Should people read only worthy books?

20:00, Oct 11 2012

This blog is only a few months old, but I've already copped a certain amount of flak for admitting that I like quite a few popular authors.

It has made me ponder an important question that has haunted most of my reading life: what is it that makes someone a reader? Does being a real reader mean that you should dedicate your life to what are considered "literary" works? I mean, is Pinocchio a real boy?

I've come to the conclusion that on a superficial level, anyone who reads at all is a reader. That is a given. But the term "reader" is as loaded as a live machine gun - and I've definitely come across book snobs who'll moan on about how Twilight and Fifty Shades have poisoned young reading minds, cue drama and the gnashing of copies of The Master and Margarita. 

I knew when I started that I wanted the blog to be accessible to everyone. Having done a degree in English lit, I am able to critique books as easily as the next BA vending fries at McDonald's (I kid, I kid).

Some of my favourite authors include John Steinbeck, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Margaret Atwood, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Milan Kundera. I've forced myself to read James Joyce, Ayn Rand and hosts of other "worthy" authors. I have bored myself silly reading the bloated, self-indulgent prose of Salman Rushdie.

Yet despite this, I've never been comfortable being a literary snob. Perhaps it's because I'm a writer as well - I started as a creative writer and moved into journalism, and have now come full circle. So I truly understand how difficult it is to write a book, any book - whether it's poetry, a collection of short stories or a novel.


Writing is a solitary activity which requires that you be a part of the world, while standing apart from it. Most times, you're pouring your heart and soul into something that you know has a good chance of never being published in the traditional sense. So I'm not as harsh of a book critic as perhaps someone who hasn't toiled away in the paper mines of fiction writing would be.

There's also the point that many of the novels we would now consider as "classic" or "high literature" started life as popular fiction. Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment was first published as a serialised novel in 12 monthly instalments. Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice was the romance novel of its day.

For that matter, so was Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre (poor orphan girl ends up marrying elusive rich man) and even Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, which was lambasted for being a "strange, inartistic story" by early critics.

Ray Bradbury was confined to the literary ghetto for many years because he wrote in the most populist genre of all, science fiction. He wasn't taken as a "serious" writer till he wrote the brilliant Fahrenheit 451, now compulsory reading for many university English papers.

What makes someone a reader?

I think a reader is someone who reads but, most important, someone who enjoys the act of reading for the sheer pleasure of it. They don't prejudge a book by its cover or read to score literary points.

So I'm quite happy to read according to mood - whether the book is something completely trashy, like the latest Stephen King...and hey, who doesn't secretly enjoy a bit of the King, or Mitch Albom for something nostalgic and if I'm in a depressed and cynical mood, then maybe I'll indulge in a bit of Ted Hughes.

What do you think makes someone a reader? Do you believe people should only read "worthy" books to be considered a real reader?

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