Sunday Salon: The Common Reader Speaks

The other day, I was reading and enjoying the fascinating (and a trifle heated) discussion on spoilers and classic literature over at Lifetime Reader‘s blog. In the discussion, Lifetime Reader linked to a commentary by Mark Edmondson in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Narcissus Regards a Book.” It’s one of those articles that seems designed to make people’s blood boil—mine was certainly boiling by the time I was done reading.

Edmondson opens his commentary with an attempt to define the common reader, and he comes to the following conclusion:

Common readers—which is to say the great majority of people who continue to read—read for one purpose and one purpose only. They read for pleasure. They read to be entertained. They read to be diverted, assuaged, comforted, and tickled. The evidence for this phenomenon is not far to seek. Check out the best-seller lists, even in the exalted New York Times. See what Oprah’s reading. Glance at the Amazon top 100. Look around on the airplane. The common reader—by which I don’t mean the figure evoked by Dr. Johnson and Virginia Woolf, but the person toting a book on the train or loading one into his iPad or Kindle—the contemporary common reader reads for pleasure, and easy pleasure at that. Reading, where it exists at all, has largely become an unprofitable wing of the diversion industry.

He goes on to discuss the kinds of books that are popular and makes sweeping assertions about their value and about the reasons people choose those books. And naturally, he takes a crack at Stephen King and his readers—apparently as a King fan, I am likely to be a “homebody sadist [or] ordinary masochist.” Sigh. Really? And I’m supposed to take this guy seriously?

I could go on and on about all the things that I thought were wrong with Edmondson’s argument. For one thing, he seems to want to paint all readers and their books with the same broad brush. Everything on the Oprah list is an easy pleasure? Is he referring to the same Oprah who has put Faulkner and Dickens on her list? As for what people are reading on trains, I decided to take a quick look at CoverSpy, a blog that tracks what books a team of publishing professionals spot people reading around New York. Just two days of entries yielded such “easy pleasures” as Pnin by Vladimir Nabakov, Oil! by Sinclair Lewis, and The Tin Drum by Günter Grasse. Yes, there are plenty of people who choose never to read anything challenging (though I would note that what constitutes a challenge would vary from reader to reader); however, I’m not sure that “the common reader” reads entirely for entertainment and diversion.

But even if Edmondson were right about most people I’m not convinced at all that reading for pleasure is a bad thing. Must everything we do have some sort of meritorious effect on our character? Is pleasure for its own sake not something to be embraced? To be sure, if entertainment is the only thing we ever seek from our reading, we’re missing out on a host of other joys—joys that come from being challenged, from learning something new, from seeing things from a different point of view. But pure, unadulterated entertainment has its place, too.

Edmondson also accuses contemporary readers of being obsessed with the new. There is some merit to this, at least when it comes to media coverage of books, where the new dominates. Of course, the practical reason for that is that no one will ever hear about new books if the media doesn’t devote time and space to them. But readers themselves still mine the past for good reads. Yes, some readers do focus on the new—I’d stand with Edmondson and agree that more reading of old books would be a good thing—but what Edmondson sees in the media may not be representative of what the common reader is actually reading.

I wonder, though, if  Edmondson is right when he says that today’s common readers, “are not comfortable with judgments of quality. They are not at ease with ‘the whole evaluation thing’.” I do know a lot of readers are reluctant to say that a work of literature isn’t very good. They’re uncomfortable with the very idea of objective merit. But again, I don’t think that’s true of all readers. Edmondson seems to think that the only criterion readers go by is whether a work made them feel good, and I simply don’t find that to be the case. I’ve seen people talk with passion about books that shook them up, that upset them, that challenged them, and that they ultimately loved.

True, we common readers often do enjoy books that confirm our previously held beliefs—sometimes we are Narcissus, looking to see ourselves reflected back and taking pleasure in that reflection. Sometimes, too, we remain stuck in our ruts of what we consider “a good read,” and sometimes we lack the tools to unpack what makes one book better than another. But, by and large, I’ve found readers to be a curious bunch, ready to try new things. Many of us common readers read precisely for the reason Edmondson endorses: to be influenced, to change, to grow. But sometimes we also read to be entertained. It’s not an either/or proposition, as Edmondson implies.

If I thought Edmondson were  correct about the mind and motivation of the common reader, I would indeed be disturbed. And, to be fair to Edmondson, I’m sure there are readers out there who are as uncurious and intellectually lazy as he suggests. Of course there are. But I’d suggest too that Edmondson is too quick to assume that he knows what’s going on in the mind of the reader he spots in Starbucks immersed in the latest John Grisham novel or New York Times best-seller. Just because something is popular or entertaining doesn’t make it bad, nor does it make the person reading it a Narcissist.

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40 Responses to Sunday Salon: The Common Reader Speaks

  1. Christine says:

    I would have to agree with you 100%. I haven’t read anything by Edmundson; however, his assumptions seem wildly exaggerated. And, yes, a challenge in reading is based on the reader…total agreement!

    That said, I think our youth, though, is hell-bent (pardon the bluntness) on only reading pop culture and rarely chooses to pick up a classic unless fully urged to do so by the likes of people like me, their high school English teacher, or the high school librarian.

    Lately, I have had a few students be amazed at what good can come from reading something old. I, evil purveyor of learning that I am, forced my students to do a lit-based research paper for their junior year requirement. Many students were led to read something they normally wouldn’t choose, if they ever choose something to read independently at all. I was overwhelmed two days ago when I approached a non-reader (someone who is need of support in class) student to suggest a short story of Stephen King’s to read instead of what he was reading (The Bridge on the River Kwai). He balked and vehemently said, “No! I am 6 chapters in this book and am really enjoying it!” I was so pleasantly surprised!

    Maybe Edmundson should spend more time guiding readers towards what he constitutes as good reading than criticizing what he thinks the “common reader” is reading?!

    Nice post!

    • Lisa May says:

      Edmundson should read C.S. Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism, from 1961, which looks at how people read from an experimental perspective: “Let us try to discover how far it might be plausible to define a good book as a book which is read one way, and a bad book as a book which is read in another.” Lewis talks about true readers as those who read whole-heartedly and as receptively as possible.

      Edmundson needs to take into account not just e-books, but internet discussions (blogs and reading groups), and RL book discussion groups.

      • Teresa says:

        I’ve not read that piece by Lewis, but I loved his essay on the reading of old books, and I’m intrigued by the idea you express here. Perhaps, in fact, it’s better for someone to read Stephen King or John Grisham with their whole heart and mind than to read Ulysses by merely casting eyes across the page but not engaging with the words at all.

    • Teresa says:

      I agree that sometimes people do need a push. I was a big reader, but I never would have tried many classics had I not had a teacher who pointed me to them. Most of my teachers were glad to have a student who read without encouragement! I think at heart Edmundson is trying to encourage people to but he’s so dismissive of all reading that doesn’t fit his criteria that his more helpful message gets lost.

  2. Deb says:

    I am not a raging left-wing liberal, but I gave up reading The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Arts & Letters Daily (http://www.aldaily.com/) because many of the articles came across as smugly right-wing in a way that left me cross at best and blood-boilingly angry at worst. There was a patronizingly self-satisfied tone to much of it–and I can hear it again in Edmundson’s essay: I know better than anyone else and my vision of the reading experience is the valid one; no person who reads for any other reasons than the ones I do is a “reader.”

    Le sigh!

    • Teresa says:

      Not working in higher ed, I don’t read the Chronicle regularly, but every now and then I follow a link to an article, and although they don’t always anger me, they are almost always provoking in one way or another. Self-satisfied is the right word for his tone here.

  3. Amelia says:

    I saw a link to that article a few days ago and just skimmed it because I felt he was painting with way too broad a brush…but on the subject of loving the new: I suspect the classics are being read more than they have for a long time. Why? e-readers! (and reading books on smartphones, computers, etc). Classics are free, and the first thing a lot of people I know do when they start reading on their devices is look around for free books. In fact, if I remember correctly, Amazon had to separate their Kindle best-seller list into free and paid content because the free downloads were pushing the paid books to the bottom of the list. Now, who knows how many of these actually get read (like buying fresh veggies when you start a diet, and then you end up tossing half of them), but Project Gutenberg had 4 million downloads last month.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve heard of lots of people who don’t ordinarily read classics getting them on their e-readers. Aren’t some even preloaded onto Kindle or Nook?

  4. Bina says:

    I can see how this would spark very heated debates! :)

    I say, I read for pleasure, but I get pleasure from learning, from being challenged as much as from reading books designed to be not challenging (whatever that means).

    The fun thing about lots of classics is that, apart from the unfamiliar language, they are often adventure stories or very engaging reads. So, reading classics doesn’t necessarily need to be much more taxing than Dan Brown.

    I wonder what Edmundson reads on the commute or in the tub!? ;)

    Also, I feel that someone always complains about what I’m reading. Be it scholarly non-fiction (you read that for FUN??) or cosy crime (how can you call that reading??). But I take a good debate over boring agreement all-around any day :)

    • Teresa says:

      It’s the same for me. I often get great pleasure from a challenge, from being pushed. And I totally agree that not all classics are difficult.

      LOL on the complaints about your reading. I’ve heard both of those as well.

  5. It is such a frustrating essay, isn’t it? Personally, I get a greater pleasure (ie, greater entertainment) from books which require a little thought–mainly because they keep my brain from fixating on whatever is happening in my real life. So apparently even when I am reading the right books, I am usually reading for wholly the wrong reason.

    Reading for pleasure and reading solely for diversion can be different animals, of course–and it would be a great shame if we read only for diversion all the time. And I do think we (at least in the States) seek to erase complexity in the world a little more than I like.

    I do find value in Edmondson’s suggestion that the value of a book is not determined by whether we identify with it, whether we like it personally, even whether we personally think it is any good.

    I think Deb nails it when she calls this kind of article right-wing. Although I agree that deep reading is profoundly transformative–including when we are reading for pleasure– I deeply resist what is almost a read-for-religious-instruction tone. Careful reading changes us whether we are looking for improvement or not.

    • Teresa says:

      Heh. Stop enjoying that learning! You’re doing it wrong ;)

      You’re probably right that many people do try to avoid complexity. Certainly a lot of political debates show a disinterest in nuance. But I think where Edmondson gets it wrong is assuming that all readers who aren’t him and his cronies aren’t proper readers.

      I agree with you and with Edmondson that a book’s value is not entirely in our personal reactions. There are some standards of quality, and they’re worth learning about. And I also loved the paragraph on reading to be transformed, with humility, but then I couldn’t help but wonder if Edmondson applies that same standard to himself and his own reading. He certainly seems happy to rest in his assumptions about the rabble.

  6. And what is wrong with pleasure, exactly? Isn’t life hard enough without having to spend leisure time doing something that is not pleasurable? As you say, what is challenging varies from reader to reader and what is pleasurable varies too – sometimes what one reader considers pleasurable may be the books the author of the article holds up as “better than” just common reading.

    I would think in an age where diversions abound that people would be happy that reading continues – I don’t judge people by what the read but rather, more often, by whether they read or not.

    • Teresa says:

      The dismissal of pleasure as having any value is obnoxious. I’m with you in being happy to see people reading. Would I love for everyone to be reading truly good books over trash? Sure, but everyone has to start somewhere.

  7. Frances says:

    It is unfortunate that Edmundson’s broad generalizations take away from some of his creditable points. Some of the article comes across as the sour grapes of academia at a time when their tenure, their viability is so tenuous and resentment at the ascendence of popular culture and social media is inevitable. However, the author misses his opportunity to persuade a reader to follow the path for which he advocates.

    • Teresa says:

      Exactly. He makes some good points, but he alienates anyone who isn’t him or a fellow member of his version of the academic elite. (I know plenty of academics who don’t take this approach at all.)

  8. JaneGS says:

    Pleasure is in the eye of the beholder. I read for pleasure, but what pleases me is sometimes Virigina Woolf, sometimes Georgette Heyer, sometimes Shakespeare, sometimes Austen, sometimes Ian Rankin…you get my drift.

  9. nymeth says:

    What an infuriating article. I must confess I have trouble taking anyone who uses the phrase “the right use of reading” with a straight face seriously. I don’t think all reading experiences serve the same person even for one single reader, let alone for a myriad of them.

  10. Jenny says:

    I like JaneGS’s point about pleasure. Isn’t pleasure different for everyone? This also makes me think about Michael Chabon’s point in Maps and Legends, when he tries to redeem the word “entertainment.” He reminds us that it comes from the same root as “intertwine,” and is about the relationship between writer and reader. That relationship, that slipping into another person’s skin, is most of the reason I read (whether fiction or non-.) Hence, for entertainment.

    Finally, I have to say that the whole idea of complaining about the “common reader” made me laugh. Isn’t everyone constantly complaining that reading is on the decline, that literacy rates are falling, that everyone does nothing but drool in front of the TV? What common reader? (And of course, historically, there has never been a common reader; reading was highly elitist.) Shouldn’t we be celebrating *whatever* people read, as long as they do it?

    • Teresa says:

      If there’s one thing blogging has shown me, it’s that there’s no single common reader. And excellent point on reading historically being elitist. Surely as reading has gotten more democratic, the nature of what people are reading will become more democratic. Would we rather reading remain among the elites?

  11. A thousand times word, and ooo, new tumblr to follow! Thank you very much!

    (I wanted my response to be more coherent and intelligent, but I’m digging through CoverSpy.)

  12. Jeanne says:

    I spy with my little eye the same “common reader” that Stanley Fish believes he is addressing in How To Read A Sentence! There’s no one as myopic as a professor.

  13. rebeccareid says:

    Not going to read the essay — don’t think I’d have patience for it — but I have to say that four years ago I was one of the more judgmental ones. When I first started blogging, I even said generalities about Stephen King when I read ON WRITING (which I very much disliked). Still not going to read any Stephen King any time soon, but I can give him the benefit of being a fine writer (even if I very much disliked his book on writing, the only one I’ve read). After all, I really love THE NUMBER ONE DETECTIVE AGENCY and HARRY POTTER, both of which are simple pleasures for me.

    I do have to say, when I tell people I read mostly classics 10 times to 1 they respond, “oh, I just read for fun.” I have to inform them that so do I.

    • Teresa says:

      I could certainly be accused of knee-jerk snobbery from time to time. One of the things I keep in mind is that different writers are good in different ways–that helps me quiet my inner snob.

      And I’ve had similar conversations about classics.

  14. litlove says:

    What an incredibly tiresome essay. And I suppose all the people pouring into movie theatres, or sitting in front of the television, or turning on the radio to find some music to drive to are all there for the transcendental aesthetic experience?

    I agree that judgment is out of fashion these days, but that’s not just about books. It’s a cultural crisis that’s resulted in a bit of polarity. Most ‘nice’ people don’t judge, but we all let in a media world that exults in the harshest and often most unfair of judgments (hence: Edmundson). I still think the point is to judge – or I prefer the word analyse – without necessarily needing a quality evaluation. That one can have an emotion about a book without assuming the book is good or bad on the basis of that emotion – that we might use the emotion itself as a starting point for thinking about what the book is doing, and the issues it represents, rather than the end point where we either throw it away or celebrate it unreservedly.

    • Teresa says:

      Excellent point about what happens when nice people refuse to ever judge/analyze. Personally, I do believe there can be objective quality standards, but not every book is reaching for the same thing. I’m not going to ask a pot-boiler to achieve the same thing that I would expect from a character study, and the pot-boiler is not a worse book for having a different aim from a character study. But a pot-boiler that fails to be suspenseful hasn’t achieved the standard that it set for itself. But I agree with you that a firm quality evaluation is not necessary when we talk about books, and I really like what you say about using our emotions about a book as a starting point for thinking. Often, books that I have a visceral dislike for can be extraordinarily interesting to think about.

  15. Jenny says:

    *eyeroll* I get fed up with people who (a) are weirdly suspicious of the notion that reading for fun is worthwhile, and (b) think that the only worthwhile books are the books they think are good.

  16. Kathleen says:

    He seems a bit pompous and full of himself IMHO. I read for pleasure but that doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t crack open those books that he would deem acceptable.

  17. Stefanie says:

    I enjoyed your post! I think there is nothing wrong with reading for pleasure. Reading for pleasure doesn’t necessarily mean mindless reading. Some of us find pleasure in old, hard books.

  18. Mae says:

    I bet he’s just jealous he can’t churn out stuff that sells like Stephen King, John Grisham or Dan Brown. I say – any reading is good reading. I mean, there are worse things in life one could be doing. Perspective, dear Edmondson, perspective!

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