I frequently see discussions online (and in person) about the value of different kinds of books. Most readers of this blog will be familiar, for instance, with people who bash YA for being childish and dumbed-down. There are people who sneer at genre fiction like fantasy, mystery, or romance for being not suitably literary. And there is a subset who thinks basically anything contemporary is okay for entertainment but essentially fluff, that the real literary masterpieces are from the past. These are the voices I hear most frequently. However, there is also a vocal contingent of people who think old books (broadly, the classics) are rubbish. They’re outdated and boring. No one really likes them. In particular, no reluctant reader would like them, so people should stop reading them in schools or even recommending them at all.
It’s easy to look at both sides of this issue and think each extreme is ridiculous, that of course there are good books and bad books from every time period imaginable, but I think that even among people who think classics can be good or have literary merit or even, gasp, be enjoyable that there is often an underlying belief that classics are an acquired taste. They’re something one grows into, after reading the more engaging (read: modern) stuff. And so, If someone doesn’t like to read, there is no way, the argument goes, that they would want to read a classic. Yet my personal love of reading is founded almost entirely on books that were not published during my lifetime.
I read a lot as a young child, a jumble of picture books and easy readers of which I could probably only name a few, though of course many were “old,” classic children’s books like the works of Dr. Suess or If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. My earliest memories of longer books that really started my love affair with reading, however, were middle grade classics. In second grade, I fell in love Charlotte’s Web and The Secret Garden. In third grade, I discovered the Chronicles of Narnia. In fourth grade, I read Anne of Green Gables for the first time, one of my favorite novels to this day. In sixth grade, I discovered The Lord of the Rings, and in eighth grade I found The Count of Monte Cristo. High school led to my reading a number of classics, as well as medieval works like Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that I initially looked into because of my love of J.R.R. Tolkien. I eventually majored in English literature in undergrad and got a master’s degree with a focus on medieval literature, again because Tolkien led me there.
Of course during all these years I also read a number of children’s and teen novels and books that were, in fact, published sometime after the nineteenth century. I read a lot of Tamora Pierce novels (though some of those were also written before I was born), and I was an avid participant in the Harry Potter craze. I devoured fantasy and retold fairy tales, and I liked modern YA novels enough to think I might like to work with them one day in publishing. However, when I really look back at my life, at the books I remember influencing me as a child and teen, the books that made their mark on me intellectually and emotionally, as well as the books that inspired the paths I took in college and grad school, nearly all of them were “old.” Nearly all of the books that made me a reader are the books that I see people saying online can’t make anyone a reader because they’re too dusty and boring, and there’s nothing a child or teen might relate to.
People have different reactions to and relationships with books. I read enough essays from the undergrads I taught in grad school that espoused their hatred of classic literature to know this is a popular stance (though I argue in another post that it’s difficult to hate all classics when they’re completely varied in genre, time period, writing style, etc.). And many of these students did want to read more modern books, more teen books, or more books that featured protagonists that looked like them. This is fair. There are people who do not come to love reading by reading classics, but I wish the book community would be more open to the idea that there are people who do.
Frankly, there is no magic answer to the questions, “What books do people like to read?” or “What book will turn a non-reader into a reader?” You can suggest YA novels or graphic novels or short novels or just Harry Potter or any type of novel there is, but people have different tastes. There is no special list of “books for reluctant readers” that comes with guaranteed success. Not everyone will, but I came to love reading through classics, and the idea that others might too should not be met with dismissal.