Why Do We Force Ourselves Through Books?

For the past few weeks, I have been trying to read On the Road, by Jack Kerouac. I do not like it. It’s racist, misogynist and… really boring. And yet every time I finish another book, I shame myself into picking it up again.

This book is one of the great examples of American literature. Smart people have said that it’s good. It’s one of those books that people turn to when they are looking for The Answers. It’s the kind of thing the popular kids on my literature degree (that I never got along with) thought was amazing.

So if I don’t like it, what does that say about me?

Please tell me that I’m not the only one to have found herself embroiled in the midst of a book-related shame spiral?

It’s not my first time – it’s not even my first time with this particular book. I tried to read it back when I was in high school and couldn’t get through it then, either.

It comes down to having been taught by society (and specifically, university education) that there is a difference between high and low art. High art is all about ideas and intellectualism whereas low art is pure entertainment. These distinctions – in addition to being pointless, because surely any decent book is a blend of both elements? – so far as I can tell anyway, don’t have much to do with the work itself so much as its readership.

It’s an unmistakably gendered thing. A man can write a book about a relationship and have it considered literary, but if a woman does the same thing, her work is reduced to ‘chick-lit’, shoved in the low stakes section of the shop for women readers only.

From when we’re first learning to read, we’re taught that while girls can certainly read books typically aimed toward boys, boys will never read ‘girl books’. In fact, as Caroline Paul, author of Gutsy Girls: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure pointed out in her brilliant article for TED, we teach young boys that if books aren’t specifically about them, they are excluded from them altogether. Obviously, this is incredibly problematic.

This is so relevant to YA, of course, a grouping of books disproportionately written and read by women. As we all know, YA is subjected to an endless series of attacks, accused of mindlessness, pandering and irrelevance by people who think that its readers should instead be investing their money in a much more traditional ‘literary’ library.

It’s an attitude backed up by popular culture, where some of our favourite TV bookworms only read the classics. It happened, but it was rare to see Rory Gilmore reading anything that wasn’t written by a twentieth century white man.

This is where my need to read Jack Kerouac – and give myself severe book burnout trying – comes from. Sometimes (and I kind of hate myself for it) I feel like I can only be considered a ‘legitimate’ bookworm when I’ve got through the (essentially endless) list of books that the (probably imaginary) Smart People read. Despite the fact that I read ten times the amount of books the average person did last year (though, I have realised since I started this, WAY less than the average book blogger (I like TV OKAY?!)), I still feel somewhat inadequate because not enough of them were this thing that I have already decided (so called ‘high art’) is meaningless.

Sigh.

My feminist, YA loving brain is telling me to throw the damn book out the window, but my academically programmed brain (which is dealing with, let’s face it, a good deal of internalised misogyny – what else would make my want to read a book – a ‘respected’ piece of literature – in which women are totally reviled) is protesting.

It’s so stupid.

I believe in the importance of reading widely – from all genres, from authors all over the world, of all genders, sexualities, abilities, languages… I could do on.

But what I no longer believe in is reading racist misogynist assholes just because someone said they were high culture.

I think it’s time to strike On The Road from the TBR. I’d much rather read about brave women saving the world that ‘smart’ men abandoning them alone in the desert.

Some questions

What was the last book you had to force yourself through, and why did you do it?

What do you consider to be a ‘legitimate bookworm’?

Have you read and HATED any critically acclaimed, classic and respected books? I’d love to hear about them (I also couldn’t stand Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and The Unbearable Lightness of Being #sorrynotsorry).

And finally, have you experienced any of the feelings I just talked about? Or am I just a crazy insecure bookworm all by myself?

 

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Author: Lydia Tewkesbury

24. Loves a good story.

14 thoughts on “Why Do We Force Ourselves Through Books?”

  1. THIS THIS THIS, yes to all of this. Thank you for sharing your feelings about it. I have to admit, I have the same kind of feelings, this sort of guilt at not having read some books that are considered classics of French, American, and World Literature overall. I feel like I’m a “bad” bookworm because of this, at times, but then what is a good bookworm, really? I’ve gone through tons of books this year, and tons of GREAT books I loved. And they were all young adult, yet they taught me so much about the world, about people, about myself. It annoys me how some books are considered classics and “must reads” while others are just labeled, well…crap? Sorry for the word but sometimes I feel like that’s what people think, and it makes me mad. It’s not because some book is labeled as Young Adult that it’s stupid.
    And that point about women writing chick lit and men writing legitimate literature of some kind. This makes me SO MAD as well.
    Wow sorry I am ranting here but that post is fantastic. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Please rant away! Ranting is good. This whole post was really part of a longer rant I have in my head most of the time!

      There is so much wonderful, thoughtful and interesting YA out there. I don’t understand why it gets discounted just because protagonists are teenagers (even though they feel like they are my age to me most of the time. I don’t know whether that means they are really mature or I’m really stunted, haha). It is frustrating!

      What I have loved so much about the blogging community is that we are all unashamedly enthused by YA. Finally having people I can talk about these books with makes me happy 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. When Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood video was released, every book I picked up for the rest of that week seemed to be so misogynistic to me! It really threw off my reading and I probably rated books harsher than I normally would just because I was so mad at his comments (even if the books weren’t misogynistic–I was being a little hypersensitive I think). I am a strong advocate for books that show women in positive roles and healthy relationships and that whole ordeal really just heightened my awareness.

    Recently, I was struggling with whether or not to finish Glass Sword by Victoria Aveyard and you told me your “life’s too short” philosophy. And I ended up DNFing it but I keep getting this moments of guilt! I read some reviews on Goodreads from my friends and they all praised it; it was nominated for the Goodreads Awards; and I just kept thinking, what did I miss out on that was so great? It was so boring! So I’m going through a bit of a guilt-trip right now. Maybe next year? But probably not…

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    1. I do that too. I think the older I get the less tolerance I have for stories where women are just the side pieces in the great arc of some man’s life. Sometimes I think I’m being over-sensitive and then I remember that until pretty recently this really was the case is basically every story published so I think I have the right to be OVER it. I get so bored of women either being mother figures or sex objects. We are all so much more than that.

      Book guilt is real. I think book FOMO is a thing to. Like, what if 4 pages after you gave up something happened that would have made every moment of the previous 200 worth it? Haha, I have no solution for this feeling.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post, Lydia! I actually have no problems DNFing books so I tend to, well, not read what I don’t like… though I do occasionally finish books I end up writing bad reviews for for various reasons (i.e. usually I just want to talk about that book and need to sort out my thoughts by writing them out).

    I really, really dislike the whole “reader elitism” thing going on in the… wider reading world, and I’ve got a post in the works to talk about it, but you’ve stated it so much better than I think I will! I don’t feel it so much here on the blogosphere, but I sometimes feel a bit “shamed” if I tell other people I read YA. It’s like you’re not really a real reader until you read classics – and that’s a statement I’m really against. I think it’s really judgmental thinking to separate between “legitimate” bookworms and “non-legitimate” bookworms.

    And of course I’ve disliked acclaimed books. I don’t read a lot of classics, for example, and when I do they’re very hit-or-miss for me. I tried reading 1984 and couldn’t get through the first few chapters, but I don’t think that makes me a “non-legitimate” bookworm – I think it’s just not my type of book, and that’s okay.

    Sorry for the slight rant! I obviously have a lot of ~feelings regarding this. 😛

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    1. Rants are good. I had to read 1984 and Animal Farm for school and I promise you, you aren’t missing much. George Orwell is another one of those writers I just do not get.

      I hate how people shame us for our YA love! That’s what I have loved so much about getting involved in book blogging – everyone is so passionate about these books and we can be enthused and talk about them analytically without people trying to embarrass us for it.

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  4. I RELATE TO THIS SO MUCH OMG. I kind of have forced myself through classics because I always feel to be a “real” bookworm I need to have read them. But. No?? I think we revere these older books far too much. I mean, they might be intellectual and classics and important to read, but so are newer books. I definitely don’t believe in “high vs low” literature. That sounds awful to me. There’s literature to appeal to many different types of people but it doesn’t make someone stupid to read YA just as it doesn’t make someone intelligent to read a classic! And I HATE the difference between adult men vs women writers with the whole “chick lit” category. Grrr. It’s so demeaning and I wish it’d change. So NO YOU’RE NOT CRAZY. YOU’RE SPOT ON RIGHT HERE!

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  5. I really hope you ended up DNF’ing that book Lydia! It sounds like a complete waste of time. I think the only reason I would read such books would be to understand the author/writing/ideology better to form better arguments AGAINST it. After all, how can you have a substantial argument without knowing the subject first? Plus, understanding the opposing side only gives extra leverage to what you can contradict it with. But seriously, there shouldn’t be a pressure to read a book just because it’s classified “high culture.” What someone considers amazing may be ridiculous to another, which only in the end shows how truly subjective reading is.

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    1. I have DNFed. In the end I think life is too short to be reading Jack Kerouac. I also did some research and discovered I am not the first person to come to the conclusion that he is a sexist, racist d-bag. I will never understand how some authors make it into the hall of fame.

      I agree with you – sometimes it is fun to read books just so you con construct arguments against them. I think I got through enough of On The Road to have a fairly educated anti-Kerouac stance.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m not sure when I developed it, but I have this knee-jerk rejection anything recommended to me on the grounds that it’s a classic. Too many terrible experiences, I guess. I’ve stopped believing anything has merit just because “it’s a classic” or “great American/Canadian/British literature,” it doesn’t feel like I good reason to read something anymore. It’s still super important to read broadly… but there’s a limit on the to how much toxicity I’m willing to subject myself to in the name of that.

    That said I’ve definitely forced myself through books- I’m still figuring out how not to! My most memorable experience with making myself read was my assigned readings in high school. It was bizarre for someone who loved reading to dread picking up a book.

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    1. High school can be terrible for a bookworm. Lord of the Flies nearly made me want to abandon the whole thing! God, I hated that book.

      I like how you called it toxicity. That is my exact experience re. Jack Kerouac. It was upsetting to me, reading this man, knowing he was considered great and knowing that he had this awful hatred of women. It permeates his writing. And yet he is still considered wonderful? It made no sense to me.

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