What is my “reading future”?

In Books on September 25, 2011 at 2:35 pm

Photo by Nicholas Fisher (

In the face of my girlfriend’s impressive and diverse reading list (to say nothing of her “100 books in a year” mission”), I’m having serious self-doubt about what I’ve been choosing to read over the past few years. I have a PhD in English Literature, so I know the value of reading “classics”…but the “life is too short to read old, boring bullshit” part of me grows stronger every year.

It’s gotten to the point that I can barely make my way through a book that isn’t science fiction, fantasy, or horror. Since around 2008, I have consistently shied away from a broad spectrum of works, toward serial fiction set on other worlds, in other times. It’s been immensely pleasurable…and therein lies the rub.

I’m the type of person who looks with unmasked derision at schlock like Reality TV, and thinks, “anybody who watches this is a blight on society.” But then I turn around and read a gaming-influenced novel like something from Games Workshop’s Black Library series. I do this easily, without a blip on the conscience-radar, just as in the same breath I will dismiss the by-rote genres of the harlequin romance or detective fiction.

The idea that reading should be exclusively for pleasure is something that I find distasteful. Yes, I understand: it’s a terribly snobby thing to say. I don’t take offense: I’ve been called a snob before, and by more than one person. Still, having studied a huge spectrum of art and literature for nearly two decades, I can say without reservation that everyone should be thus exposed: it really does change the way you think, and for the better.

But now that I have finished my schooling, my motivation to push the boundaries of genre and style in my reading has plummeted. No longer immersed in the rarefied strata of academe, I have drifted from the values of complexity and referentiality and the requirements of historical knowledge. Just the other day, I started Hemmingway’s slim novel A Farewell to Arms, and got stuck 50 pages in. But then I picked up George R. R. Martin’s newest bloated tome A Dance With Dragons, and polished it off quickly.

So all my snobbery about “not reading for pleasure” is starting to sound pretty damned hypocritical. I’m afraid I’ve become not so much a genre snob, but a genre prisoner. And I may be suffering from Genre Literature Stockholm Syndrome.

Why? Because I’m starting to find rationalizations for only reading “what I like” in the future. Such as: assuming I keep up a relatively rigorous pace of reading for the rest of my life, I probably only have about 1,500 books left to read. Because this number is — for me, at least — terrifyingly small, surely I should just hunker down and read only what I enjoy, so that my remaining “golden years” will be filled with joy and happiness?

This is a big shift for someone who was until a few years ago a literary omnivore. Not that I experience too much guilt about my indulgences: I  feel truly alive when I am immersed in a good sci-fi yarn, and can escape the mundane visions of relationships and circumstance that plague “normal” fiction. The real issue is how to muster the courage to discover something in the genre of traditional fiction, and find as much pleasure as I do in my preferred genres. For some, this is an easy task; for one such as me, who “knows what he likes,” and no longer has a professional motivation to explore, it is daunting.

  1. There’s also something to be said for “I need some time to recover from my PhD in English Literature” – I have noticed my friends with humanities degrees tend to need a little space away from their subject matter when they’ve finished.

    That said, a similar observation of my reading habits led me to enforce a “one book in four must be ‘serious'” rule hat I managed to stick with for a couple years; I’m on my own break for a little while now.

    My point is, burnout can happen. If you find that books of a more respectable pedigree aren’t getting read, is putting the GRRM down going to lead to you reading more Hemmingway, or just reading less?

    • “Is putting the GRRM down going to lead to you reading more Hemmingway, or just reading less?”

      That’s the million-dollar question. At the moment, I fear it will be the latter…which is why I continually read those of GRRM’s ilk (thinking, through a twisted maze of logic, that it is somehow “better than nothing”).

  2. I’ve been meaning to read “The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction”, written by an English lit professor. In it he apparently argues for reading books that interest you even if they aren’t highbrow. I’m not sure which category his book falls into though.

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