Read This, Skip That

Can Great Literature Really Change Your Life?

Stop beating yourself over not reading the “right” books. Fiction is about two things: curiosity and pleasure.


I am a bad reader. I don’t mean that I don’t know how to read or that I don’t understand what I have read. And I’m about average when it comes to speed (no, I’ve never taken an Evelyn Woods course, but I once took their test and that’s what it said: I was smack in the middle of the pack).

No, by bad reader, I mean someone who doesn’t finish books he doesn’t like, rereads old favorites at the expense of discovering something new, doesn’t worry about being broadminded, and prefers detective stories to Hemingway or Mary McCarthy.

I mean someone who’d just as soon watch a movie or listen to music as read a book. I mean someone who’d just as soon watch television.

If readers had to be licensed, my license would have been revoked long ago.

I understood this all over again last week when I read an essay by the author Pasha Malla in the Toronto Globe & Mail in which he exulted that he’d read more books by women last year. Distressed when he realized that male authors outnumbered women six to one on his 2012 reading list, he had determined to do better in 2013. And he succeeded, he reports. But before he could celebrate a job well done, he realized that “96 percent of the books I read in 2013 were by white people.” Oh well.

To his credit, Malla does not go down the quota route. Nor does he think that reading more books by women or people of color is necessarily going to make him a better person. “Poetry, novels, and short stories are not anthropologies,” he writes. “They distill and illuminate individual lives, a necessary antidote to our mass-market culture. As such, I am no more interested in ‘books about women’ that I am ‘books about men’ or ‘books about turtles.’”

He does, however, close on a note of uplift, or at least ambition: “In 2014, I hope to no longer default to a certain type of writer—white, dead, male, whatever. Establishing quotas is not inherently progressive, but it can help us examine our choices, to consider books or writers we might other ignore or resist, and sometimes…recognize that we were missing out not having read them sooner.”

Lists. Ambitions. The idea that literature is territory to be explored, surveyed, known; the corollary idea that a reader should grow, throw off old habits, learn new things. I recognize these totems all too well, because I have at one time or another embraced them myself. But those occasions are in the past, when I still believed that literature was not merely a diversion or even a consolation but more like a calling, like the ministry. I’ve never completely closed the door on the notion that literature could change your life, but let’s say I have serious doubts.

Serious enough that I will never say that next year I have to start reading more. I will never worry that I’m reading too many dead white guys or too many living people of color or that lopsided reading lists constitute any sort of moral or ethical failure.

Perhaps it’s as simple as this: We read like the people we are. Orderly people will choose their books with an eye to inclusiveness and balance. Careless people will take a more haphazard route through the stacks. There is no one right way.

This much I do know: As soon as you stop believing the idea that literature can change your life, or that the greater a story is, the more it will change your life, the stranger it becomes to hear people talking about not reading enough (when was the last time you heard someone say they weren’t watching enough movies or enough TV?) or bewailing the fact that they weren’t reading broadly enough.

I suspect that behind such statements lurks the assumption that reading makes us better people, and the finer the books we read, and the more different kinds of books we read, the better we are—or at least our chances improve. I wish it were true.

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Maybe I have the wrong sort of friends, but I’ve never noticed that the people who read lots of novels are better or wiser or more discerning or compassionate than anyone else I know. (There does exist the possibility that they would be even worse people had they never read anything, I suppose.) I have noticed that we readers do have more in common to talk about, but I could say the same if we were baseball fans or foodies.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad people read. (I’m especially glad you’re reading this sentence, even if you don’t agree with me.) It takes a little effort to read, to open a book, even if that book is Pat the Bunny, because the act of opening a book entails a commitment—unlike turning on the TV or streaming a movie on your computer—a commitment that implies, I’m going to be here for a little while and this book is going to have all my attention. But I don’t think you deserve a merit badge for that.

As a lifelong reader, I have rarely had any sort of compass to guide me. In school, of course, I read what I was told to read, and if a teacher said something was great, I tried to understand why. It took me a long time to get over school, to feel comfortable with the idea that just because the world bowed down to Henry James or Virginia Woolf didn’t mean that I must do likewise. Nothing against James or Woolf. I love his short novels and stories, and I love Orlando. But a lot of what they wrote does nothing for me, and I’ve learned to leave it on the shelf with a clean conscience. The sad thing is, I don’t think most people ever get over school’s idea of reading: the implicit idea that a work of literature is a puzzle to solve, its symbols and settings and so forth neatly identified and labeled. No wonder more adults don’t read for pleasure.

By any sane measure, my reading habits are atrocious. I read four, five, ten books at a time. I’ll start books one year and finish them the next. I’m not compelled to finish anything I don’t like. Given the choice, I’ll forgo unread books in favor of old favorites, and even then just for certain passages or even certain characters. V.K. Ratliff, the little sewing machine salesman in Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy, is not just one of my favorite characters; he’s one of my favorite people. It’s all but impossible for me not to think of him as real.

There are huge stretches of world literature that I haven’t gotten to, and I don’t feel especially bad about it. I do feel bad that there’s not enough time to check out all I want to explore. It grieves me to think that I will go to my grave without having read all of P.G. Wodehouse.

I believe reading fiction is about two things: curiosity and pleasure. There’s a lot of Marianne Moore I haven’t gotten around to, for an example, and what I’ve read makes me want to find out what else is there. Miss Moore is tough sledding sometimes, but there’s always a payoff. A pleasurable payoff. The same goes for Wallace Stevens, who’s even more impenetrable but whose sensual feel for language is so keen that you can read poems of his that don’t make much sense and still enjoy them.

Right now I’m rereading Faulkner’s The Bear, a novella I must have read six or seven times. Lately, I’ve read it obsessively every year for four or five years, sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I’m not sure why and not sure I want to know. I don’t care anything about hunting, and I’m a sorry woodsman. But every time I pick it up and wade into those thickety Faulkner sentences, I’m caught up in the story as though I’d never read it before.

Reading Faulkner doesn’t make me a better person, nor does it teach me much, aside from the realization that Faulkner was a marvelous storyteller. Reading him, I see the world I know—or thought I knew—clarified and articulated. The first time I read him as a teenager, I knew right away that someone had nailed my world, seen it, if such a thing were possible, even more vividly than I did. This experience has little to do with geography or cultural affinity. The mid-century novelist Junichiro Tanizaki’s women aren’t much like my mother and my aunts, but when I read The Makioka Sisters, my family, or at least that sisterly dynamic, snapped into focus like never before. I don’t think the pleasure I take from such awakenings will get me into heaven, but it’s enough for me.