This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

September-October 2012

Not guilty

Grace O’Connell

Illustration by Dave Donald

Why we should never feel bad about what we read

“I keep telling myself that this winter I’m going to re-read In Search of Lost Time. I can’t believe how long it’s been.”

“Oh. Yeah. Um. Me too, it’s been … way too long since … that.”

“But you have read Proust, right?”

“Proust? Have I read him? What a silly … I mean, obviously—hey, I’m going to grab a drink, do you want one?”

You can insert anything into the place of Proust in this hypothetical conversation, be it another classic, the latest CanLit triumph, the steamiest or most thrilling commercial hit or perhaps the newest smartypants trade non-fiction in the vein of Malcolm Gladwell et al. The point is, even— or maybe especially—those who most love reading and books seem to be plagued by the sneaking suspicion that we should be reading something other than what we are; that whatever we’re reading is wrong.

The wrong choice, the wrong genre, the wrong level (high-brown vs. low-brow, commercial vs. literary) or the wrong period (we’re behind on what’s new, we haven’t read enough of the classics—the list goes on), the wrong demographic. Do I read enough books by women? By queer writers? By aboriginal writers? Is my bookcase politically, socially or intellectually compromising? Am I geographically lopsided? Does it matter if I missed the Russian novelists all together? In a completely non-scientific sampling, I surveyed a few bibliophiles on their guiltiest “missed book”. Responses ranged from In the Skin of a Lion to “anything by Gabriel Garcia Marquez” and from Trainspotting to Ulysses. Expressions of genuine pain clouded my friends’ faces as they ‘fessed up. People who love to read and to talk about reading were wincing over the fact that they hadn’t read, well, everything.

And then there is the temptation to define ourselves not by what we read, but by what we refuse to read, a sort of negative and combative impulse that makes us focus not on what we love about books but what takes away from our enjoyment.

Reading is, at its core, a leisure activity. We gain knowledge, joy, catharsis and empathy from reading. And yet when reading, a solitary pursuit, becomes interactive—when we talk about it with one another—it is suddenly fraught with anxiety and guilt. Everyone is in the same boat, minus the perhaps imaginary spectre of a few maddeningly well-read people. But if we’re all together in our anxiety, why do we torment ourselves and one another? Guilt is rarely a productive emotion; it is more immobilizing than motivating.

That being said, positive peer pressure can sometimes have happy consequences when it comes to reading. Book clubs democratically give each member a chance to select a title, meaning readers who might never have picked up Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town or The Sisters Brothers may find themselves pleasantly surprised. I remember reading 1984 overnight in high school—I literally stayed up all night on a school night—after fibbing to a (totally dreamy) boy that I had already read it. By dawn the boy was forgotten and all I could think of was Winston and, of course, the cage of rats.

Perhaps the important thing isn’t why or when you read a book, but how. As long as you are willing to engage with a book on its own merits and read generously, it doesn’t matter whether you’re reading it because it won the Giller Prize and you don’t want to be left out at the water cooler or because the picture of Fabio on the jacket made you feel tingly.

Besides, no one can read it all—not even if you choose a narrow focus by country, period or demographic. Choice should be delightful, not debilitating. The secret of it is that there is no wrong book to read. Even if you’re re-reading Harry Potter on the subway. So maybe we should take the opportunity to cast aside the textbooks inside of which we’re hiding our comics books, and embrace the fact that we can strive to expand our reading habits without beating ourselves up—and that most importantly, guilt adds nothing to the reading experience.

Grace O’Connell is the author of the novel Magnified World. She lives in Toronto, where she works as a writer and editor.

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