It’s Time to Stop Telling People They Aren’t “Real Readers”

It's Time to Stop Telling People They Aren't "Real Readers"

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?

28 thoughts on “It’s Time to Stop Telling People They Aren’t “Real Readers”

  1. femaleinferno says:

    Great discussion! I’d like to also add that I have students and friends that are blind or have visual impairment and audio books are the most accessible way for them to read a book… and they would argue that listening to an audiobook is most definitely reading. Additionally graphic novels and comics are helpful for readers facing intellectual challenges and conditions like dyslexia because they are able to garner more context for the words/story; and I would argue that any medium that delivers the written word and encourages more people to learn, relax, escape, start a conversation and share their own stories is reading and a huge plus. Otherwise it just feels like elitism or feelings of inadequacy because it appears others are taking shortcuts. Personal reading habits are personal… its not up for debate on a pubic forum. We should love reading in all its wonderful forms!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Krysta says:

      So true! There are tons of different ways to access texts and to gain literacy skills. If people are interacting with a book, understanding it, and analyzing it, it really doesn’t matter how they got there, or what types of texts or formats they prefer. They are reading the book! Why people feel the need to spend their time tracking how other people read and then informing them that it wasn’t good enough is beyond me! Life is too short to worry about if strangers are listening to audiobooks, of all things.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. RoXXie SiXX says:

    Hi,

    honestly, I am disgusted with some social media discussions about the above-described topics. Why? Because those who judge others by their reading habits obviously do NOT understand most of the books they read. They don’t understand, that it doesn’t matter what or how you read. What matters is that they do! Because reading (I include listening to audiobooks here) helps all of us to shape our imagination and helps us open our eyes, minds, and hearts to so many things. Reading should NOT divide us, not even if we disagree about a book. Taste makes the world interesting. If we all would like the same, it would be boring. I think books are the best thing to become open to any kind of diversity.

    Cheerio
    RoXXie

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Yes! For me, reading a book means someone comprehended what it was saying and is able to talk about the text and the information it contains. How they got there doesn’t matter–ebook, audiobook, physical book, whatever! People prefer different formats for different reasons and that is totally fine! I find it completely bizarre that Book Twitter gets really opinionated about what formats other people use to read. Who cares? They are reading, they are part of the bookish community, and we can all talk about and share our love of books together!

      Like

  3. Eustacia | Eustea Reads says:

    I feel like people tend to argue that their way of reading, whatever it may be, is the best way. Recently, I saw someone post about how it’s overrated to brag about how many books you’ve read (I agree with this) because it’s more important to really savour the language read “read a book well” and how SHE did this and… it’s basically another form of reading snobbery to me.

    Some people want to savour the language, some people want a fast and exciting plot, some people want a balance of both and honestly neither is more superior than the other. I wish people would realise that someone reading differently to them doesn’t mean that reading becomes a competition

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I think that’s really insightful! Sometimes people who read really fast seem to prioritize finishing as many books as quickly as possible. But people who read more slowly might argue that reading deeply matters more. But I agree that people read for different reasons, and it’s all valid. Even individuals read for different reasons at different times! Sometimes I skim a text quickly to get information. Sometimes I read a book to savor it. Sometimes I read something light and fluffy to relax. Sometimes I read something hard-hitting to be informed and educated. My purpose in reading and how I read will likely vary each time. That’s all totally normal and completely valid!

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Books Teacup and Reviews says:

    I agree with your points. Most irritating is, I haven’t experienced but seen people talking or pointed others, you shouldn’t read YA books as adult or children’s or middle grade books or that romance isn’t as good as other genres.
    What I have discovered by being among readers is that even the person reading newspapers is also a reader. Being reader shouldn’t have to be limited to books or categories, or age groups .

    Liked by 2 people

    • Krysta says:

      Yes, I’ve seen that, too, and that just tells me people don’t know what they are talking about. Just because they personally don’t read certain books does not mean all those books are bad and no one should read them!

      And, I agree! Magazines, newspapers, Internet articles– that’s all reading.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Very true. I don’t understand people who have free time and apparently spend it tracking what other people read. Isn’t there something more interesting for them to be doing?

      Like

  5. Stephanie says:

    THIS THIS THIS! I couldn’t believe how many people thought “audiobooks don’t count as reading” when I joined the online bookish world. I listen to as many (if not more) audiobooks as I read physical books. I enjoy all formats. I like manga and graphic novels. I read short and long books. I think any book and any kind of reading counts as reading and everyone is a reader, whether they pick up one book a month or thirty!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I didn’t understand that, either! I had a teacher who was legally blind and read audiobooks and everyone thought it was normal, and people would chat with him about what he was reading. It seems like a weird thing Book Twitter has latched onto, but I don’t see people in real life worrying about what other people read and if it “counts.”

      Like

  6. angelicam2009 says:

    What a great post!
    It’s really frustrating to see people judging others for what/how they read. You’re an adult so you shouldn’t be reading YA/middle grade. When you tell people you listened to a book and get a respsonse back of “oh so you didn’t really read it?” As you said reading is suppose to be fun, so people should just let others enjoy reading what they want!

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Ah, yes, the old, “Adults shouldn’t read children’s books” line. I see that mainly from adults who don’t read children’s books or YA at all and I really want to ask them how they are so certain all these books are terrible if they…haven’t read any recently. A good book is a good book, regardless of the age range it’s marketed to!

      And, honestly, I have no idea why so many people care what other people are reading. I might not have the same reading tastes as someone else, but it would never occur to me that I should yell at them to stop reading those books just because I personally don’t find them interesting.

      Like

  7. Shaharee says:

    There is no way to deny that whatever reading is on a declining slope in the Western society. It shows in the sales and in the spurious social studies that are conducted about the subject. Most people even don’t bother anymore to read the newspaper on their way to work, but rather fiddle around on Facebook or play some mind killing game on their smartphones while commuting with metro, train, or bus. I call them the literary anorexics. And then you have of course the compulsive readers: the literary obese. They read to escape the reality of life instead of using it as a tool to enhance the life experience. Just like in real life the middle class is fading away, also the middle grade reader is a fading away phenomenon. Either you read five books a week or you read none.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Sometimes it does seem like there is a big divide between avid readers and readers who only pick up a book sometimes. I think we could be more welcoming as a community to the casual readers, and perhaps encourage them to join us in all our bookish talk! But I’m sure some people see all this talk of what “really counts” as reading and they just back away slowly to read their four books a year in quiet and comfort.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Shaharee says:

        I find the book clubs launched by some celebrities like Mark Zuckerberg or Winfrey Oprah, who set forward a goal to read one book a week, good examples. The only objection I have against these book clubs is that those celebrities are orienting their followers towards literature that reflects their own intellectual and ideological priorities. But one book a week is definitively a fair number to strive for. That’s what I mean when I’m referring to the middle grade reader.

        Like

        • Krysta says:

          Having a set number of books to be read for a book club makes sense. For myself, I find I like challenges that are based on time read rather than books read. My library’s summer reading program, for instance, seems to have a goal of something like 25 books reads in three months. Well, I’ve been reading a book for an hour each day for three weeks and I’m just finishing it up because the book is so long! The reading challenge seems designed to make me read shorter books for some reason, but sometimes I want to read a longer one, lol!

          Like

          • Shaharee says:

            I can understand that. I was reading Tai-Pan by James Clavell (725 p.) in one week, while my partner trudged around with it for two or three months. She’s paying more attention to details then I do. I followed the main plot-line while she could get get lost into the little side plots till she understood their socio-historical-cultural relevance.

            Liked by 1 person

  8. Mint says:

    I wonder if the desire for triumph in reading comes not from the education system, but from external sources. (Or maybe it’s a mixture?) Things like a Goodreads challenge where people set a goal of how many books to read, competition spurred by seeing others achieve things you’d like to do on social media, seeing all the ads that are sent our way to encourage us to buy new books.

    I don’t think it helps that there isn’t really one word to describe avid readers or members of the bookish community. Because these discussions seem to be isolated within the bookish community, part of me wonders whether these arguments are being made about everyone who can read, or if it’s a debate about what it means to ‘belong’ in the bookish community.

    For example, outside of the discussion around whether graphic novels ‘count’ as reading, there are parts of the bookish community that don’t tend to engage much with graphic novels at all. So even if graphic novels ‘count’ as reading, they don’t necessarily ‘count’ as sources of frequent discussion in some parts of the community. And then, someone who comes into that community eager to chat about graphic novels when that isn’t often done can be identified as someone who doesn’t really understand the norms of the community.

    Like

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I think you may be right about some external pressure in the community or reading sites. Someone commented several days ago saying they didn’t love the Goodreads Challenge because they felt it was competitive or something like that and why get obsessive about how much we read, and I found it interesting because I personally don’t take it that seriously or pay attention to what other people are doing. And I know that when I say I read 100 books that a lot were picture books and not War and Peace. :p But I have definitely seen other people say they don’t love the pressure, whether that’s just competing with themselves or reaching a quota or whether it’s feeling bad that someone else met a goal of 250 books while they “only” read 45. And I think that must be some of the motivation behind people saying things like audiobooks “don’t count.” Count towards WHAT? The Goodreads goal is my only guess because what else is even being tracked, formally or informally?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Mint says:

        I know The StoryGraph also has goals (hours read, pages read, books read). Kindle has a tool where they track when you read (on their platforms) and I know people like to see how long they can keep their daily or weekly reading streaks.

        Some people also keep a record of their reading, whether it’s in an online spreadsheet or a reading journal. Tracking how many books you read or how many pages you read might not be the goal, but at least with the spreadsheets I’ve seen, they often do have an option to track this.

        I personally love seeing my reading habits reflected in stat form but I can see how it can create a lot of pressure, both by me interacting with these things and me seeing how other people are doing.

        Like

    • Krysta says:

      I could totally see it as a mixture of school and other factors! To me, school as a factor makes sense because, for many people, that’s the one main place where they experience reading–they are assigned books, have to talk about books, learn what books are considered “canonical” or worthy of reading, etc. And it lasts for years, some of the most formative ones in a person’s life.

      But then I think the idea of reading as a competition where some reading is seen as better than other types of reading gets carried into stuff like the Goodreads challenge once school is no longer a factor. People on Book Twitter do seem worried about what other people are counting towards the Goodreads challenge, even though no one is explicitly in competition with anyone. Goodreads doesn’t exactly award a prize to the person with the most books, after all! But since you can see what other people have set as their goal, perhaps some people feel like they are “inferior” readers if their goal isn’t as high as others?

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Katie @ Doing Dewey says:

    This is a really interesting theory for why some people are so concerned with policing what other people read! I’ve never understood that. Even in read-a-thons, when people check with the host for what ‘counts’ as reading, I’ve been confused about why reader’s wouldn’t just use their own judgement (except in rare cases where a prize is actually at stake, when I can see why people would to make sure everyone was playing by the same rules).

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yes, I find it weird adults act like this, too! But then it occurred to me that school is an experience many have in common and the one place most people learn to read. So it makes sense if our reading baggage is coming from there and just…never going away.

      And, yeah, I would just use one’s best judgment in most cases, unless, as you say, there’s a prize at stake. I’ve even seen people make up their own weird rules for the Summer Reading Challenge at the library, like they won’t let their kids read a book they’ve read before “because they might skip a word.” The librarians, I am positive, do not care if you skip a word. It still counts as reading. The point is just to keep kids reading during the summer to prevent summer slide. Not to have the reading police make sure your eyes landed on every word. I’m pretty sure that’s not really how reading works, anyway. Don’t we all skip letters and fill in the blanks?

      Like

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