Hello, I’m Laura, and I’m a recovering book snob.
It’s taken me some years of reading and reflecting to realise this, but it’s true. When thinking about this piece, I realised I’ve had phases of reading, and phases of not reading, but still pretending to myself that I was a Great Reader ™, phases of wishing that I could read, and phases of actually doing the thing, and picking up a book again.
Now that I’m back reading quite a bit (though less than I did when I was a kid – how even did I manage that back then?), I’ve been trying to read broadly, and largely without judgement as much as possible. Particularly, I want to read beyond my previous comfortable-genres and read more from authors that aren’t in the dead-white-guy demographic.
Being a judgy sod about reading in general
When I was at school, I read lots, and the only people who I thought were more awesome than me were the people who had read more of what I liked to read than I had, yet (usually people who could lend me the books, or recommend a good series). I think that at this stage in my life, it was mostly me, one or two close friends, and my books against all the world. Sidebar: I really wonder how future generations are gonna feel about reading in the face of all the things – Netflix didn’t exist when I was at high school, and binge-watching series required either a pile of burnable dvds or an external hdd, and someone with connections.
I finished school, and got to university, determined to take the world by storm and be incredibly clever, and the top of my class and all that – and I found, with dismay, that being a voracious reader didn’t differentiate me from the other… like 200 students doing my English course. Okay, well, probably at least half of them; I am sure I met a few fellow-students who barely read at all and were just doing the course for “easy” credits. I remember feeling very put out quite a bit of the time in my first year that the set list was less what I was expecting – there were lots of books about how books were like sex, and innocent little me really couldn’t deal with that at all. When I got to second year, I could choose my modules out of four options (at least one African lit module), and I took three of them. Thinking back, I did the course called Shakespeare and Company (mostly early modern to late 1700s), Romance to Realism, and the South African lit module. Most of what I remember reading were the books and plays that didn’t gel with me, and that I know I would appreciate much better now (Paradise Lost, Oronoko, To Every Birth Its Blood). Most of these appear in now 9-year-old complainy facebook statuses or wall posts about tests or essays.
Getting it – the postgrad years
It must all have percolated correctly through my system, because following my undergrad, I did an Honours year and then began my MA in Literature and Modernity, becoming more and more convinced that I wanted to be an English professor one day when I was big. I thought a lot about critical theory, Freud, gender theory, deconstruction (shudders), and kept trying to get people to talk with me about books that I never really saw being studied (children’s literature, fantasy, detective novels…) – I seldom managed to get the powers that be to nibble on those topics, despite much trying. As a Lit Postgrad, I think my best reading moments were also bound up in learning to be a university teacher for the first time. I had some great teaching moments, such as teaching Kendrick Lamar’s “Butterfly” to a group of first years – some of whom totally grokked it, and some of whom were wondering (as I would have been in their shoes) when they could get to some SHAKESPEARE like they had wanted at university. Against a background of turbulent student politics, the English department at my alma mater (so american, yoh) was interrogating its role as a cultural institution and gatekeeper; between 2011 and 2016, it shifted from English Literature to Literatures in English, asking the important question (again as part of a first year class), “why is it that we, on the tip of Africa, learn about the literature in a language from a small archipelago off the coast of France and Scandinavia?”
During my MA years the teaching and learning I did allowed me to encounter South African poetry while reading Don Quixote, or Beyonce’s “Formation” while reading Arthurian legend. It was great. But for a variety of reasons, I didn’t apply for any of the scholarships or PhD opportunities in the UK or the states that I obsessively researched for the last six months of my MA that would have put me on a path to being a literature prof. I put my nerdy delight in Medieval romance to one side, and joined the corporate world.
Reading burnout (and slow recovery)
I was horrified to find out, following leaving varsity, that I didn’t have a natural inclination to get lost in a book for hours. Even for half an hour.
TV was easier.
I didn’t have reading deadlines anymore.
So for three years, I basically read barely anything.
I think some of that was recovering from that overly critical inner voice that close-reads all text and interprets for essays. I think some of that was that I had forgotten the discipline of reading. If I’m honest, I finished the coursework section of my MA with a good dollop of wikipedia summary of books I knew I wouldn’t write about, so my ability to read properly died sometime in 2015. I listened to several books on Audible on the drive to work, but generally, this was a nice addition to life, and I was mostly as happy to listen to the radio.
I’ve given it some years of recovery, and, starting last year in all the global chaos, I found that I was keen to get lost in books again. Last year, I started tracking my reading in May(ish) by firing up a Goodreads challenge, and I made it to 52 books by the end of the year.
Now, I’m reading widely – far more widely than I did at school (when I was quite tied to fantasy), or at varsity, when books were almost all “improving” books that made one contemplate the nature of art, beauty and humanity (partially the cause for my general ambivalence with LitFic). Now, I read crappy romances that I got for free from a BookBub list, historical literature set in a range of eras, non-fiction (really a new entry on the list), sci-fi, and whatever I pick up at a charity shop (in the pandemic era, literally, what I picked up, so I didn’t accidentally transmit germs to someone’s granny).
All of this means that while I read some truly excellent books (like Americanah or Piranesi), or thought-provoking ones like Dawn, I also read some real tripe that younger me would just have judged hard. Some of the tripe is just tripe. Some of the tripe is like, I dunno, Tripe Supreme. By that, I mean that it’s comprehensive and generally reasonably written, but is a pulpy genre, like romance or vampire books.
Part of me really digs the fact that there are these less-than-excellent books out there, having been published by mainstream (even major) publishers, that are just a little shit. And some of them have even had movie/TV rights optioned and turned into films or TV! The part of me that likes this is a little self-interested, because it’s the small voice in my head that says “if this shite can be published and sold for very many monies to TV people, there’s hope for my scribblings.”
The other part of me is enjoying reading pulp fiction, because like, there is a reason that things are popular, and my kneejerk reaction is to figure out why I feel like I should apologise for this. We (society) often looks down on things because they are popular, particularly if they are primarily popular with a marginalised group. But it is kind of more difficult to culturally appropriate a mass-market paperback than a hairstyle, clothing item or food. Like, I’d love to see how that would even work – would the intelligentsia/influencia announce that “XYZ is cool now.” and the trend-followers would descend?
Part of the weirdness about this is kind of wanting to hold oneself apart/better than (told ya, some self-investigating-self-aware-BS incoming). Like, even if you do read and enjoy a mass-market book more than you enjoyed the litfic darling that is winning all the prizes, you don’t need to defend your enjoyment of it to others. You don’t need to promise out loud that you’re going to read an Improving Book ™ when you’re done with the lighter one. I’d far rather read more, lighter books than get mired into a tome that’s way too fond of itself, or where I can feel the author perched on my shoulder going “d’you geddit? It’s genius, right?” throughout.
This whole thing came about because I read a vampire book (that was not good, but also not all totally rubbish; tripe supreme!), and when I mentioned this in a call with cool, intelligent friends, I wanted them not to judge me for my poor reading decisions. Although the book had its flaws, so isn’t really in the “guilty pleasures” category that I might have felt more secure for reading, I felt like I wanted to show off to these two beloved friends, who I’ve known for years and know me very well, but I wanted to show them that I’m *smart like them*.
Now I’ve got all of this down, I have processed enough to say that the whole point of this is that I am enjoying reading so widely and mostly uncritically, even if I’m reading to critique. But, my first love, and what I will keep coming back to, is genre fiction. Whether it takes itself incredibly seriously in literary terms, or is fluff, or is somewhere in between, its core schtick is being immersive.
And booooy do I love that.