by Amelia Zavala Vander Heide, Head Editor, INALJ NYC
If it’s Not Pleasurable, Don’t Read It: Being a Reader’s Advocate
I was recently approached by a teen with an unusual question: “How do you get through Faulkner?” At first I was taken aback. How do you answer such a question? Secondly, having been a History major, I had taken only two English Lit classes in college, so I never read Faulkner. When she responded that the book was not for class, but for pleasure, and she was finding it rather difficult, I responded, “I’m a librarian. And as a librarian, I am a firm believer in reading for pleasure– If it’s not pleasurable, don’t read it.”
I started thinking about my conversation with this particular teen more and more, especially in the wake of the Ruth Graham’s polarizing Slate article, Against YA: Read Whatever You Want. But You Should Feel Embarrassed When What You’re Reading Was Written for Children. All I want to do is get kids, teens, and parents to read more. Read magazines, read books, even read Reddit because they find it enjoyable. I just want everyone to read. Some things Graham presented in the article I agree with, primarily the summation of The Fault in Our Stars. This is one teen librarian who did not enjoy the book. There was a lot more I disagree with, from the condescending tone to the assumption that most adult readers were reading great adult literature to begin with.
Being an avid reader myself, obviously, and having worked with, befriended, and met dozens upon dozens of reader over the years, I am here to say most people are not reading Tolstoy or Jonathan Franzen. Our most popular adult books in the library are romance, sci-fi/fantasy, and mysteries. Not the genre defining hardcovers either, but the pulp paperbacks. There are some people who truly enjoy mighty tomes. Some of my favorite books are Ana Karenina and Gone with the Wind, as well as a good mix of non-fiction and philosophy. I can reread Soren Kierkegaard any night of the week. But who am I to discourage someone who only wants to read 50 Shades of Grey and Twilight?
I agree that teens and children should be challenged to read books that are beautiful, evocative, and profound. That is why there is a required reading curriculum for school children. This is where I disagree with Graham the most: so what if adults want to read escapist books? They are already done with school. They are literate enough to read. Maybe after working 40 hours a week, dealing with kids, paying their bills, and dealing with all of the woes of being an adult they just want to remember how great it was to be a teen. Everything is new and exciting. You haven’t quite been beaten down by life yet.
Since I began working with teens, I have read a lot more YA than I ever thought I would. I do not like every single title and, just like adult books, some are awful. It is true that sometimes I get burnt out on living in the world of teenagers and I just need to read a book with sex, violence, and darker themes. When this happens, I just choose to read something else. Not every television show is Mad Men and not every book is Faulkner. Being a librarian is advocating for the reader, whether they are 5 or 92, without judgment, and to make sure that they just keep on reading.