On my August 7 blog, reader Genevieve wroteÂ a comment: “I would like to say thank you for re-igniting my passion for reading which I had lost for several years. I have not read so much in my life as I have in these last few months!!!”
It’s not the first time I’ve heardÂ such a comment.Â AndÂ I think it’s time to show youÂ a little piece that I wroteÂ awhile back, about just that topic:
I’m often asked to give library talks about my experiences as a writer.Â These events draw an audience that is generally well-educated, well-read, and intensely curious about the world of books.Â So I was taken aback after one of these events when, as the room emptied out, a woman of about sixty, nattily dressed in brown tweed, sidled up to me and confessed, on a mournful note: “I don’t read books anymore.”
This statement was as startling to me as if she’d said, “I don’t eat food anymore.”Â I live and breathe books, and could not imagine life without them.Â And here was this woman — meticulously groomed, with thoughtful eyes, a woman I would have guessed was a discriminating reader — telling me she did not read books at all.
“I liked what you said in your talk about how you grew up loving Nancy Drew,” she said.Â “You reminded me of how much I used to love books.”
“But you don’t anymore?”
“When was the last time you really enjoyed a book?” I asked.
She thought this over for a moment.Â And finally said, with a look of self-revelation: “When I was a child.Â When I could read what I wanted to.”
She did not need to explain this; we both understood that, along with the self-consciousness of adulthood, comes the compulsion to read books we don’t really want to read, books that are designed to challenge our minds and leave us feeling all the more accomplished for having read them.Â Books that are “worthy” of our precious time.Â Books we don’t necessarily want to read.
I recall the misery of having slogged through just such a book.Â It was an early Oprah Book Club selection, a novel that came highly praised by literary critics and book group mavens.Â I wanted to like that book.Â I was filled with the anticipation of discovery as I climbed into bed andÂ turned to the first page.Â Reading in bed has always been my reward at the end of a day’s work, a quiet hour of pleasure just before I turn off the lights.
That book became my nightly torture session.
The writing was indeed elegant, but the woes — ah, the woes of the heroine!Â They left me paralyzed by depression.Â I began to dread my bedtime hour.Â I would flip ahead, trying to gauge how many more chapters, how many more nights, I would have to endure.Â But endure I did, all the way to the end, because the book was good for me!Â It was nourishing!Â It would feed my soul!
What it did was leave me a desolate wreck for days afterwards.
This is not to say that such books should be avoided.Â Only that such books should probably be avoided by me.Â Yet there I was, night after night, dutifully making myself miserable because some higher power (Oprah, the New York Times, my local independent bookseller — take your pick) had said this book would be good for me.Â It was the literary equivalent of Brussels sprouts.
I finally managed to shake off the after-effects of the Miserable But Worthy Book by diving into the latest Patsy Cornwell thriller.Â But I felt furtive and sheepish about reading Cornwell — like the dinner guest who’s hiding out in the kitchen, digging in the ice cream, while everyone else is dining responsibly on legumes.
Even if they don’t want to.
This weird craze for “responsible reading” has driven old-fashioned reading for sheer enjoyment into the closet.Â It makes women hide their romance novels.Â It’s turned Stephen King and Mary Higgins Clark into guilty pleasures.Â While “rediscovering your inner child” is generally thought to be a good thing, it doesn’t seem to apply to rediscovering our childish joy in books.Â You remember it, don’t you?Â What it was like to be so hungry to finish reading a story that you hid out under the sheets with a flashlight?Â That you never even heard your mother’s voice calling you to dinner because Nancy Drew and her pals were trapped in some dark cellar, and you hadÂ only one more chapter to go?Â You remember, don’t you, what it was like to read a book because you wanted to, not because it was good for you?Â Perhaps this explains the huge popularity of Harry Potter books among adults.Â It’s the only pleasurable reading we’ve been given official permission to enjoy, but only because we are obligatedÂ — as responsible adults, you know! — to find out whatÂ our children are up to.Â Â
It’s this childhood pleasure of reading that the lady in tweed suddenly remembered as she spoke to me that afternoon in the library.Â She remembered the joy of books before she began listening to literary critics tell her what was good for her.Â Before she let the tyranny of her book group dictate what she should read.Â Before her well-heeled friends laughed at her collection of Danielle Steel.Â she remembered the days when books were ice cream, not Brussels sprouts.Â She has since been worn down, her love of books battered by the arbiters of literary taste.Â But instead of merely driving her into the closet to read her romance novels in secret, it has done something far, far worse.
It has made her stop reading entirely.
This is the greatest cruelty of all.Â It’s one committed every day, by every parent who frowns at the child who’s got his nose deep in a Dean Koontz novel.Â By every bookseller who laughs at the pasty-faced men who linger near the science fiction shelves.Â By every highbrow twit who says to a friend, “I’d never read that trash.”Â Every single one of them is killing the soul of a reader.
So here’s a new and revolutionary proposal: let people read what they want to read.Â Let them eat ice cream for breakfast, lunch, and dinner if they want to.Â Some of them will eat the occasional Brussels sprout and like it.Â But don’t make them think they’re any less virtuous for shunning it.
And for all those who read, my advice is this: never apologize for your books.Â They are your friends.Â And like friends, some of them are complex and demanding, while others are easy to spend time with.Â Listen to the critics if you choose to, but remember that critics tend to praise the books that make them look intelligent.
That afternoon in the library, the lady in tweed had come up to me for a reason.Â It was only after we’d talked for a few moments that I understood what that reason was.Â She was troubled by the absence of books in her life.Â she remembered the joy they had once given her, and she wanted to rediscover it.
“When you were a child,” I said, “what kind of books did you read?”
“Nancy Drew.Â Mysteries.Â Whatever I wanted to.”
“Then that’s what you should do again.Â You don’t have to listen to anyone.Â Just read what you want to.”
An obvious answer?Â Perhaps.Â But I think it was what she needed — permission to make her own choices.
I suspect she’ll be choosing ice cream.