There’s a lot of advice out there on how to read the “right” books. Sometimes that means adults telling children (or other adults!) comics and graphic novels are not “real” books. Sometimes it means readers telling other readers that listening to audiobooks “does not count.” Sometimes it means articles denouncing all readers of YA books as unintelligent and unable to move on from their youth. Sometimes it means readers of romance being told their preferred books aren’t “serious” enough. No matter what you like to read, at one point or another, it is very likely that you have been told it’s wrong for you to read it, and that you would be better off–more cultured, more educated, more respected–if you would read something else.
At the heart of the reading debates seems to lie a shared cultural assumption that reading is somehow “good” for people. There is an assumption that reading is superior to other forms of entertainment such as watching TV shows or playing video games and more profitable than other types of hobbies. (For example, I once read a post where the writer chastised a grown woman for “wasting her time” by indulging in adult coloring books when she could be doing something valuable–like reading.) As a result, people are expected always to be doing the type of reading that leads to some sort of personal betterment. They are not expected to be reading for fun.
Other hobbies do not seem to inspire quite the same level of shaming that reading does among its enthusiasts. I have yet, for instance, to read an argument decrying all the viewers of Disney+ for wasting their precious time on fictional cartoons instead of relevant documentaries or “important” artsy films. And I think that is because we still, as a society, have this idea that reading is–or should be–inherently beneficial. In contrast, streaming TV shows is seen as just for pleasure or relaxation–no one cares that much if you indulge in a Disney singalong instead of trying to make it through the Top 100 Most Important and Incredibly Cultured Movies of All Time.
However, when we are confronted with arguments about what we “ought” to be reading, we have to ask ourselves first why we are reading. Many people do read to learn new information or gain cultural clout. But many other people read primarily for enjoyment. If a person likes to relax on the weekend with an Amish romance, it does not make a whole lot of sense to attempt to shame them into reading Shakespeare instead. Amish romance is their genre. English renaissance drama is not.
Reading does, of course, have many benefits for individuals. Reading on grade level helps students understand their textbooks and achieve academic success. Reading helps us learn new things, visit new place, and experience new points of view. Reading can help us gain valuable critical thinking and communication skills. There have even been studies suggesting that reading literary fiction makes us more empathetic. But isn’t reading for pleasure and relaxation beneficial, too? We all need time to unwind, or even time to escape. So why do we have to shame people for what they read? What you read is up to you–and so is the value you find in it.