“There’s always sadness in our lives. It’s that sad feeling that keeps us going.”

— Tsukino Usagi


We Need To Talk About Reader's Guilt

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

What is it about reading that makes it so much more of an obligation than any other form of media and storytelling? How many times have you looked at your to-be-read pile and felt like you were never going to get to the bottom of it? Or, perhaps you don't even have a to-be-read pile and don't have the urge to open any of the books? Why do we feel so much guilt around our reading habits?


As of writing this blog, I've only read about three or four books this year. I've edited several manuscripts, but still, my leisure reading has taken a backseat. For a while, this bothered me. But why?


Memes and tweets alike often joke about our reading habits. How obsessed we are about books. How we couldn't put that book down last night and now we're struggling to get through the next day. How much we love words and that nothing could ever replace our favorite books. Summer Reading lists aplenty. 


I'm happy for anyone to be enthusiastic about something. Share your happiness! We certainly could use the positivity in our hyperaware climate.


But alternatively, I see the other side of the spectrum happening, and not happening enough. In a thread by KL Burd, there's a (mostly delightful and honest) mix of opinions when he says "Sometimes, I don't want to read". 


I highly encourage going through the thread (and giving KL a follow because he's awesome):


This is a legit fear I think more people have but choose not to openly express. It's like you must declare your allegiance to books--and only books--or else you will be exiled to the dark, lonely corners of the internet to never return to the light of likes. 


Also, not having the time to read, or choosing not to read, seems to ruffle our internal feathers for reasons we often can't articulate.


Here's a thought: it's okay to not always be reading. It's also okay to love reading and to not love reading. And it's definitely okay to be caught in the middle, and to fluctuate. Your relationship with reading is your relationship. No one has the right to tell you what that should or should not be like. 


Reading can be a complicated thing.


In an article from The GuardianAlison Flood commented on a UK poll about a group of people who had and hadn't read entries in a list of classics. In her own response to the list, Flood said: 


I’ve read half of the books on the list. Some I loved. Some I hated. I feel I should have read them all – and that there’s something lacking in me for not appreciating the ones I didn’t like. But I’m going to leave off the guilt this time because [James] Smythe is right: books aren’t austere endurance tests. We are meant to enjoy them, as well as to be enriched and educated and challenged by them. That goes double for the classics.


The key word in the quote is should. Should implies that something should be done upon some universally agreed-upon obligation. Should implies that if you aren't doing that thing, then you are "lacking something." 


If you've read one book in the last five years, you are not less of a person for it. If anything, I think writers, authors, agents, and publishers should be taking some of the blame. 


Are people not reading because books aren't resonating with them? Is the problem with the act of reading or is it with the content?


In a piece by Josh King in Newfound, King recounts an anecdote from a reading by author Martin Amis:


I was at the New York Public library, listening to Martin Amis talk about his latest book, when something he said struck me. He told the audience his father, formidable and respected author Kingsley Amis, would read the trashiest literature he could. Because he enjoyed it. And, he noted, it had no influence on how his father wrote. Then he simply laughed this fact off, as if it was not even worth dwelling on.


For many, reading isn't the coziest of feelings.


Book culture undoubtedly has an elitist problem that I'm not going to dive into here, but when snobby comes up and starts throwing opinions about reading and what you should like and what and who is awful and it goes against your own values, of course you may feel diminished. When you don't have someone else that expresses the same sentiments about your relationship with reading, that loneliness begets more vulnerability around your reading habits. It's an unhealthy cycle.


Alternatively, for those who do read and do so aggressively, they are guilted into feeling that they shouldn't be. Thoughts like I have other responsibilities, or I have to finish this book because everyone else loves it, and I'm making time for this because it makes me feel good carry negative pretense. Make time for reading! There's absolutely nothing wrong with that. Surely, you're not recklessly abandoning your responsibilities. And if you like a book and others don't, or vice-versa, that's okay, too.


It's all okay.


Words are not just words. Written word isn't the superior. There is no superior.


I know there are writers who write books that aren't heavy readers. They're typically afraid to admit it, or if they do admit it, they are often met with backlash. Here's the thing, and I'll put this in a list for TL;DR's sake:


  • Books aren't the only things that have words.

  • ​Written word isn't superior. In fact, no medium is superior to the other.

  • Writers and readers can draw experience from all mediums. A film or a TV show or a theater performance or a video game or a graphic novel can be as inspiring as a book can.

  • Words are sounds that represent concepts. Understanding concepts and the human condition and being able to express that within presentable structure is what makes (good) story. 

  • Some people didn't grow up with books because they felt that they and people like them weren't represented in literature.


I can keep going, but the bottom line is this: your relationship with books is different from the next person, and you don't have to live up to others expectations of who you are supposed to be as a reader or a writer. 

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Kyle V. Hiller is a freelance editor, published author. To inquire about his editing services, visit the services page. To read his work, check out The Recital and Project Anjou If you're just hanging out, subscribe to his newsletter below, where you'll get posts like this delivered straight to your inbox! Stalk Kyle on Twitter and Instagram, too.

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