Picture, if you will, an English major or a literary critic. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
I’m sure there is some difference between what you and I saw, but for the sake of my argument let’s say we both imagined a person who reads the “classics” and looks down on the smut and “lesser forms” of “written art” that are “prevalent” in today’s “society.” Someone who also uses “big words” and apparently doesn’t know how to “use” quotation “marks” correctly.
Is that what you pictured? Not that last part about quotation marks? Fair enough. Unfortunately, there is a stereotype of snobbish behavior attributed to those who study or critique literature. While this stereotype may be well deserved for some, I believe there are some exceptions out there like myself. Brace yourselves; here come the big paragraphs of my opinions.
Though it may seem like much of today’s society sees reading as an antiquated pastime they don’t have any actual time for, we should celebrate the fact there are people who still choose to read for fun. For many like myself, reading is a way to escape stressful periods in our lives or to entertain ourselves during long car rides. Books can transport us to different places and times through the experiences of completely different people; I think someone even said they’re a uniquely portable magic (Stephen King said that. Don’t come after me for not citing my sources!)
Reading is not encouraged enough in America and, despite the common complaint that our education system is to blame, that is the fault of parents. Children need to read while they’re young to improve their language skills and help nurture empathy by allowing them to identify with another person, whether that is a cartoon animal or a human being. This foundation will help the little readers grow into big ones who think of reading as something they do for fun rather than a mandatory chore. An extremely influential place this happens is within the home where parents should take it upon themselves to plant the seed of literary love and cultivate it into lifelong readers.
One of the most difficult choices for parents and teachers is what specifically they encourage their children to read. We as adults should be just as discerning in our reading. That doesn’t mean that we should look down on people who read what we choose not to. Everyone has different tastes and expectations of literature and it is this diversity that helps the art grow. Are there books that I will never read? Of course; I will not, however, condescend to my mother and sister for reading the Fifty Shades of Grey series or the Twilight books. However, I refuse to buy them the DVDs of the film adaptations because I am a hypocrite and fully aware of that fact. Literature is simply art and storytelling through the written word, so by definition these books fall in the same category as those written by Ernest Hemingway and Jane Austen (two authors I will not read due to reasons that would destroy what little credibility this post has if I mentioned them here. Hypocrite, remember?).
Unfortunately elitism will come about in any medium of art; I have seen it first hand during my college career many times. I may or may not have experienced personal feelings of triumph when a particularly snobbish peer of mine mispronounced “Jacobean” and was corrected by our professor in front of the entire class. There was no malice in our instructor’s correction but the student visibly slumped in his seat and remained quiet for the remainder of the class. This leads me toward a discussion of criticism and the apprehension of students to volunteer answers for fear of being wrong, but that’s a subject for another post.
My vicarious exultation (mmmm tasty hypocrisy) at his embarrassment most likely shows more of a character flaw in myself than in my peer, but it isn’t just the students who hold these prejudices against the “lesser” works of “hack” writers. I have a distinct memory of my Introduction to Literature professor assigning us a research paper, the subject of which would be an American author. She then pointed out that there was a pre-approved list of authors to choose from and that neither Dan Brown nor Stephen King were on that list. This raised a few guffaws from the students who in that moment would have been right at home in a cigar room, cradling snifters of brandy and polishing their monocles; it really drove home the fact that there are people who tend to judge those who are different than them when given the chance.
I don’t think anyone should be embarrassed about what they like to read, just as they shouldn’t apologize for liking a certain TV show, movie, music artist, sports team, or type of food. Everyone has their own personal preference and though I think the world would be more enlightened if there were less reality TV shows, I also understand that not everyone holds my opinion. Reading is something you have to make time for and in our increasingly busy lives it often falls toward the bottom of our list of priorities. I will admit that I am a snob about what music I listen to, which movies I watch, and won’t touch certain brands of beer, but I don’t need to be that way about books too.
So to my fellow English majors and literary critics, let’s back off a bit and allow people to read what they want without looking down on them. Besides, keeping our noses turned up isn’t a very flattering angle and only allows others to see our nose hairs better. To everyone else, go read a book and know that there is one less book snob in the world to judge you.