Year ago, I worked with a young lady who seeing that I was reading the latest best-seller from a popular author noted that she only picked reading material from the “classics” section of the bookstore.
When I asked her why she did this, she replied that if it was a classic, it must be good and that she felt obligated to read it.
But are you enjoying them, I asked.
She told me that didn’t matter. What mattered was she was making herself a better person by reading these books — even if she didn’t enjoy the experience.
As someone who loves reading, that statement depressed me a bit. To feel like you were being forced to read from only an accepted list of classics — and not for the sheer pleasure of reading — made me a a bit sad. It also made me feel a bit sorry for the limited scope of reading material that might be available to my friend.
Don’t misunderstand me here — I think there are a certain set of books that everyone can and should read, even if you didn’t encounter them during your educational journey.
But I feel that, too often, we get stuck in the ideas of what we “should” read rather than what we want to read.
As an avid reader, I’ll confess that not all my choices will qualify as great literature. I doubt that many literary professors and experts will include the latest tie-in Star Trek novel or the next Stephen King book on their list of “must read” novels for literary study. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy them just as much as they might have enjoyed reading and pondering the deeper meaning of the works of William Faulkner or Kurt Vonnegut.
And while I’ve never argue that comic books are great literature, I grew up reading more than my fair share and I’m enjoying reading the new material and revisiting some of the old stuff via the trade paperbacks that are offered by my library system today.
And so it was that I was dismayed to see an article posted in the Telegraph with the headline of “No self-respecting adult should buy comics or watch superhero movies.” Columnist Rhymer Rigby contends that the current crop of superhero films are “scraping the bottom of the barrel” because the material was “originally written for ten-year-old boys.”
I know that suggesting that comic characters might be stupid upsets plenty of people. Well, sod it, in for a penny, in for a pound … I used to read 2000AD as a kid and I quite liked its epic, six-month-long storylines. But then I turned 14. And comics stopped doing it for me. Yes, even graphic novels. Even The Dark Knight Returns. I put them all in a big trunk and it went up in the loft and there it stayed.
My parents deserve some of the blame for this. Dad was not a fan of comic books. His view was that the second you hit puberty, you put them behind you and started reading John Updike – and you damn well stuck at it until you liked it. And you know what? He was right. The travails of Rabbit Angstrom are better than any comic. They were better when I was 15 and they were a hell of a lot better by the time I was 25 – which is the median age of people who went to see The Avengers.
I understand that Rigby is suffering some fatigue from the sheer amount of superhero offerings in the popular media today. And while I’d never argue that the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko era of Spider-Man is great literature, I still loved reading it as a kid and enjoy visiting it again today.
But like all things, I think we’ve got to have balance. Just like going on a diet — you can’t necessarily consume sugar all the time and expect to build muscles and be in shape. But that doesn’t mean you can or should cut out sugar entirely. Having a bit every once in a while is a nice treat.
Should we read comic books all the time and see only comic book movies? No.
But can we enjoy these things in moderation? Yes.
And can’t we all just stop the literary snobbery that seems to run rampant. Look, I try to challenge myself in my reading choices from time to time, but I can honestly say I’ve enjoyed the “classics” I’ve read of my own free-will far more than those I’ve been given as assigned reading during my educational tenure. And while I’m grateful that my teachers assigned certain novels, short stories and poems to teach me things and help develop my palate a bit more, I can’t honestly it meant I loved certain literary choices. (I still think Lord of the Flies is a horribly overrated book with a good marketing team).