I am a book voyeur. When I’m out and about and notice someone reading a book, I’ll crane my neck and try to see what the book is. I’m not bold enough to start a conversation about it, but I love to see what people are reading. Part of it is just liking to know what books are out there, what books are interesting different people. But part of it is that I think that what people read says something about them, and so I like to think that I’m getting a glimpse into a person’s character by seeing what that person reads.
But is that really a fair conclusion? Does what we read really say much about us? If you were to ask me that question outright, I’d say yes, but as I think about it, I realize that my reading choices are complex and a glance at one book I’m reading at one particular moment really doesn’t say much about me at all. Further, a lot of the things that I think about people’s reading choices are more about stereotypes and assumptions than about the reality of a reading life.
Take my own public reading as an example. Just about the only place where I regularly read in public is at work, where I usually do my rereading. Earlier this year, I reread The Lord of the Rings, and any of my officemates who don’t know me well could draw all kinds of conclusions about me on the basis of that reading choice. Did they immediately brand me as a friendless geek who considers elves and dwarves more interesting than real people? Did they imagine that the only friends I had were the people I play Dungeons and Dragons with on weekends? Those who know me would know that those assumptions are unfair. As it happens, I’ve never played D&D, and I am geeky but not exactly in the stereotypical Tolkien fan-geek way.
People, including me, make these kinds of assumptions all the time. How many times have you heard people suggest that adult women who love Twilight are emotionally stunted and utterly unsophisticated in their reading choices? While that may be true in some cases, I know plenty of adult women who recognized the weaknesses of the Twilight books, both on a writing and a thematic level, but who enjoyed it as a fun page-turner of a book. As much as I’m uninterested in reading Twilight, I can’t fault a person for appreciating it on that level.
I’ve also seen people write off whole genres or authors without ever trying them. Fantasy gets characterized as simple escapism for people who can’t handle real life. Mysteries get trashed as junk food. Stephen King gets classed as a poor writer merely because he writes horror—and popular horror at that. I’m not saying that everyone needs to read or enjoy these genres. Not every genre suits everyone’s tastes, but writing off whole genres without giving them due consideration or making assumptions about readers of those genres is simple book snobbery. (And due consideration, in my opinion, need not require a person to read the books of a particular author or genre; we don’t, after all, have time to read everything. Due consideration does, however, mean making an effort to understand what readers see in those books before making glib assumptions.)
These kinds of assumptions don’t just involve people looking down on others for their low-brow reading choices. It goes both ways, with people assuming that those who don’t read popular fiction are insufferable prigs just reading to impress rather than for pleasure. For example, when I was reading Infinite Jest on my lunch breaks last summer, people might have assumed I was a pretentious hipster wannabe. People often lump classic fiction into a “school reading” category and assume it’s all boring and that no one could possibly enjoy it. So readers of classic fiction get classed as book snobs whether they are or not.
The fact is, tastes are different. Not everyone will enjoy reading the same things. Some people will prefer old books to new books, realistic books to fantasy books, suspenseful books to slow burners. Others may enjoy sampling bits and pieces of almost all genres and eras, depending on their mood at the time. Those tastes may or may not say something significant about the person. You can’t know without knowing the whole story.
Do you ever make assumptions about people based on their reading choices? What do you think your reading might say about you?
Notes on a Reading Life
- The Hidden Shore by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. The 19th Morland Dynasty book.
- Before the Fact by Francis Iles. Psychological thriller that Hitchcock used as the basis for the movie Suspicion. For the Classics Circuit Golden Age of Detective Fiction tour. Review coming June 10.
- Fables 12: The Dark Ages by Bill Willingham. A transitional volume in the series that’s not as strong as others but that leaves room for interesting developments.
- The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay. The first of Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry trilogy. I read and enjoyed Tigana by Kay more than 10 years ago and have had this trilogy on my list at least that long. It’s about time I read it!
- Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy (reread). I’m over halfway through and cannot adequately express how much I love this book.
- Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut (audio). I’m probably ¾ of the way through this and am uncertain of my feelings about it. I’m not connecting with it, despite the excellent writing and interesting construction.
- Waiting for God by Simone Weil. A collection of Weil’s essays and letters that I’m working through slowly. At this point, I’ve just read a couple of letters.
- Under My Skin by Doris Lessing. When I read Alfred and Emily last year, I liked the writing but felt like I was missing something by not already being familiar with Lessing’s life, which does sound interesting, so I decided to read her autobiography. Alas, my library doesn’t have it, but a copy finally showed up on Bookmooch.
- How to Read Novels Like a Professor by Thomas Foster. I’m generally content with my novel-reading abilities, but I sometimes wonder if my reading isn’t on the shallow side. I often wondered that in my college literature classes, so I was intrigued by the concept of this book. My library doesn’t have it, but a copy finally appeared on Paperbackswap.com, but now that I have it and have looked it over, I wonder if I’ll find it too simplistic.
- The Sacrament of the Present Moment by Jean-Pierre de Caussade. The thoughts of an 18th-century Jesuit on how God speaks to people every day.
On My Radar
- The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley. Berkeley also wrote psychological suspense novels under the name Francis Iles, and Jenny and I read one of his Iles books for the Classics Circuit this month. I was impressed and interested in checking out one of his more traditional mysteries. In this one, six different amateur sleuths are called in to solve a murder, and each has a different solution! Fleur at Fleur Fisher Reads says, “It was a wonderful roller-coaster ride as cases were built and then demolished.”
- The Case of William Smith by Patricia Wentworth. Niranjana at Brown Paper describes Miss Silver, the detective in this book as Miss Marple’s Cleverer Sister: “And while Miss Marple is shrewd, Miss Silver possesses a profound intelligence that her clients often find unsettling.” I’m not a big Marple fan, but this elderly spinster sounds like a detective I might appreciate.
- Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism by Natasha Walter explores the hyper-sexualization of the modern woman, starting with very young girls. Kimbofo at Reading Matters says it is “a hugely important and timely book. I read it a few months ago now, but I’ve been thinking about it ever since.”