I’ve written elsewhere that one of the most rewarding aspects of my professional life is that I (in a way) get paid to read and discuss books; and not just novels, but all kinds of books. I am fortunate enough to work at a university that pretty much lets me teach what courses I want to teach, and, mercifully, there are no territorial animosities to deal with. Occasionally I also get to teach those courses (like Shakespeare and modern American literature) that are supposedly beyond my field of expertise (my curriculum vitae lists “contemporary world literature” as my field of expertise). All in all, I’m fortunate enough to be able to do something I love for a living, and that I will hopefully be able to do for a very long time.
However, once word gets out that you are a literature professor, all of the “suggestions” on what to read seem to come out of the woodwork. There have been and continue to be countless people who are eager to give me unsolicited advice on what I should (or should not) read. For the most part, these are well-meaning people who just want to share the joy of what they have read with others. I suspect that since I am a professor of literature my opinion on a book somehow carries more weight than that of the average reader. For example, if someone suggests a book for me to read, I read it, and like it, then that will somehow legitimate his or her taste in literature, which in turn will validate that person intellectually. This sounds incredible egotistical and snobbish, but I am a literary snob and I am proud to be one. (I actually don’t buy the part about legitimizing other people’s literary tastes, but it sounds like something I would say.)
Let me explain. I truly believe that an essential aspect of what makes us who we are is what we read. Our personal libraries are extensions of our personalities and values. If we take my hypothesis above to the extreme, then a person who reads, say nothing but romance novels, is a fairly shallow and superficial person. I don’t really believe this, but the logic does follow. In the early 2000s, the American Library Association conducted a study on how many books an adult in the United States read in one year. The results were frightening. They concluded that for the year (either 1996 or 2006, I forget which) they conducted the study 60% of Americans did not read ONE entire book! With this in mind, it puts those who read nothing but romance novels in a much better light—at least they are reading. In the early 1990s I was working at B Dalton Booksellers in America’s own third world nation, Binghamton, New York. At the time The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos was the big seller. One Saturday afternoon a man walked in and asked if we had the book. I took him to the right section and handed him the book. I told him that it was a great book and that he would really enjoy it, to which he replied, “Oh I’m not going to read it. I’m going to Long Island for the weekend and I just want to carry it around with me so everyone thinks I’m reading it.” I have to hope that the guy was pulling my leg; otherwise all hope for intelligent life on this planet is lost.
Nevertheless, I am saddened but never shocked when someone tells me what he or she is reading and I almost always find it disappointing. Those who read nothing but Dan Brown (a hack if there ever was one), John Grisham, James Patterson, Jodi Picoult, or Danielle Steel, are really doomed to a life of cheap thrills and weak intellectual stimulation. One friend actually told me that the Regency Romance Series of books were well done and that I should read a few. Really? Another friend suggested that I read Chris Bohjolian. I nearly threw-up at her feet. There are simply too many good books out there to waste one’s valuable time on bad or mediocre fiction and non-fiction. The same goes for those who read Bill O’Reilly or Glenn Beck, or their counterparts on the left, and think of them as intellectuals. There is a wonderful story about Gore Vidal (certainly a writer worth reading, especially his essays) that I’m not sure is true or not. The story goes that he had the same problem I am having. His stock answer became “Sorry, I only read Noble prize winners now.” I am thinking of stealing that from him.
My students regularly ask me how they can become better writers. I never fail to tell them that in order to become a better writer you have to read, period. But this is only partially true. In order to become a better writer one can’t read whatever one wants, one has to read the good stuff: read V. S. Naipaul, James Baldwin, Gore Vidal, Martha Nussbaum, and especially Arundhati Roy. It’s a simple but unscientific fact that if you read even one novel by Nabokov, you become smarter. Don’t believe me? Try it.
Americans, when they do read, are reading really bad books. Take one look at the titles on The New York Times bestseller list and you will see what I mean. Sadly, we are not a reading society, if we ever were one. It takes too long to get through Moby-Dick, or anything by Thomas Pynchon. Toni Morrison is a one hit author (Beloved) that is only read because her books end up on university syllabi. This is a shame. What most Americans fail to realize, or perhaps they simply don’t care, is that really important fiction is like taking part in a wonderful family meal that lasts for hours. We simply do not make time for it. Better to get that fast food on the run (read fast food as a metaphor for Dan Brown here) and then burp our way to the next soccer match for little Joey or Susie. If you are reading someone like Dan Brown or Stephen King you’re not reading, you’re passing the time. And God help us if we think someone like Jonathan Franzen is the great American novelist. By the way, for those who are crazy enough to think that The Da Vinci Code is a good book, or even original, please read Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum for a taste of something really though-provoking.
But who am I to say what constitutes good or bad fiction and non-fiction. I’m just some literary snob lamenting a dying art form.