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.


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?


How NOT to be a Dick on the Internet

That there are nasty fights happening in the bookish community is something I have only recently become aware of. The more bloggers I follow on Twitter, the more negativity I have started to see and all I have to say is this: can’t we all just be a bit nicer to each other?

To be fair, it is hard to do. I read a really interesting article over at Wired recently that cited studies indicating that we actually respond better to information conveyed in a way that’s… kind of mean. We associate negativity with intellect, and tend to believe that the person leaving the meanest comment might also be the smartest.

Isn’t that just the dumbest thing ever?

I think perhaps it is time we reprogrammed our minds. I have found some aids to help us do so.

This video is about mental hygiene and ‘thought germs’. CGP discusses the various ways that our thoughts are manipulated by our emotions – particularly anger – and how that may make us a little hasty in clicking the share button…  often before checking any of the information we’re sharing is fair or accurate. It’s about how we separate into our own online rage circles, losing the possibility of discussion to mutual disgust.

I am constantly guilty of this. I can only hope that being aware of it is the first step in altering that particular behaviour.

A lot of the arguments in the bookish community take place over on Twitter. Without the benefit of context and facial expressions, it’s very easy to read a tweet and be hurt by it even if that was never its intention. It’s also very easy to get involved in an argument without a proper understanding what it’s even about in the first place. This video challenges us to ask ourselves the following four questions before posting anything:

Am I speaking honestly but without hostility?

Am I speaking out for someone or against someone?

What do I get out of this thing that I am going to say? (try not being motivated by your own gain but by the gain of those who you could be benefitting)

How much of this is driven by my social identity?

These things are hard. Just last week I wrote a post rebuking an anti-YA article I thought was dumb with absolutely no regard for any of this stuff. On the other hand, this morning, I saw a bookish tweet I felt was overly aggressive, but rather than arguing or shaming the person, I simply unfollowed them and moved on with my day.

We get to decide what our community looks like. Think before you type. It’s hard, but work on it. I know I am.

A Case For Cheating In YA

Earlier this week, in my Top Ten Tuesday post, I wrote that I am bemused by the blogging community’s response to cheating in YA books.

Today, I am going to discuss exactly what I meant by this.

I have noticed that a lot of people will give a book a bad review, or perhaps not even read the thing at all, if it features characters cheating on their partners.

I totally accept that different people have different sensitivities. For example, while some people dislike Stephanie Perkins because of Anna and Etienne’s cheating, I dislike her because of her tokenistic use of Asperger’s in Isla and The Happily Ever After. Well, for everything about that book, honestly.

(Today is a day of unpopular opinions, apparently).

That said, I find the total rejection of books featuring cheating puzzling.

We all read and enjoy books about murderous vampires, heists, wars and identity-stealing shapeshifters without blinking an eye. But if one of those murderous vampires, criminals, violent soldiers or identity-stealing shapeshifters happens to cheat on their boyfriend…. Well, then a line has been crossed.

Weird, right?

It might be oversimplifying, but I think part of the reason for the resentment that comes with this particular moral waver might be that, for some people at least, cheating addresses the elephant in the room. That elephant being the probability of two seventeen year old’s staying together forever.

(it’s low, guys)

Spending your life with your high school boyfriend is an extremely unlikely outcome that the enjoyment of most YA romances is predicated on. Just Listen couldn’t be Just Listen if Annabel and Owen broke up five months after.

(they totally didn’t and I won’t even entertain the possibility).

The introduction of a character cheating on an existing partner shatters this illusion. The presence of a cheater is an acknowledgement of the fact that new people come into our lives all of the time, new people who might actually be a better fit for us than that boy from our physics class ever was.

None of this is to say that cheating is okay, so much as it’s kind of inevitable. And that fact does not sit well with the unconditional ‘forever’ love of the YA couples we think of as our OTPs.

As such, I would argue that cheating is a totally natural – maybe even obvious – subject for YA fiction to delve into, because books are a safe environment to explore these concepts.

Approach it like you might a really violent TV show. We witness the horrors (or, if you’re me, close your eyes until the worst is over) in the entirely safe environment of our couches. Most of us are in the very privileged position to be able to process the existence of real life horror by fictionalising it. We’re pretty much doing the same thing with cheating. Whether it’s an abject criticism of the concept of monogamy as a whole (the idea that someone would actually publish a YA book that does this is, admittedly, laughable, but bear with me), or an exploration of sexuality, or even just a way to analyse what does and doesn’t work for you in a partner, fictional cheating is a safe no-heartbreak way to explore a concept without, you know, wreaking havoc on your actual life.

In addition, isn’t the very point of reading to explore a life that’s different from your own? To me at least, reading a constant stream of books about girls who look and think in the exact same way as me couldn’t be more boring. I want to feel my personal limitations being stretched and to immerse myself in moral relativism before heading back into my day of trying not to be mad at strangers who jostle me on the train. I don’t think that it is a story’s job to make us comfortable. Stories make us think, stimulate us and broaden our horizons.

People don’t always make what we perceive to be the right decisions, in life, or in fiction. One of the key arguments against cheaters in YA I’ve seen is that readers don’t feel that they are learning anything from the experience.

I call that the no lesson lesson. And it’s one of the hardest ones to take. Sometimes the people that we love (and the people that we hate) will do things we think are wrong. Sometimes, they will do them over and over again. Sometimes they will even continually express the same pain over having made the same mistake. Again.

Realising that we ultimately have no control over the actions of others is something we learn to live with every day.

It makes a lot of sense to me that people would want to write books about the phenomenon.

That people wouldn’t want to read them? That idea, I struggle with.

(because I too, am still learning to cope with having no control over others)

In the end, all you can really do is throw in your own two cents.

So that’s what I’m doing.