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.