What is your favorite book? This is a question that, however politely and non-threateningly asked, always feels like it’s plowing you into a corner. Do you tell the truth and risk bringing the conversation to a halt if your curious questioner does not know it, or do you go with your sixth favorite book, “Catch 22,” because everyone read it in high school and it’s a point on which you can relate to each other? One thing you know not to say unless you want to sound snobbish is, “You’ve probably never heard of it.”
And you shouldn’t – but there is a problem with the fact that there is a stigma attached to uttering the name of a book (or film, or band) that most others would not know. Why are we expected to read all of the same things? Rather than shutting up about lesser known works we’ve read, we should embrace our different literary backgrounds and share what we know.
Ruth Graham recently stirred up a bit of a riot when she wrote in a column for Slate that adults should not read YA fiction in place of more advanced, complex material. Most of the backlash was aimed toward her bold statement that adults should feel ashamed for reading novels aimed at teens. However, the interesting point made in Graham’s argument that could have been made more effectively is that there is not enough time to read everything in the world, so time should be used wisely.
There are different reasons for reading different things. We might read to learn something, to challenge ourselves, or for pleasure. We also read for cultural literacy – if you have not read “To Kill A Mockingbird,” you are excluded from this unifying piece of the national psyche.
This unity that comes from a common pool of literature is positive in many ways, but without variation between our individual libraries, we lose out on a lot. We are not only all reading the same articles from the same few channels, but we are also all hearing about the same books. At the same time, studies have shown, adults are reading less than they used to, and adults between ages 18 and 36, once the group that read the most, are now reading the least.
The problem with reading the articles and literature that go viral is that people are reading these instead of everything else. Standardization is the trend in our shrinking world, and technology and policy alike are contributing to it. In schools, the Common Core is implemented to ensure that all students are on exactly the same page. By the time students graduate high school, they’ve all read the same books, and with the one or two opportunities they had to choose an independent reading book, they all chose to read “Harry Potter” or “The Hunger Games” anyway.
There are benefits to broadening the variation in what we read, and they go far beyond making ourselves feel sophisticated at parties. If we’ve all read a range of different books, we may each bring different ideas, knowledge and perspective to a group. This will be valuable to innovation as we enter the working world, and it will be valuable to policy as we become the leaders in decision making. We will each make hardly a dent in reading all that’s been written, but as a community of English speakers, our collective library could grow to include far more and to be less concentrated on the viral, which is not always synonymous with the valuable.