them in high school, or at least convinced myself that I did because I value being seen as an intellectual type. But I wouldn’t have gotten the same sense of deep understanding and emotional connection that I got as a 21-year-old in the midst of an existential crisis about life after college and aging and becoming a Real Adult a.k.a. the perfect conditions in which to find Fathers and Sons and The Picture of Dorian Gray meaningful.

As I’ve hopefully gotten across in the previous section, I don’t really believe anyone “should” read any particular book, so I’m not going to say that teenagers should or shouldn’t read Literature. But we should acknowledge that life experience plays a role in our understanding of books, and there are certain books that we may only really “get” at later points in life. That may be because we grow more comfortable with language as we age; for example, the linguistic barrier to the humor in Austen’s narration in Pride and Prejudice was lowered each time I revisited it from ages 12 to 17 to 21. And relatability is apparently a controversial concept and I’m not totally sure I want to get into it here; while reading to experience different perspectives/worlds/lives is valuable5, it’s harder to critically engage with a novel that you can’t relate to at all. Finding at least one thing that you can strongly identify with, whether it’s some demographic characteristic or personality trait of the protagonist or a particular incident in the plot, makes it easier to draw connections and analyses beyond the surface-level shit.

One final note: It’s possible to read “mindless pap” mindfully; similarly, it’s possible to read thoughtful Literature thoughtlessly. Any literate person can read every word in a Great Novel, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that s/he read it more (or less) critically s/he read Twilight. So what even is “mindless pap.”


[1] The think-piece itself was pro-YA literature or at least anti-“the stigma associated with YA literature that is also sort of gendered,” but it didn’t say anything new or non-obvious, so I don’t recommend it. Still, here’s a link for the curious.^
[2] Or perhaps just one super prolific commenter, if we’re being totally honest.^
[3] I unfortunately can’t remember if there was a sudden epiphany or a sort of gradual awakening. But I’m pretty sure that Notes from Underground played a huge part in it, even though that is kind of the opposite of the point of Notes from Undergound. Sorry, D. ^
[4] Let’s face it, you probably missed out on a lot of themes/subtext/whatever when you read it as a teenager and you probably haven’t revisited it since, although I’m sure you’ve been meaning to. And you probably do the whole performative display of shock thing when you meet someone who hasn’t read Great Expectations, even though…would you have read it if it hadn’t been required for a class? And look, I totally do the exact same thing with Hamlet, so I’m in no position to judge (but that will not stop me from judging). ^
[5] I mean, with the caveat that nothing is inherently valuable, but whatever, this is a thing that people value. ^

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