Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Reader Ramble: Do we read for the sake of reading?

For the first time that I can recall, the young adult genre is hands down the most popular.  These are the books that are getting the movie deals and all of the buzz.  This isn't true just among the targeted age demographic, but among older readers, as well.

Some of this attention is absolutely deserved.  The Hunger Games trilogy is fantastic.  I love that Eleanor and Park features two atypical protagonists.  Some classics are receiving new attention, as well, such as The Giver, which is a phenomenal novel.

However, for every well-written book with intriguing, well-developed characters, a captivating plot, and relevant themes that will make the reader think, there are another ten that turn character tropes into clich├ęs and wear down the same plot points that made every other book popular.

And this is a very common criticism of the young adult genre.  I'm not blazing any trails in saying this.  However, an equally common response to this is, "At least kids are reading."

Let me insert a disclaimer here: I realize that this isn't solely true of YA.  Every genre has filler material that is sub-par.  And adults can choose to read only those types of novels, too.  I only focused on YA because of its current prevalence in the market and because I've been exploring what the genre has to offer as of late.

This brings me to the following question: Is reading for the sake of it truly the goal? 

By that I mean, should we just be happy that people are reading, without care for what it is they are reading?  Or is reading not about the act but more about what the reader gains from the experience?

This further begs the question, what should a reader gain?  Entertainment?  Morals?  New world views?

For me (and this is just my opinion), reading is about what the reader takes away from it.  It isn't enough for kids and adults to just be reading.  The measure of a book should be what it gives to the reader beyond just entertainment.

Don't get me wrong.  I definitely read some books solely for their ability to keep me enthralled and distracted from real life.  And I believe that there is a place and a time for that.

However, it's very important to make sure that our book diet includes reads that challenge us, grow us, teach us, make us question ourselves, and open our eyes to the world.  We should be reading books that are difficult for us to understand because of language or context.  We should be exploring new writing styles and authors that push boundaries.  Books that make us uncomfortable, books we don't agree with, characters we don't relate to, cultures that are not our own...we need to be reading diversely.

There needs to be a balance between easy, fun reads and weightier works that grow the reader as a person.  Yet, I see a lot people (especially young adults) losing interest in classics and literary fiction.  To me, this is a travesty.  It's so important to have an appreciation for the literary Van Goghs and not just settle for the paint-by-number replicas.

To say that it doesn't matter what a person is reading so long as they are reading is the equivalent of saying that it doesn't matter what he or she is eating.  Technically, junk food will keep a person alive.  I can live off of soda, chips, and candy.  But I won't be healthy, and I won't grow.  This is the same with books.  I can live off of junk food books, but I won't flourish unless I get a well-balanced literary meal.

As an educator, this ongoing trend of carbon copy YA book after carbon copy YA book is upsetting.  How can I get my kids to be interested in reading Lord of the Flies or To Kill a Mockingbird when they only have a taste for Twilight and the market is designed to meet their palette?  I struggle against their desire to be entertained without having to strain themselves intellectually every day.

But this is just my opinion.  What do you say?  Does it matter what we read?  Are classics and literary fiction becoming less popular, or am I just pessimistic?

Let's discuss these things down below.

Happy reading!