Of reading, classics, and guilty pleasures
June 24, 2012 | 5:22 pm
Here’s an amusing little blog post from the New York Times about reading and guilty pleasures. It seems to be saying that people feel guilty about reading modern (allegedly inferior) stuff they like instead of reading all those old hard-to-plow-through “classics” that (they feel) aren’t much fun to read.
The article is kind of amusing because the way it starts, by questioning whether one genre can or should be considered inferior to another, you assume it’s going to say that modern stuff isn’t necessarily any worse than older stuff—then it takes a screeching 180-degree turn when it suggests that, just as we tell one book is “better” than another within a genre, we can generalize to one genre as a whole being “better” than another. It goes on to ask:
But why should we think that what is hard to read is not enjoyable? Here there is a striking difference between the way we regard mental and physical activities. Running marathons, climbing mountains and competing at high levels in tennis or basketball are very difficult things to do, but people get immense enjoyment from them. Why should the intellectual work of reading "The Sound and the Fury" or "Pale Fire" be any less enjoyable? If I take pleasure only in the "light fiction" of mysteries, thrillers or romances, I am like someone who enjoys no physical activities more challenging than walking around the block or sitting in a rocking chair. Vigorous intellectual activity is itself a primary source of pleasure-and pleasure of greater intensity and satisfaction than that available from what is merely "easy reading."
Okay, wow. The elitism practically oozes out between every line.
Make no mistake, a lot of classics are quite enjoyable to read. It can sometimes be tricky to parse the archaic language, but that’s what a dictionary is for. And perhaps you can get a sense of accomplishment from reading something like that. But most people who still do read don’t read for a sense of accomplishment, just like most people don’t play competitive sports. And just because one person does enjoy competitive sports doesn’t mean another person will.
On the other hand, I did write a piece around Conan Doyle’s assertion that people didn’t appreciate reading anymore because it had become too easy to get your hands on any book you wanted. And I wrote:
Perhaps we can’t really know to what extent people back then were reading more of the classics without actually being there. It could just be a case of the proverbial grass being greener. All I can say is, it seems as if Conan Doyle’s opinions about the ease of reading leading to its decline are just about dead on. You really only appreciate things you’ve had to work and sacrifice for, not things that are handed to you on a silver platter.
But in that piece I also noted that this sort of elitism has always been with us. A hundred years ago, Roger Mifflin of Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop was making disapproving noises about people who read Burroughs and Nick Carter. And given the downward trend of the numbers of people who do still read for pleasure, I think we might just want to count our blessings that anybody still reads anything at all!
On the bright side, the onward march of technology and the public domain means that many of those hard-to-read classics are available for free as e-books, so people who do like “competitive sport” level reading can avail themselves very easily. And those who haven’t tried it to see if they would like it will find very little standing in their way.