Whether it’s pure escapism they’re after, a sappy love story to distract you from reality or a thriller to get your heart racing, people peruse the shelves of bookstores because they enjoy the experience of reading. However, there is a notable issue – which is highlighted by Sally Rooney in her interview with The Times – caused by a select group of readers which often ruins this experience.
Rooney talks of the marketing of books selling a rhetoric of “Be the kind of person who reads books because that kind of person is superior to the kind of person who doesn’t.” While I recognise that this strange superiority complex exists, I can’t say I wholly agree that it’s the marketing companies themselves who cultivate this logic. The idea that reading books makes you in some way morally ‘better’ than those who choose not to read is an idea already propagated by somewhat pretentious and snobby readers, long before marketing companies thought to cash in on it.
Not every book has to expose the innermost secrets of the human condition
Literature provides integral devices through which authors can inform us about the world we live in and articulate ideas in a way no other medium can. When having this knowledge is considered to hold the weight and significance of a kind of moral superiority over the dreaded category of ‘non-readers’ is when the problem arises. When you value the ideas you gain from reading as a social marker of your own performed intelligence over the personal benefits and insights it provides, books are reduced from forms that bring you a positive experience to being empty symbols flaunted to brag about how clever you want to seem. Being a literature student myself, of course I believe that books are vital to society as they provide an outlet for people to effect social change.
What is most important even above this power they hold is that they are meant to be enjoyed. Not every book has to expose the innermost secrets of the human condition. Sometimes you just want a light read to distract your mind from the stress of everyday life, and that is not something that should be scorned. The opinion that every book that is to be considered worthy of literary merit has to be in some way intellectually complicated takes all the enjoyment out of reading and converts it into something to be judged as objectively ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Instead of appreciating a book for what it is, people feel compelled to pretend they understood some intricate complexity because they would feel shamed if they admitted they didn’t.
The ability to read was a privilege accessible only to the upper class
The roots of this mindset of faux superiority may stem from the history of national literacy. When the ability to read was a privilege accessible only to the upper class, the ownership of books would be seen as a sign of economic success and elevated status. However, in a present reality where the humanities and arts are significantly and unfairly underfunded compared to our STEM counterparts – but that’s a debate for another day – this outdated perception has no basis. Attaching these concepts of superiority to the choice to read has a detrimental effect on people’s willingness to do so. The feeling that you are alienated from reading because you can’t grasp the generally quite pretentious ‘hidden meanings’ that are being projected onto books you would otherwise enjoy, often seen within the classroom of a GCSE English lesson, is what drives a lot of people away from enjoying literature.
By removing the idea that reading makes you a better person than someone who chooses not to, and as a result getting rid of the snobbish superiority complex surrounding books, literature is made accessible and attractive to more people. Claiming a moral high ground because of your choice to read a book is quite frankly ridiculous and has no logical reasoning behind it. If you like reading complex classics then great, if you prefer a light teen romance then read away and if reading isn’t your thing, then just watch the film adaptation and put up with the adamant cries of “the book was better!” with the knowledge that you’ve appreciated a medium of culture that you enjoy and that is all that matters.