Read What You Want

Goodreads has a Reading Challenge in which you set yourself a reading goal, i.e., a number of books you’ll read this year, and get a widget to keep other people updated on your progress.

Now, there are many things I like about the Goodreads site. The book-networking aspect is terrific. One of my connections posts a handful of long, stream-of-consciousness reviews at a time and I love getting them; they’re hilarious. I automatically seek out any recommendation another friend gives 4 or 5 stars. Also, the emails the site sends highlighting monthly releases by genre and lists created by authors are smartly curated and useful. This challenge, though, it makes me cranky and sad like a frowny emoticon.

When I was in elementary school my local library ran a summer reading program where the winners were the ones who read the most books. I’m sure the standards were the very highest (shout out to the Waterford Public Library, they are the best and they gave out stickers for each book you read) and I’m not trying to be disingenuous: for the library, at least, it’s simply a strategy to encourage people to read. And Goodreads is looking for ways to engage people on the site, which, fair enough; that’s what they do. Like many casual critics, I have no alternative to suggest.

But the number-tracking strategy makes me uneasy. For the love of declining literacy, just read what you want, as much as you want. There are no other rules. Read genre, fishing listicles, mommy blogs, hard sci-fi, fan fiction or whatever, and if you don’t like it stop and read something else.

Reading is oxygen and there is no life without it. I play games, watch movies, feed the cats, make coffee, and clean the bathroom every now and again but my alpha and omega is reading: what am I reading now, where do I find my next book. I’m not being hyperbolic and my people out there know what I’m talking about.

I used to get stuck on the “Do you have any hobbies?” part of a job application. I read. Anything else? Paragliding, ice hiking, crochet? Well, I used to be a smoker, but that was more like an avocation.

If you invite me to your house I will examine your bookshelves. If you have no books in your house, all righty then. I’m still disappointed that it’s not easier to make friends by asking what someone’s reading. (Don’t do this; most of the time the person will endure your query and then try to put it behind them. It’s not a social faux pas per se but it’s also not a smooth conversational starter.)

There’s so much good stuff: there are more books in the world than I will ever have the time to read, and that’s not counting the ones in languages I don’t know, and there’s a lot of those. This fact is tremendously reassuring to me. I’ll never run out of things to read.

Sometimes you have to read a book, for a class or a job or because someone gave it to you. And it can be worth your time to sit down and make the effort to absorb a difficult or unusual book. Occasionally a text can be challenging or upsetting in some way, and that can be a rewarding experience in itself. Reading is one of the best ways to catch a glimpse of another person’s mind. Every book provides insight into another person’s life and experience, and without that you’re alone in your own head.

I saw an ad at the beginning of the year, a top 10 or bestsellers list and the tagline was something like, “Read these and be the smartest person at the next party you attend!” Ha ha. Brag about reading these and be the most pretentious and boring person, maybe. Intellectual caché is so fickle. In some places if you say you love Bukowski people will slap you on the back (and puke on your shoes, in a friendly way) and in some places they’ll slap your face. I once asked a guy in the Philosophy Ph.D program at Harvard to tell me what he was reading and he said THE ENTIRE WESTERN CANON and that was me told. Think how many stickers he must have.

There’s no winning this race. Reading books for cultural or intellectual cred is unreliable and a waste of time. Read what you want.