The bookish community often has strong opinions about what really “counts” as reading. Heated conversations emerge frequently on Twitter about whether listening to audiobooks is “real reading,” if graphic novels and comics are “really books,” and if graphic novels should be “allowed” to be counted towards one’s personal Goodreads challenge. These controversies seem to arise because some people feel that it is somehow inherently unfair for others to say they are reading if they think the book in question is easier than a book they have read, or shorter than a book they have read.
The question we need to ask ourselves, though, is why it would even matter if someone read a shorter or an easier book than someone else, or if a person “actually listened” to the book instead of reading it with their eyes. There is no prize for reading the most books or the hardest books or the books with the fewest pictures! There is literally nothing at stake here, nothing that someone who “read more” could be deprived of by someone who “wasn’t really reading.” When controversies over what “counts” as reading happen, I think it is beneficial to consider why we are reading at all. What is the end goal of our reading? What do we want to accomplish? Articulating why we read can shed light on why it typically does not matter what anyone else is reading, or what they count towards their reading goals.
Many of these attitudes about what really “counts” as reading arise, I fear, from how reading is taught in schools. Because teachers have an end goal that says students should be reading on grade level by the end of the school year, they may encourage students to try reading longer or harder books, so that the students can advance in their literacy skills. Or they may encourage students to try reading a book without pictures instead of only graphic novels. Or to try reading a book without the aid of audio. Some teachers might unthinkingly even try to encourage students to meet these goals by saying things like, “Read a real book! No more comics!” Statements that students might internalize and hold on to, even years after they graduate.
Teachers might also rank students as “good” or “bad” readers based on the types of books they are reading, how fast they are reading, and how many pages they are reading–and these assessments of reading skill are sometimes made semi-public through what is known as leveling readers. Some readers never seem to let go of the idea of leveling, needing to prove over and over again that they are a “good” reader, and that they are reading more, better, and faster than the competition.
There is, however, nothing inherently wrong with reading shorter or easier books, or reading books with pictures or listening to an audiobook. It is just that, when students are learning to read, they may sometimes need to be encouraged to try something new or harder, so they can master skills that will allow them to engage with more complex texts. Not everything in life comes with illustrations or an audio option, so teachers want to try to give students the tools they will need to understand the types of texts they might encounter later–college textbooks, prescriptions, legal documents, employment documents, etc. So, the end goal in school often is to challenge one’s self with harder and more complex texts for the sake of gaining important literacy skills that can help with real-world scenarios.
It is important to remember, though, that the adults in the bookish community are, for the most part, no longer in school, unless it is for college or a post-graduate degree. Every adult in the online bookish community can reasonably assumed to have already gained basic literacy skills. They know how to read! The end goal for adults reading is typically not to prove mastery of a certain text or certain literacy skills. Their purposes may vary, but they are probably along the lines of reading for entertainment and relaxation, culture, or information.
What an individual chooses to read for fun, or to keep up with the latest pop culture craze, does not really matter! It does not matter if they are reading “fluff” or short stories or comic books, or listening to audiobooks! If they are reading to acquire information, it also does not matter what format they use to acquire it. The end goal of engaging in an enjoyable hobby or learning something new is being met by whatever the individual chooses to read, and it is not anyone else’s place to tell them that their reading does not “count.” Count towards what?? There is no hierarchy of readers out in the real world, no gold-star readers, no readers moved up to the special “advanced class.” There is no leveling. There are just readers, and all are welcome!
Of course, it is true that sometimes adults do show that their reading comprehension could be improved. Finding instances of reviewers or Twitter users who completely misunderstood or misinterpreted a book is not hard to do. And we should not discount that negative real-world impacts can arise from reviewers who misinterpret a text. Ideally, however, this is an opportunity for literary discourse to work the way it is meant to work–with people respectfully advancing interpretations of the text rooted in actual textual evidence.
And yet, notably, when people on the internet accuse others on the internet of not “really reading,” most often, they are not referring to reading comprehension skills or critical thinking skills at all. The focus tends to remain on aspects of a book that do not necessarily reflect its complexity or depth: the page count, the inclusion (or not) of illustrations, and the format (audio or physical). Sometimes, people might get hung up on the age range of a book, saying for instance that adults should stop reading YA. To me, this suggests that many people have learned from school that the point of reading is just to…read a lot? The most? The heftiest tomes one can find? The books that will impress others? The idea that reading well might include things like be able to understand, explain, and analyze what one has read, and that the point of reading might go beyond being able to brag about the number of books on one’s Goodreads challenge are not ideas that seem in vogue, at least not on book Twitter.
The American education system has apparently, and most regrettably, taught a lot of readers that the main point of reading is to prove that one is on or above grade level, or at the very least, reading above one’s peers. This concept seems hard for many to let go of, even once they are out of school, are no longer being leveled, and have no reason to compare their reading achievements with anyone else’s. If this is the main takeaway from school–that reading is all about being better than someone else–I think we have to concede that the system has failed. Reading is not supposed to be externally motivated by the desire to triumph over someone else. Nor is reading supposed to be a competition where others are made to feel embarrassed over their book choices. Reading is meant to be fun and engaging–or at the very least, a skill one has acquired to function more easily in a society where the written word predominates. Making reading into a hierarchy with “good” and “bad” and “not real” readers fundamentally threatens the whole point of reading at all. It certainly is not going to inspire more people to become readers, or to join the bookish community.
As a community, I think we need to take a hard look at the way we understand reading, and who is a reader. What is the motivation behind telling someone that they “aren’t a real reader?” What does it accomplish? And what can we do to ensure that the bookish community is welcoming and open to all?