You're reading what!?!
Over the years, I’ve become fascinated with what people choose to read and why. The operative word here is “choose.” Parents, teachers and schools make most of our reading choices for us during our first few years as readers. Even after I started telling my mom what books to buy me—this was pretty early on in my life, as mom will be happy to tell you—the books that stand out as my early favorites were all ones teachers put in my hands. Most notably, Miss Hanrahan. She was my 5th grade teacher and the first person who told me I could be a writer. (Bless her, wherever she is.)
Later, when I was applying to colleges, in the dark ages of paper applications, I remember being asked to list the books I had read in the past year and mark the ones that were not assigned reading. Many of those books were still ones that teachers recommended or ones I had read because, when given a choice to read one book out of a list of say, four or five for summer reading, I chose to read all of them. (My instinct is to please, and that was never more true than when it came to my English teachers. Bless them, all.) For a time after college, four years of reading more assigned books than anyone could count, I continued to carry the weight of the Western literary canon on my shoulders like the good English major I was, with the thought that it was still important that I get to all of it, as if I were Ahab and every “Important Work” by a deceased white man a great white whale I would die chasing.
Thankfully, I let go of that mindset. (Note to all you kids out there: It’s OK to say you don’t like Moby Dick. I certainly didn’t; allusions to it here are not meant to suggest otherwise.)
Back in 2017, I wrote on my old blog about the evolution of my reading choices, centering on what I called in that post “reading for pleasure.” It was a long post about the books I’d read that year and the ones I liked and disliked. You can read the whole thing here, but for today’s purposes, here’s an excerpt:
At nearly forty years of age, I have figured out that the phrase “reading for pleasure” doesn’t get it quite right. Reading offers pleasure, sure, but so do a lot of things. What reading gives me that nothing else does is emotional and mental restoration. Salvation, if you will. The thing that sleep does for my physical well-being, reading does for my mental health. I didn’t quite get this when I was in my 20s, because back then my mind and my heart didn’t need saving all that much. I had steady jobs, no kids and presidents—Republicans and Democrats both—who didn’t make me fear for the end of democracy and its fundamental liberties. Turns out, I need books to survive.
It’s cute how worried I was about Trump and the potential demise of democracy only a year into his presidency when so much worse was yet to come. Books did save me over the last four years, but let’s get back to the notion of reading for pleasure . . .
Really, the pleasure is in the choice. In getting to decide what you read. Because not all books offer pleasure—or, perhaps better stated, what they offer us varies and what we need from can vary too, over the course of a lifetime or even over the course of a week. Pleasure implies fun and reading certain subjects or genres isn’t always fun. That doesn’t mean it isn’t good for us. Sobbing through Toni Morrison, for example, offers a catharsis that can eventually make you feel good, human, alive, even if the emotions her vivid prose put you through are wrenching. Toni is never a bad choice.
Frothy romance is never a bad choice either. Jasmine Guillory sending a black woman of a certain age to England so she can meet a hot guy with an accent is never ever a bad choice. Her Royal Holiday is pleasure, both in what it offers its protagonist and its reader. Women tend to apologize for having fun—and lord knows few things are judged so harshly as books written to entertain women—but no one should ever apologize for enjoying a story whose sole purpose is to ensure the woman at its center gets what she wants.
Conversely, choosing to read about history, racism and social justice is difficult because of the ghosts we must face when we do so and the action we must take as a result. It’s empowering, though, and necessary. Learning is a huge part of why many people read, whether it’s learning how to knit or how to choose wine (I have books on both of these subjects) or how to be a better ally in anti-racism (got some on that subject too).
One of my sisters, a graduate of Harvard Business School (I will never miss an opportunity to brag on her), likes thrillers. I do and I don’t. Mysteries can be fun but reading them can leave me anxious. She has a high-octane job that at times can be all consuming, and given that, the way thrillers can suck you in and make you forget about everything else make them appealing pleasure reading for her in a way they are not always for me. All this said, I am reading a mystery novel right now and enjoying the heck out of it. In my view, the best thing about thrillers is that they are good at making us feel things. No critical analysis required.
Because I spent so much time as a teenager and a young adult reading assigned books and thinking about them in ways that would impress my teachers, it took many years for me to return to the point where what I focus on when I think about books is my emotional response. These days, how I react to what I read, how I write reviews, is all about my mood, the state of things around me when I’m reading, how the words and story affect me emotionally, what they make me think about. It’s all about me, basically. Is it “good literature”? I mean, maybe? Who cares, if it made me cry like a baby? Students of English, like I was once, comb through prose for important themes, character, structure, imagery, and what have you. No thesis I ever turned in made any mention of how I felt, certainly not whether I liked what I was reading. That’s all well and good. These days, though, in the glory days of choosing what I read, emotion is the only thing that matters. So if you’re wondering how I choose books, that’s how: I choose according to what I want to feel.
How do you choose? Feel free to share in the comments.
If you enjoyed this post, you may find this 2017 piece from Vox fun. It’s an interview with the editor of the New York Times Review of Books that touches on what she reads for fun. In it she says, “Personally I’m doing pure escapism in books at the moment.” Can relate.
Speaking of escapism, since it feels like we are living in a dystopian nightmare already, how will any of us feel reading dystopian science-fiction going forward? Will any of us even do that again? In this interview in Electric Lit with science-fiction writer Ted Chiang, from waaaaay back when the pandemic arrived on our shores in March 2020, Chiang explains the tropes of his genre and how they compare to “the disaster novel we all suddenly live in.”
And speaking of science-fiction, in this essay for Slate from October, author Cory Doctorow considers darkness and hope in the genre. He notes: “This is the thought experiment of a thousand sci-fi stories: When the chips are down, will your neighbors be your enemies or your saviors?” A timely question to consider, right? Cynicism is entertaining, he asserts, but not helpful or healthy—particularly in the current moment. Perhaps, it’s not even realistic. We’ve made it this far, haven’t we?
I just finished this book and the review I posted on Goodreads is the best illustration I can offer how specifically my own feelings and setting affect how I respond to a book.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - My reaction/response to this book is entirely a result of when I read it (a global pandemic) and my state of mind (tired basically all the time). Scrolling through other Goodreads reviews makes it clear that it's a bit polarizing, due in large part to Mantel's style, which can be hard to follow, but also likely because at this point, there are too many interpretations of the why's and wherefores of the Tudor dynasty to count. I, perhaps oddly, landed in the middle. I didn't dislike the book. At times it was genuinely engaging and the author certainly knows her way around the written word. But at times it could also just feel like a dense slog through yet another version of a story we've all heard a million times. Briefly: Henry VIII wanted a new wife so bad he invented divorce, an event that took a long time and a lot of lawyers. Mantel hinges this take on that piece of history on the one lawyer who, as the son of a smith with a propensity for violence, understood the emotions of survival best of them all. There's a lot to mine in the book, but I'd only recommend if you're willing to power through it.
I mentioned Royal Holiday above, here’s what I thought about it back when I read it last year.
Royal Holiday by Jasmine Guillory - I think what I enjoyed the most about this Guillory romance is that the characters were middle aged, so the emotions and pace of the feelings involved felt more real. Here are two people who know themselves, who aren’t looking to get married, but who are nevertheless delighted to find themselves in love. There are no meet-cutes or friends with benefits arrangements or other tropes that can’t push past cliché. My favorite of this author’s efforts by far.
Lastly, Miss Hanrahan’s favorite book and mine growing up was Bridge to Terabithia, which I reread as a read aloud to my oldest when she was a captive audience (which is to say, a baby). Note, spoilers ahoy:
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson - I loved this book when I first read it as a 5th grader. It's language was by turns strong and vivid, and soft and comforting. Given my penchant for the fantastical back then (think Narnia and the Shire), this was probably the most "real" book I read as a child. Reading it to the little one, it was all of those things once more and something else: haunting. Knowing that Leslie's death was coming, I almost dreaded reading about the wonderful times she and Jesse have together even as I enjoyed their friendship with them. Back in 5th grade, Leslie's fate was heartbreaking because she felt like a friend. This time around, she felt like a daughter. Part of me wanted to reach into the book and save her—or hug the grieving Jesse. Either way, I love this book as much as ever.