What is book-shaming? Book-shaming is the act of making others feel
embarrassed, intellectually inferior, or just less than you, because of what
they enjoy or do not enjoy reading.
Is it a thing? For people who read a lot, or were/are English majors, or hold
writing degrees, yes! It’s a thing for others too, but this topic really struck
a chord in me, because I have a BA in English and an MFA in Creative Writing.
With these degrees, people were stunned that I have no true love for poetry, or
classics, or even literary fiction. I love science fiction, fantasy, comic
books, manga, some contemporary literature, and the occasional biography. Also,
I read young adult fiction just as readily and voraciously as I read adult
I’ve been told that I don’t read “real” books, or told I might not
like something because it isn’t “teenagery” enough for me, or is too
complicated, because I cannot handle literature with depth. As if the things I
read do not have depth or complex plots, because of their genre. I cannot help
what I don’t find interesting and will not seek it out in my free time. I have
better things to do…and read, than to waste my time with books I don’t care
for to please or impress other people.
The argument is that classic and literary books are supposed to expand your
mind, providing you with thought-provoking prose and rich imagery and
vocabulary. Those who think genre books can’t and don’t do the same, have never
read and truly digested a well-written genre book. Good authors can exercise your
brain on a spaceship or on a boat chasing a white whale. However, I argue, if a
reader is not engaged with the text, meaning they can only tolerate a page a
night, because the wording is so dense—and this does not speak to intellect,
because so called geniuses have said they read a page of night of dense novels—how
much is that reader really taking away from the experience? Are they able to
grasp the overall theme and arc of the book, are they able to catch clever
wording and appreciate it? Some people do, but, for others, if they are bored
and having to reread every other sentence to make sure they understood what was
said, then they are not having a pleasant experience. Their only take-away from
the book is: I read it! Then, they may be deemed smart enough to sit in the
circle of book snobs who would look down their noses at them, if they told the
truth about falling asleep mid-page.
The book-shaming snobbery doesn’t stop with the literary/crowd either.
Within people who read genre fiction, there are “standards” and literature
that is considered almost holy. If you do not like these authors and these
books, you are not worthy. I find that many people might lie about what they like
or dislike, or how closely they read one of the “holy” texts for fear
of being excommunicated by their local circle of nerds. We escaped the literary
snobs who hover outside English 4301 classrooms, reciting poetry, to join our
fellow nerds, only to find that they might present us with their own version of
a papal bull.
I will out myself. I don’t like fantasy books written before the 1990’s
(exceptions: THE MERLIN TRILOGY by Mary Stewart—my favorite books, and THE MISTS
OF AVALON by Marion Zimmer Bradley.) This means that I do not like *gasp* THE
LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY or THE WHEEL OF TIME SERIES. I feel the same way
about certain science fiction as well. It is blasphemy to claim to love science
fiction and fantasy, AND to also write it, and not like Tolkien or have no
interest in Asimov. But, you know what, I’m a proud sinner. While I’m at it,
I’m not crazy about GAME OF THRONES either. It has nothing to do with intellect
or bad taste, and has everything to do with my personal preferences, which I am
allowed to have. Everyone is.
I write this piece to empathize with everyone who has been made to feel
inferior, unworthy, or childish because of what they like or don’t like. Why is
it such a difficult thing to let other people have and be proud of their
reading opinions? If we disagree, why can’t we ask the other why they feel this
way, and honestly and openly, listen to their responses without flavoring the
interpretation of what they have to say with our personal feelings. You may be
surprised at how stupid and shallow that other person is NOT, even when they
are disagreeing with an entire cult following. Yes, many people have a similar
opinion on this book or genre, but that does not make them right. It just means
a lot of people think like them or are lying and conforming so that they won’t
be the odd one out.
With age, comes the ability to not give a flying f-bomb about what anyone
else thinks about anything you do. I’m in my 30’s. I don’t hide the books I
read or don’t read, and if asked, will give an open response about my literary
choices. But, when I was younger, I did. I wouldn’t bring comic books out in
public. I conformed with the masses and said I didn’t like things that I did
and allowed myself to feel shame for enjoying HARRY POTTER over the likes of
GAME OF THRONES. I even started to speak badly about books I enjoyed, so that I
wouldn’t be the “stupid” one in the group. It was a horrible feeling
having to hide what I truly found interesting and sitting quietly with nothing
to add in conversations about books that didn’t excite me. When you sit
quietly in such discussions, people think you’re dull anyway. So, you might as
well pipe up and say you didn’t like whatever it is they are talking about, and
if the conversation goes south from there, leave. That last sentence is
something I’d do now, but would not have dared to do then, in my youth, lest be
judged “stupid” AND “mean.”
I truly had a problem with people thinking I was intellectually inferior to
them, so I tried so hard to do and say all of the right things, but I still
never seemed to get it correct. Also, none of it made me any happier or made
them think any better of me. It didn’t, and doesn’t help, that most people don’t
know I have social anxiety. I’m very good at “fake it till you make
it.” Afterwards, I go home and replay every conversation from every social
interaction I had that day and think: Was that okay? How could it have gone
better? I should have said… But I digress.
Back to the subject of book-shaming. I do not want to be a hypocrite, so I
will share that I am guilty of book-shaming others. TWILIGHT, FIFTY SHADES OF
GRAY—to me—yuck! But, you know, other people like them and that’s okay. When
friends tell me they love these series, I need to nod and smile. I should ask
them what they liked about the books, listen, and then move on. There’s no need
to express my opinions on the books unless they ask, and no need to give
those opinions in such a way that it makes others feel like their reading choices
are “guilty pleasures” or vices.
I think we should celebrate any person who picks up a book to read as
recreation. We shouldn’t care what it is. Your brain gets a workout any time
you read, no matter the genre. Our brains are processing, attaching meanings
and emotions to written words. They are providing imagery to what we read, and
helping us build critical thinking skills by making us follow a plot and notice
causal relationships between events. We gain emotional intelligence by analyzing
characters and their interactions.
Have you ever read the same book as someone else and discovered they interpreted
certain scenes and dialogue differently than you did? Everyone’s reading
experience is unique, and people take, learn, and grow from various things.
Another reader might find nuggets you may not have noticed, or you found
nuggets that they didn’t. These nuggets can be uncovered in all forms of
literature, whether it be classics, poetry, literary fiction, science fiction, fantasy,
young adult, middle grade, comic books, etc. If the book is something that you
want to read, and enjoy reading, you will take away from it.
We all learn from positive experiences. So, let’s keep our reading outside of
class positive. Some of the saddest confessions I hear are from adults saying
that after finishing school, they never read another book. They say it with
pride, because they associate reading with boredom. I bet they are people who
were told “this” is what you should read, so you can be smart like
us, and who simply chose not to read anymore because “this” was never
their cup of tea. Parents, please stop snatching away books your children or
teens like to read and making them read “classics” they don’t enjoy
in their free time. A lot of them become the book-hating adults I referenced.
I don’t know if this was a blog entry or a rant. I guess it can be both.
Book-shaming is not cool. Today is the day I stop, and so should you. All
reading should be seen as higher-level activity, no matter the title or genre.
Let’s cancel book-shaming.