[Originally published Apr. 11, 2012.]
At this point in my life and career, I simply can’t understand or abide literary snobbery. How can anyone who loves books not take heart in seeing so many new readers huddled up with a novel? Whether it’s “Harry Potter,” “The Hunger Games” or “Infinite Jest”—does it really matter? These days, when reading fiction seems like an endangered activity, why should we begrudge the success of any book, especially one that stirs such passion with younger readers?
Sure, Katniss Everdeen might be a bit less nuanced and compelling than, say, Scout Finch, another adolescent caught in a hostile and alien world. And when it comes to a story about a character fighting for survival in the war-torn wilderness, it doesn’t quite match the haunting beauty of Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain.” But maybe when the millions reading “The Hunger Games” have finished the trilogy and are searching the shelves for their next foray into a dystopian universe, they will discover another great bestseller of the past, perhaps Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” or Orwell’s “Nineteen-Eighty-Four.” You never know – it could happen.
That’s the beauty of reading for pleasure. When you turn the final page and shut the book, that heady blend of sadness and joy you feel can quickly ripen into a hunger for more. I like to think of bestsellers as a gateway drug. Once you’ve found one you love, books will forever hold a special allure. All comers welcome. No special education required.
I inherited my love of reading from my mom, who as far back as I can remember always had thousands of books, mostly new age stuff and pop fiction. The easy access to books and the regular trips to bookstores probably had more of a lasting, formative effect on my character than the particular deficiencies of the countless hack authors I read, so yeah, I tend to be one of those who are just glad when people perform a solitary, contemplative activity like reading.
But that’s about as far as I take it. Defenders of popular taste like Hall and the kitschfinder generals who take haughty exception to his argument both seem to agree on the desirability of a progressivist ideology in literature; the critics sound like martinets in their insistence that reading is a self-improvement chore, an exercise in moral instruction and empathy, an intellectual eating of vegetables, and the apologists largely agree, hesitantly raising a finger to add only that popular novels can serve as a booster seat for those whose intellectual development doesn’t yet allow them to see out into the full horizon of human potential, and as such shouldn’t be completely dismissed.
One of the commenters on the article made me laugh with his purse-lipped insistence that escapist books are not harmless, because they isolate readers from having an “authentic” human experience. I would humbly suggest to the gentleman that he is the one living in a fantasy world if he thinks superficiality, falsity and escapist desires are not omnipresent, authentic aspects of everyday life among the ham-and-eggers; perhaps he should put down the classic literature and go hang out in a shopping mall for a while if he really wants to peer into the heart of the human condition.
I’d just like to see someone point out that the majority of human beings are unreflective and dull, always have been and always will be; that even professors of literature can be inept messes in their personal lives; and that maybe just maybe we should rethink our habit of yoking together morals and aesthetics. Be sincerely glad for the presence of those whose taste completely differs from yours; they provide you with more opportunity to differentiate yourself.