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Saturday Book Discussion: Is reading good for you?

Books = Snickers Bars?



How many times have you heard this about some crappy book that everyone is reading: "Well, at least it gets people to read."

I first encountered this argument many years ago and it concerned a series of children's book that were basically gross-out stories appealing to the mentality of preteen boys.

Apparently this is still the thinking concerning the hand-wringing issue of "reluctant (boy) readers." How do you get a boy who doesn't like reading to read? Give him a book about nose-picking and farts, apparently. This will lead to him discovering an appreciation for Shakespeare and Proust somewhere down the line.

Likewise, we should be glad that Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey are best-sellers because some of those readers will maybe start reading other things. Like, more vampire romances and BDSM fantasies?


The first book I've read in six years



So, I have two questions:

1. Do crappy books targeting people who are, by and large, not "readers" actually lure them into reading more widely?

2. Should we care?

I know #2 sounds almost heretical. "Of course it's good to get people to read more! Reading is good for you! Reading is enlightening! Reading expands the mind!"

I think reading can be good for you and it can be educational and it can expand the mind. Just like eating can be healthy, but that doesn't mean eating Snickers Bars and potato chips implies that you will develop a taste for vegetables and whole grains.

And also, there is nothing wrong with enjoying Snickers Bars and potato chips. Unless that's the only kind of food you like, and you defend it with "At least I'm eating."

Which brings us to a much wider question: what is the purpose of reading? Most of us who read books for enjoyment aren't necessarily seeking out books for literary nutritious value. We want to read a good book, and books that make us think, move us, educate us, or disturb us tend to be the most memorable, the ones we think of as lasting and important. It's to be hoped that at least some of the books you read will do that. But many readers don't even think about whether they "get anything" out of a book. They just want to be entertained. (Or gotten off, in the case of 50SoG.) Nothing wrong with that either, but is there any inherent value in books that serve no other purpose, and should we reflexively celebrate anyone who actually engages in the sacred activity of Reading A Book?

Like most people who love books, I tend to react with horror when I meet someone who admits to not reading. Someone who hasn't read a book in years is, in my experience, not someone I am likely to find very interesting to talk to, and not because all of my conversations involve books. But I am not sure if one can really make a clear argument as to why someone who doesn't read is necessarily less interesting, intelligent, or educated than one who does. We just tend to assume that reading and an active mind go hand in hand, but very smart and mentally active people sometimes have other preoccupations that don't leave them with the time or interest to read.

I also know people who do read, but they never read fiction because they find it a waste of time. Or they'll read fiction, but have absolutely no interest in science fiction and fantasy, not necessarily because they assume all SF&F is juvenile pap (though many do), but because they just don't find such stories relevant or interesting to them. To me, this seems limiting, but only because it runs so strongly against my own tastes and habits, and possibly because I so take it for granted that reading is worthwhile for its own sake that I don't question whether some reading is nothing more than Snickers Bars and potato chips.

You can read a lot of books and not be introduced to a single new idea, or even a new word added to your vocabulary, and if that's the case, can it be said that reading is actually doing anything for you? It's often assumed, for instance, that reading is more wholesome than watching TV or playing video games. If you're an adult who reads nothing but manga and YA, or the latest Hottie McHardbody the Vampire Boffer or Epic Farmboy of Imperial Doorstopping Destiny of Doom fantasy series, is that any less "passive" than a Law & Order marathon?

The premise that reading should be active and intellectually engaging is why there are whole schools of literary critique — the theory being that there is some value in the process of analyzing what you read. This is also why people who "just want to enjoy a book" tend to bleat loudly when their favorite book is subjected to scrutiny. They don't want to do a lot of thinking, and they certainly don't want to be told that their entertainment comes with implicit value judgments and wider implications.

This is just something I have been thinking about a lot lately, as I read everything from schlocky pulp fiction to literary classics. Reading has in recent years become a serious hobby for me, in the sense that I don't just read books, I talk about them, write reviews about them, maintain book lists, and so on. Is it really more worthwhile than stamp collecting or bicycling? Do I have a sharper, broader mind because of all the books I've read? Or is the value only in having a larger cultural and literary awareness? Reading lots of books means I can more easily spot allusions to other books when I read, and compare them when I talk about them, but what is the inherent value in that?

Poll #1853904 Is reading good for you?

Do you think reading is inherently worthwhile?

Yes! It's an essential quality of being a well-rounded person.
22(30.6%)
Yes, but that doesn't mean all reading is worthwhile.
41(56.9%)
It can be, but it requires active engagement and purposeful reading; just reading for pleasure has no particular value.
3(4.2%)
A certain amount of reading is necessary to be properly educated, but there's nothing special about being "well-read."
3(4.2%)
No. Reading is no more important than any other activity, and many other things may be more important.
3(4.2%)

Do you think popular books that have little literary value get people to read more?

Yes, and I think 'literary value' is a bogus judgment. Anything that gets people to read more is good.
11(15.1%)
Yes, though I doubt many of them expand their reading beyond similar works.
26(35.6%)
Maybe, but I think the number of people whose reading habits are changed by a hot bestseller is small.
33(45.2%)
No, or if they do, what they read doesn't matter.
3(4.1%)

Do you care about the 'value' of what you read?

Yes. I try to make everything I read count in some way.
3(4.1%)
I read for enjoyment as well as improvement, but I try not to read junk.
22(30.1%)
I read pretty widely, including some books just for the experience of reading them.
29(39.7%)
There may be some reading that's more 'valuable' than others, but I just read what I like.
17(23.3%)
No. Reading is reading.
2(2.7%)





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  • in need of recommendations

    Hi everyone! I'm writing a grant proposal where I would be writing a novella based around misogyny and how it affects men, women, and everyone. What…

  • Medieval Medicine Book Recs

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