A few days ago my daughter finally got around to reading the copy of Matt Phelanâ€™s â€œThe Storm in the Barn â€œ that she got for her birthday. Itâ€™s a great story and she really enjoyed it, which made me happy. I went down into my office to find something else for her to read, brought back Neil Gaimanâ€™s â€œDeath: The High Cost of Livingâ€. She looked it over for a moment and then said â€œThis doesnâ€™t really fit on my list. Iâ€™d have to put it under my â€˜Extra Choiceâ€™ ones and I already have too many of those.â€
See, sheâ€™s got reading assignments for school. Theyâ€™re given a list of categories/genres from which they are required to read a set number of books. And the teacher approves the books before they can get credit for that category. Apparently comics fit under the extracurricular category (since theyâ€™re not â€œrealâ€ literature, I assume). In my daughterâ€™s mind, the Gaiman book didnâ€™t qualify â€” she already had Fantasy and Extra Choice covered, after all â€” so she automatically dismissed it as something to read.
This was (and still is) intensely irritating for me. My daughterâ€™s a big reader, always has been. She loves books. But somehow, school has shifted something in her head to think of a new book in terms of an assignment. She couldnâ€™t look at something new and think â€œOh, this looks interestingâ€¦â€ without also evaluating as to whether or not it â€œfitsâ€ into the terms set by her teacher. And, in the end, the assignment eclipsed the interest â€” which, to my mind, is exactly the opposite of what should happen.
Despite my grinding teeth, I tried to explain to my daughter (as best I could) that reading was something done for its own enjoyment and not just as an assignment. This is something she already knows, of course. But I thought it was important to mention that she could survive reading something even if it didnâ€™t line up with any assigned (I did not at any point use the word â€œbullshitâ€ though I was tempted) school categories.
Did she get it? I honestly donâ€™t know. Iâ€™ve got enough confidence in my daughter to know that sheâ€™s going to be a reader no matter whatâ€™s been assigned.
But I canâ€™t help feeling that itâ€™s a damn shame, somehow.
Each Monday we do a morning production meeting at work. Itâ€™s partially a check-in for all of our active projects, but thereâ€™s also a fair amount of socializing about our weekends. This past week, one of my coworkers mentioned that sheâ€™d gone to see the latest Twilight movie. When she said how much she loved the books, three or four people offered a plain-faced, almost dismissive declaration along the lines of â€œOh, I donâ€™t read.â€
Thereâ€™s something wrong with that, somehow. Not just the fact that, for whatever reason, it would never occur to people to pick up a book . . . but also that thereâ€™s no sense that, on some level, anyone sees this as a problem.
And, of course, they do read. They read magazines and websites and street signs. But what theyâ€™re saying is much more specific. Itâ€™s not â€œI donâ€™t readâ€ but rather â€œI donâ€™t read books.â€
Thatâ€™s utterly foreign to me, growing up as I did in a house full of books and people who read them. Iâ€™d be more judgmental on this point, perhaps, but Iâ€™ve been around long enough to recognize that my experiences arenâ€™t always common. The only thing I can compare it to is that small subset of people who say â€œOh, I donâ€™t watch televisionâ€ or â€œI donâ€™t go to moviesâ€ â€” the sort of position that typically stems from a choice based on some kind of underlying moral or social or religious belief.
But â€œI donâ€™t readâ€ doesnâ€™t seem to be a position so much as a preference. A matter of taste, along the lines of â€œI donâ€™t like olives.â€
But, of course, it isnâ€™t a matter of taste â€” or, rather, it shouldnâ€™t be. Your choice of books is defined by your taste â€” you might hate Twilight but enjoy John Grisham â€” but an outright dismissal of every book out there is . . . something else entirely.
And donâ€™t try to tell me itâ€™s all the fault of television or computers or video games or the internet. I grew up with most of those things and Iâ€™m more or less perpetually jacked in now, yet none of it has dulled my enthusiasm for the printed word. And since Iâ€™ve heard this from people of all ages, I donâ€™t believe itâ€™s a generational thing. I realize it might also not be such a new thing either . . . but it does seem that when I hear â€œI donâ€™t readâ€ these days, thereâ€™s no sense of â€œI know, I knowâ€¦â€ behind it. I think, way back when, that used to be there.
All I hear these days is defiance. Of what, I have no idea. Perhaps of my own elitism for assuming that anyone who doesnâ€™t read is, somehow, missing out.
The holidays are, more or less, here. With that in mind, I thought Iâ€™d put together a quick list of â€œBooks for People Who Donâ€™t Readâ€ but it seemed more interesting to open it up to everyone in the comments. Iâ€™ll start us off with a few of my ideas but throw yours into the mix as well.