Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Shame and Reading: Some Thoughts on Popular Reading Materials

I've been thinking a lot about shame and reading lately. I had a conversation recently in which I started to feel a little ashamed of my reading habits, and realized I shouldn't. (This wasn't because of anything the other person said or did. Just fighting habits of years feeling like I was supposed to read "important" literature.) Feeling ashamed can transfer in so many ways, both personally and professionally. Sure, I am the director of library services at a community college that serves 4 different counties, have a deep and wide intellect and curiosity for learning, and seem to have an addiction to attaining advanced degrees. But I'm also a human being who lives in this culture that seems designed to degrade and depress (capitalism is the worst). Why shouldn't I read fun things?

Here are some books that I'm either currently reading or have finished recently (meaning within the last few weeks):
  • Dead Heat by Patricia Briggs. It's in the middle of two intertwined series - "Alpha and Omega" and "Mercy Thompson" - which are these wonderfully written books set in a world with werewolves and vampires and fae and magic, but with politics and history that is ostensibly the same as the United States in which I live. Reading these books is like slipping into a warm bath. They aren't particularly page-turner-y, with suspense and intrigue, but they are comfortable and soothing.
  • Moving Pictures by Terry Pratchett. Oh, how I love the "Discworld" series. These books are expertly written parodies of sword & sorcery that still stay true to the tropes and functions of the genre it parodies. This one in particular made fun of Hollywood and popular culture. And I loved it.
  • The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner. Part biography, part history of science (evolution), part science, and all rivetingly interesting. Everything from Darwin to a discussion of the arms race going on between bacteria and the makers of antibiotics.
  • Kindred by Octavia Butler. An African-American woman keeps getting pulled back to pre-Civil War Maryland to save a white ancestor of hers. Engrossing commentary on race and politics and capitalism and gender and a bazillion other concepts.
As you can see, my reading ranges from works that are more ephemeral and fluffy to books that some consider part of the American canon. What's more - I checked every single one of these out from a library, which is as it should be. And for those of you who work at public libraries, you're likely nodding your head and thinking, "Of course! How is this even a question? Why are you even writing about it, Jessica?" I'm not really talking to you. 

I'm talking, instead, to the academic libraries that are still holding out from buying popular reading materials. First of all, it is an entirely defensible expense: People are writing academic discourse on Stephen King and Cormac McCarthy and Amy Tan and a bazillion other so called popular authors. In the past, Jane Austen and Shakespeare and Horatio Alger were all popular authors who have been studied again and again in the intervening years. I'm sure you have a popular culture scholar or two on your campus who would add their voice to your argument. Second, even if you are down the street from a public library (which is somewhat rare), why are you passing responsibility ignoring the needs and wants of your community? Third, the ability to sustain attention reading is a transferable skill. 

In my life before academia, I worked in a book store, and I'll never forget a conversation I had with a regular customer. I was talking about some piece of fluff I'd read recently, and then I berated myself for not reading "good" books more often. Her response was, "a 'good' book is the one you enjoy."

I know that we in academic libraries are supposed to support the scholarly record and the curriculum and the research needs of our communities, but shouldn't we also support the other needs of our patrons? Why are we shaming them about their interests in reading by leaving fun books out of our collections? Even if we aren't shaming them on purpose, it is still shaming. Besides, if we're trying to get people to value the library, shouldn't we be providing materials we know they will appreciate? Buy some good books.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this post! I couldn't agree more. Especially at community colleges, I feel like we play an important role in helping students develop their own interests and taste in reading. I work with a lot of students who have been asked to select a popular book to read for class and some struggle with that task because they honestly have no idea what they like. I LOVE working with those students and playing matchmaker. Whether they're selecting a book for a class or for fun, we want to encourage engagement with literature (and I mean the big tent version of lit) and with ideas. We want them to develop a habit of reading that they take with them for the rest of their lives. Giving them a broad selection to choose from helps them become well-rounded readers. Like you, I read a huge variety of books and that's because I was lucky enough to be exposed to a ton of different genres as a child. Not every child is so fortunate.