The summer after I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in English, I worked in the academic library at the college where I earned my degree. By this time, I had worked there for four years and was good friends with most of the staff, including my boss, the director.
During a staff party that we fondly called “Pickle Day” (because we were only allowed to eat green food), we were talking about our current reads, as you do at parties full of library staff. When it was my turn to share what I was reading, I hesitated only a little before I said, “Well … I’m reading Great Expectations, but I don’t really like it. I’ve been reading it for a month and I’ve only read 50 pages.”
Many of the staff nodded knowingly, green Twinkies and dilly beans in hand, understanding the feeling completely. My boss made a sour face. “So why are you reading it?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s supposed to be good, right?”
Then she said something I’ll never forget: “You should just read what you want. You’re not an English major anymore. Quit reading it if you want to quit reading it.”
So I did. Not that there’s anything wrong with Great Expectations. Some people love it, and that’s great for them! It’s just not the right book for me, and it took my boss pointing it out for me to realize that that’s okay.
The problem was, I’d spent so much time reading what people told me I should read — my professors, my colleagues, the “canon” — that I was completely at a loss for what I actually liked to read, and my relationship with reading was suffering as a result. I spent the rest of that summer trying to figure it out, trying out all kinds of different genres and writing styles, from picture books and nostalgic reads like Boxcar Children to Stephen King.
Here’s what I learned:
There’s some great books out there, and almost none of them are considered “canon.” They’re not the books that are always on those “How Well-Read Are You?” Buzzfeed quizzes, but that doesn’t make them any less amazing or interesting.
I learned that I love a good picture book, and I’m learning now that after a year of the pandemic, all I really want is cheesy LGBTQ+ romance novels, science fiction novels from the teen section, and dystopian westerns.
Truly, just read what you want, and more importantly, don’t read books that you don’t want!
Don’t be afraid to walk away from a book you’re not enjoying –- it might not be your cup of tea, and that’s okay, it’s probably someone else’s! I promise you, we are not judging you here at the library for your reading choices, whatever genre or format you enjoy: audiobooks, romance, e-books, fantasy, graphic novels and manga, westerns or magazines.
We love it all! Even if you don’t read that much but love to watch movies and TV shows, listen to CDs, or play video games, no judgement from us! They’re all great entertainment choices as long as you enjoy them or get something out of them.
Choice can greatly influence one’s relationship with reading, which is why we emphasize it so heavily in library practice. The truth is, when I thought I had to read things from the “canon” my relationship with reading was fraught and unhealthy -– I saw it more as an obligation than anything else.
Now that I’ve given myself the freedom to choose what I want, and the grace to quit reading a book when it turns out it isn’t what I wanted, I’m back to loving reading in a way I haven’t since before I started college, and definitely before I started graduate school.
As for me, I try not to get too caught up in what everyone else thinks of a book, and I listen to my own reaction to it above anyone else’s. I barely look at Goodreads reviews of books, before I pick them up and after, because what really matters isn’t what everyone else thinks, but what I think.
I read a book recently from a series by a popular author that got really bad reviews –- reviewers said the book was over the top and unnecessary, the characters were cheesy -– but that doesn’t change the fact that I loved it and tore through it in a couple of days.
Most importantly, I’m honest with myself about what I want to read. At one time, I was convinced that I wanted to read Great Expectations, even if I didn’t like it, but that was because I wasn’t being honest about my own wants.
It took my boss seeing through the influence of my education and putting a name to it in order for me to realize that what I really wanted to read was a memoir by my favorite comedian.