Monday, January 21, 2019

Redefining Taking Your Reading Medicine

I think most readers of this blog are likely aware that I live in the United States and this past weekend was a holiday weekend (today is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day).  Certainly not all, but there are a number of schools and libraries closed for the day, my employer being one, and I decided to take advantage of the long holiday weekend.  After glomming through four Spice Briefs for this month's TBR Challenge, I hadn't picked up anything to read in about a week and I didn't want to lose my momentum.  So of course this would the moment where I end up DNF'ing my next two potential reads - one after 10%, one after 25%.  Both were books that I was hoping to enjoy, that had very intriguing, thought-provoking plots, and yet both failed to engage me or muster up enough enthusiasm in me to keep reading.

So I decided that desperate times called for desperate measures.  In January 2018, incredibly depressed that I hadn't read a single 5-Star romance in all of 2017, I vowed to start 2018 reading through backlist titles by an author who consistently works for me - Molly O'Keefe.  So, I did that again, and I ended up inhaling Bad Neighbor and Baby Come Back (a duology) in less than 24 hours.  Were these 5-Star reads?  No.  They're good reads, problematic in a lot of ways, but compelling to the point where I could not put down my Kindle.  I had to keep reading until I got to the final sentence.  Something about O'Keefe's style, voice, whatever you want to call it, clicks with me.  I haven't loved all the books I've read by her, and yet I fall right into her worlds and come out the other side half-dazed and a little drunk.

But I'm not here to sing the praises of Molly O'Keefe.  No, I'm here to talk about reading, how our society treats it, how we teach it to our children, and how despite the fact that reading is magic we, in the United States at least, are determined to suck every last bit of joy out of it.

We teach our children, from cradle to grave, that reading is the equivalent of taking your medicine.  You feel like crud, it tastes really gross, and you just wish someone would smother you with a pillow to put you out of your misery.  Instead we force you to read a book that, chances are, you find boring and dull.  We tell kids, either flat-out or subliminally, that they should only read certain books.  Books that society has ingrained in us are "smart" books.  Comic books aren't smart.  Graphic novels aren't smart.  Romance is definitely not smart.  High drama of the soap opera variety isn't smart.  Mystery and Science Fiction can be smart but only this short list of prescribed authors.

We teach our children to pass tests because that's how it was decided schools should get their funding, which is how we end up with the same list of assigned authors and books we're teaching our kids today that I was forced to read 25 years ago.

Am I saying that kids shouldn't have required reading?  No. There's still value in teaching Shakespeare.  What I'm saying is that we should allow our kids freedom of choice.  That freedom to walk into a library, pick up any book they fancy, whether we as adults think it's "too easy" or "too hard" or "too low-brow" or "too whatever."  Here's the thing, kids know their own minds.  If a book is "too easy?"  They'll probably set it aside.  If a book is "too hard?"  They'll probably set it aside and look for something else.  Kids are smart enough to tell anybody willing to listen who their favorite superhero is and why, and yet adults seem to think they can't do that with books?  Why, exactly?  Well, I'll tell you why:

Because generation after generation has been taught that reading is smart, but only certain books and authors are smart, the rest is trash, and smart cannot equal fun.  Ergo if you're having fun while reading you're doing it wrong and/or reading the wrong books/authors.  And if you're not white, not male, and not rich - then it's automatically suspect.  Serialized novels during the Victorian era? Trash. Paperback format? Trash. Romance novels?  Oh man, the trashiest trash that ever trashed.

If 2016-2018 has taught us anything it's that life is short and people should take joy where they can find it.  You know where I find it?  In genre fiction.  A mystery novel will give me a sense of justice in a world where justice doesn't always prevail and a romance novel is going to be filled with love, light and a joyful happy ending in a world where endings aren't always happy.  Life is short and frankly, it can suck.  Why do I want to spend my short, sometimes sucky life, on reading something that isn't bringing me joy?  The answer is...I don't.

Find your joy.  There's a big wide world of publishing out there with a whole lot of people writing all sorts of stories.  Stories to get lost in.  Stories to reaffirm your soul.  Sample it like a Las Vegas buffet, find your joy, give yourself permission to stop reading books that aren't bringing you joy.  Stop apologizing, stop feeling guilty, stop feeling like you shouldn't like something as pure as a book, as a good story, grab hold of the brass ring and don't let go.

Medicine is supposed to make you feel better.


Jazz Let said...

Yes yes YES!!

I still remember with disgust the Engish teacher who made me promise to finish all books I started, such appalling advice, but coming from the assumption that there would be many 'important' books that I wouldn't enjoy, but should perservere with despite that. Well I call slug slime on that, I will not play that game, I will read what I enjoy when I can find it and I will proudly DNf books I am not enjoying.

the passionate reader said...

When my kids started middle school--almost 20 years ago--the joke in our house became that, in every books, they were assigned, the dog died. My favorite was when my younger two were, in 6th grade assigned Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.

By the time they hit high school, reading, at least reading that the schools assigned, was no fun. It made me crazy. And, of course, books in my children's lives have had to compete with easy to enjoy video games and TV shows. All of my kids were voracious readers up until about 7th grade and none of them read for pleasure until they were out of college. Now, two read for pleasure and one listens to audiobooks (fiction) and reads only non-fiction. One still doesn't read books... yet, I hope.

I was at a party this weekend and the host, a lovely, compassionate woman, said she'd stopped reading because all the books she was supposed to enjoy she didn't. I asked why she didn't pick books she thought she'd like. She squirmed and said she felt guilty if she weren't reading something that improved her. Sigh.

willaful said...

Great post, Wendy! I'm happy that my son's high school picks such interesting reading choices, and we also do home reading aloud, but even so, I think a lot of reading has been ruined for him. :-(

azteclady said...

I'm standing here cheering, ready to stand up with a lighter to sing this song with you.

Kendra said...

Amen, Wendy! Why oh why can’t I get parents and teachers to just let kids read what they want to read? If they want to read that Diary of a Wimpy Kid book for the fifth time, does it really matter? THEY ARE READING. Isn’t that the goal?

As a middle school librarian, I’ve heard teachers say that graphic novels aren’t real books, books less than 100 pages are unacceptable, and any book with a reading level below the student’s grade level is “too easy.” Ugh! I’m booktalking up a storm, excited to finally find something that sparks interest with these students only to have the teacher reject the book for some random reason. I’ll never forget the time a student was so excited to find three Nancy Drew books she hadn’t read yet. (This was early in my career, maybe 20ish years ago.) She left the library all excited only to return a few minutes later, because her teacher told her she wasn’t allowed to read that “trash”. I tried to get the student to keep at least one to read on the sly, but she wouldn’t. I doubt she ever read anything else that year. I hope she rediscovered that joy of reading sometime in her life.

I’ve worked hard over the course of my career to change attitudes about independent reading, class novels, and assigned reading. It’s so rewarding to see the converts and their classes come to the library. I love seeing kids excited about reading books and talking about them. You don’t see that in the classes where students are not able to freely choose what to read. Why is that so hard for others to see?

And don’t get me started about adults genre shaming other adults..

S. said...

Agreed, Wendy.
It's reading what we like that makes it worthwhile! I admit I also read other books, the so-called "serious ones" because I like to try them. However, those who don't...

I mostly liked the books I had to read in school. Obviously very different from the ones in US schools. But to these days still many colleagues don't read because of those "bad" experiences.

And, sadly, still many parents don't think it's a good way to pass the time. My own mother used to tell me, if there were chores to do at the house, why "are you doing nothing? do this/that!"
Thankfully, my reading habits turned into a good addiction! :)

Kristina Knight said...

And this is why "summer (and winter break and spring break and any non-school-time, really) reading" is always fun-time reading in our house. bebe and I hit the library and she picks out 4 or 5 books that are interesting to her and I get no say in the matter. Some are graphic novels and some are way too young for her and some are probably too old...but the key is that she picks them out. She reads them. Some she finishes and some she doesn't, but they're books that call to her and that, I think, are helping her figure out who she is as a reader and as a person.

Wendy said...

Oh hey, look - it's Wendy finally responding to comments! Le sigh.

Jazz Let: Ugh, INORITE?! I had this ingrained in me too. It's just dreadful "advice." Once I stopped "heavy duty reviewing" I vowed that I would allow myself to DNF.

TPR: OMG the whole "only read to 'improve' yourself" thing needs to die a thousand deaths. Who gets to decide what books are the ones that will "improve you?" I think we can all name a dozen romances off the tops of our heads that literally moved us to tears or opened up a window into our psyches. If that's not improvement I'm not sure what is.

Willaful: Summer was reserved for weekly library trips where I read whatever I wanted. During the school year I still read for pleasure, but not nearly as much because of the dreadful required reading I was assigned. The books I liked best in school were the ones that I chose independently for assignments from a list my teacher provided. At least I got to choose something that appealed the most out of several options.

AL: Amen.

Kendra: OMG, I'm sobbing over your Nancy Drew student! I LOVED Nancy Drew. I devoured The Nancy Drew Files books when I was in middle school and guess what? When I got to the point where I could read one in a matter of hours (I'm a sloooow reader), I knew that I had probably "outgrown" Nancy and maybe I should look for mystery novels in the adult section of the library. A pox on that teacher!

S: "I'm reading because there are chores to do around the house." LOL If I'm cleaning instead of reading that's usually a sign that I need to find a better book to read :)

Kristina: My parents were the same way with library visits. They were surprisingly "hands off" on what we chose to read and never restricted us in that way. And I'm a productive member of society who does a fairly OK job in articulating myself and I don't rob liquor stores in my spare time.