"Challenging" Books, Reading Culture and Other Complications

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Why do we read?

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot. Actually, I’ve been thinking about this question since April, when the Pew Center released their study on the reading habits of Americans.

Unsurprisingly, the data revealed that people read… wait for it…

lot of different reasons. 

Take a moment to recover from the shock of that astonishing information. 

Here’s a snippet from the results (it’s really worth reading through the study, if this sort of thing interests you):

  • 26% of those who had read a book in the past 12 months said that what they enjoyed most was learning, gaining knowledge, and discovering information.
  • 15% cited the pleasures of escaping reality, becoming immersed in another world, and the enjoyment they got from using their imaginations.
  • 12% said they liked the entertainment value of reading, the drama of good stories, the suspense of watching a good plot unfold.
  • 12% said they enjoyed relaxing while reading and having quiet time.
  • 6% liked the variety of topics they could access via reading and how they could find books that particularly interested them.
  • 4% said they enjoy finding spiritual enrichment through reading and expanding their worldview.
  • 3% said they like being mentally challenged by books.
  • 2% cited the physical properties of books – their feel and smell – as a primary pleasure.
  • Source Link

For me, all but the last item (books’ physicality) are true. Often when I read, I find that my world expands, that I learn something new, maybe about a place, perhaps about my own thinking. I love the drama of a good book, of a beautifully constructed plot, of carefully crafted words. Reading, as I’ve mentioned a time or twelve, is also my favorite way to unwind and decompress—it’s a lifelong habit of mine to read for an hour or two before bed or when I take a lunch break.

I’d also add to that list that I love the community of readers, which was even true before the internet became such an awesome book talk water cooler. Even as a kid, passing around good books and chatting about them, was a joy. Now, I love discussing about books here on CEFS, at my book club meetings (hi ladies!), on Twitter, on Goodreads and at Costco (this keeps happening to me for some reason).

But what I’m most interested from this data is the idea of reading being “challenging.”

This is the the response to the Pew survey that’s most value-laden. It’s also the response I saw most mourned for its small numbers on social media. And I read quite a few snarky comments as well about this somehow symbolizing all sorts of declines in American culture. Ahem.

This word, “challenge,” is an interesting one—one I think is quite loaded. What does that mean exactly?

I know I have my own definition of “challenging” books, but let’s take a look at how that word is defined when Arbiters of All That is Worth Reading (AATWR) talk about “challenging” reads. 

As everyone knows, the New York Times and its assorted columnists are the be all and end all of literary culture. (*eye roll*)

(I really can’t even say that sarcastically without laughing.)

And as such, they’ve published quite a bit lately about the importance of being “challenged” when we read. I supposed it could be perceived as slightly unfair to pick on the NYT, but despite the decline of newspapers, the Times holds a lot of sway with a lot of people. Most of us don’t have the privilege of writing columns in that paper to tell everyone within the Times’ significant sphere of influence what the right and wrong way to read is, so for me, what they choose to dedicate space to is still significant—and concerning. 

Yesterday, the NYT ran a piece urging parents to focus on serious nonfiction for their kids’ summer reading, arguing that these sort of books bring more to kids’ lives than do books like Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series, which the author describes as, 

…human dynamics that are cartoonish, with violent revolution serving as the backdrop for teen romance.

I’m not going to get into whether or not The Hunger Games is meritorious (though I love that series, even more so after a reread—it subtly explores a lot of universal issues) and while I am an educator (I teach at a college, but mostly adult students, and am going to be teaching my first enrichment class for teens this winter), I’m not really equipped to discuss what type of books help feed kids academically over the summer (I’ve asked Sandra, who taught high school English for 25 years to write on this subject).

However, what struck me about that piece is that it once again embraces the belief that reading for enjoyment, for entertainment, to spark imagination, is somewhat unacceptable, of lesser merit than reading to learn, to be “challenged,”

Reading literature should be intentional. The problem with much summer reading is that the intention is unclear.

I remember summer reading lists. I was in the “advanced” track in high school, so we always had “very important” books we were supposed to read each summer. To be quite honest, I don’t remember any of them except Crime and Punishment, which was so crazy and wild and complex that it was absolutely unforgettable. (I actually really liked this book in all its twisted WTFery, though I didn’t particularly enjoy the act of reading it.)

What I do remember extremely clearly, though, is that over that same summer, I read Judy Blume’s Tiger Eyes at least 20 times. 

That summer, Tiger Eyes taught me so, so much. 

It taught me that when you’re a certain age, it seems like nothing ever changes because it feels like it takes forever to grow up, but everything really can in the blink of an eye. It taught me that you can have certain friends, certain relationships, at a certain time and then things change but even though things don’t last, they can change your life in all sorts of amazing ways. It taught me that there are lots of types of love. Tiger Eyes enriched my life.

And yet, it’s not a book that most educators would have included on a summer reading list, and it’s not a book anyone would consider “challenging.” The prose and story are relatively simple and it doesn’t explore the nature of the human condition. It’s not a book that any teacher would have put in my hands and told me to read “intentionally.”

There’s something to be said for everyone, particularly young people, exploring books on their own, finding things that click with us, that we need at that particular time in our lives. I’m not disavowing the notion of summer reading being enriching and helping with school, but if adults encourage young people to explore books that excite them—whatever they may be—then we’re helping grow lifelong readers. That’s what Tiger Eyes, and other books I discovered on my own, did for me.

And while reading Crime and Punishment probably means that I’m an Officially Cultured Human Being, I’d probably be the exact same person I am now if I hadn’t read it. 

In much of my reading life, the books that have impacted me the most have been those that surprised me.

These are the books that contained little nuggets of wisdom or experiences that resonated with me at just the right time. These books sneaked up on me and hit me in the head. 

Unintentional reading can lead to the exploration of all sorts of issues in a space, books, that’s safe. For many teens, this is the “teen romance” that so many of the AATWR’s dismiss out of hand—this is important stuff for young people to figure out. For others young readers, whose home lives may suck, reading fantasy novels or science fiction can take them away to worlds that are better, can offer an escape.

Which brings me to the other bit of commentary in the New York Times I came across this weekend, thanks to a post from my blogging friends at The Readventurer.

Earlier this month, Matt de la Peña argued in the NYT that reading as an “escape” is inherently problematic and that readers are fearful of being “challenged.”

I have many, many problems with this entire column, particularly in the dismissive way the very real and serious health issue of depression was addressed, some of which are discussed (including a response from de la Peña) in the comments of the post on The Readventurer; I also chatted with the author (initiated by him) on Twitter this weekend and I think we agreed to disagree on this issue. Furthermore, I vehemently disagree with his statement that the natural human state is melancholia.

However, what I’m particularly interested in with regard to reading culture is that de la Peña’s piece further pushes the agenda that books should always and forever “challenge,” and that the definition of “challenging” books is very, very narrow. This is very much like the argument that reading should be intentional, saying that there are good and bad, right and wrong, books to read. 

This shift has directly affected the kind of novels many of us read. We don’t want our ideologies to be challenged. That’s too much work. We want escape. We want affirmation. We want to be told that we really are good enough and smart enough. Sad and challenging novels are still being released, but fewer of us are investing our time in them. 

As I’ve mentioned afewtimes, value-laden delineations like this are a hot button for me. One of the big objectives of starting Clear Eyes, Full Shelves was to promote reading culture—in all of its forms.

I want to share my love and passion and enthusiasm for reading. I want to help that spread to others. I deeply believe that what we read is not nearly as important as the act of reading. This is why I often find myself in the awkward position of defending genres that aren’t really my thing.

I deeply believe in promoting reading culture, without conditions.  

Reading can be transformative. It can educate, enlighten and connect us to people and places we’d never meet otherwise. But, another important part of reading culture is the entertainment factor. 

That’s right. I love that reading is a viable entertainment option.

We have a lot of options with how we spend our entertainment resources, both time and money (yep, books are a product) and I want to help people see books and reading as a viable choice. In the United States, 19 percent of people over 16 have not read a book in the last year (according to the Pew study I cited earlier). Because of this growing number, we cannot discount the importance of entertainment and escape as legitimate reason for picking up a book, even—gasp!—The Hunger Games.

If we want a vibrant reading culture, we cannot start that conversation by diminishing readers for choosing the wrong books, for the wrong reasons, despite what New York Times columnists say.

I want to live in a world where I chat with a 16 year old in Costco about The Fault in Our Stars (this really happened), or excitedly talk with a couple of grandmothers at Costco about The Hunger Games book versus the movie (yep, this really happened too). And I want to live in a culture where I give and get book recommendations on Twitter, because people are excited about reading. 

If the only books that people read are those that “challenge,” reading would be a whole lot less appealing to a whole lot of people.

And by further narrowing the definition of “challenging” novels to de la Peña’s, to mean books that are sad or melancholy, that even further alienates people in a country in which reading culture is already competing with loads of other entertainment options—a country in which almost 20 percent of our neighbors have not read a book this year.

I read a lot of books that “challenge” me, with the writing style, with emotional intensity that’s almost too much to handle, by being a bit too close to my own experiences for comfort, with complex plots and difficult characters. But for me, a thread of hopefulness is absolutely essential. And I don’t think I’m alone in that desire.

The books of the good ol’ days (newsflash: popular fiction existed back in the day too) that we’re supposed to read, along with current heralded “literary” fiction—the books that are supposed to “challenge” us—often lack that key element. And yes, I’ve read a lot of those books, it’s only recently that I’ve eschewed most of the books we’re “supposed” to read because they leave me feeling unfulfilled because of their hopelessness. There is enough negativity, dourness and misery in this world, I don’t need that from my books—books that I often read to, yes, be entertained and for escapism, but also that “challenge” me in their own way. 

When I read, I want to feel like there’s a path forward, that there’s hope for something better. Which, funnily enough, is also what I want out of life too. 

Why do you read?

What “challenges” you?

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