The Reading Police Do Not Exist

Posted June 26, 2014 by Stormy in Books / 36 Comments

We readers like to talk about reading. A lot. We like to talk about books we’re reading, what we’re into, the books we didn’t like, the genres we feel drawn to and why. The possibilities for conversation is endless. Sometimes, though, these conversations turn into talking about what other people are reading—and judging them for it.

If you really love judging what other people are reading, you can probably find a job as a columnist at an online magazine. There are people who write articles judging those who read YA, those who read romance, those who read science fiction, those who read genres of any kind, books written before or after a certain date. . . you get the picture. And it’s not just a handful of people online. I hear reader shaming all around me all the time. I’ve heard someone judging people who don’t read classics, and I’ve also overheard a person judging someone who never reads contemporary literary fiction.

As humans, we tend to like boxes. We put things in the “worthwhile” or “not” column and go from there. When we’re young, most of that is imposed on us by others—teachers, parents, peers. When you’re an adult, though, those boxes go away, and if you want them you have to make your own.
Personally, I don’t like the boxes. I don’t see how they contribute anything to the greater force of humanity in general. But some people really love those boxes. And those people very often become the hobby police. I see this with hobbies in general—some hobbies are viewed as more valuable than others—but I see it most often in fan culture.

There are always people who want to be the gatekeepers. They have no real authority; it’s all self-appointed. And for some reason, we tend to give those people a voice. If you’re in a fandom of any kind, involved in even the smallest way, you’re probably familiar with this, at least subconsciously. Think about it—you’ve probably heard someone start a sentence by saying “A real fan would know _____” or “She’s obviously not a real fan”.

If we’re being honest, we’re probably all been guilty of thinking something along those lines at least once. But what’s the purpose behind our judgement? Do we really think those we’re judging care about our opinion? Most likely, unless they know us personally, they don’t(and even then that is a very weak “maybe”). In the end, it’s not really about them—it’s about the boxes we’ve drawn for ourselves.

The reading community is sadly, not excluded from the phenomenon of want-to-be gatekeepers.  Many months ago, Book Riot published a fabulous post dealing with some of this called There’s No Such Thing as a Real Reader, and out of all the Book Riot post I’ve read, this one has stuck with me the most.

Here’s the thing: I don’t get to decide the criteria for a “real reader”. My list of checkmarks and boxes means nothing to those who are happy to go about their day, unaware of my opinions of their reading choices, and who will instead just read. The same goes for everybody else.

The reading police might be self-appointed. But they do not exist in any meaningful way. Unless you’re in school and have assigned reading or are a minor who has parents/guardians that have set rules, no one can police what you read (and even then, your instructors shouldn’t be policing what you read in your own time. . . unless of course you’re choosing something over assigned reading!).

People who don’t have better things to do(or to read) might write articles on the internet about what you should read. But they are not going to pop over your shoulder when you sink into Twilight for the twentieth time and beat you with a copy of Infinite Jest or Crime and Punishment or The Goldfinch or whatever has been deemed “acceptable” literature. . You don’t have to call the books you love “guilty pleasures” or “trashy” or anything that diminishes them and shows that deep down you agree about their inherit lack of worth just because of the content or the genre or any reason people come up with. You don’t have to be bashful about checking books out of the library because the books you’re carrying are marketed towards people younger than you.

You don’t have to defend yourself to the reading police. If you want to, go right ahead, of course. If you want to write about why you read YA or why you love romance, please do so! Those posts and tweets, even if they never reach the reading police, can still be educational and give way to great discussion. But never feel like you have to. The reading police only have authority in as much as we give it to them. The only “exist” in the fact that they are real people holding these opinions, but their opinions hold not a drop of truth or authority unless you give it to them. Reading is personal, and people read for so many reasons—

To expand their horizons.
To reach new worlds.
To have fun.
To learn about new things.
To challenge themselves.
Just because they want to.
Because they don’t want to but they think they want to be the type of person who loves reading.
Because they love romance.
Because they want to be a writer.
To find out what all the hype is about.
To connect with something outside themselves.
Those are just a few of the reasons I know of that people read—and more often than not, a reader reads for more than a singular reason. How could the reading police ever hope to quench that spirit of reading, so large and diverse?

Or, as Ron Weasley said it:

Don’t let the muggles get you down.

Keep on reading however and whatever you want, friends. Read that western or Harlequin romance or long literary work. I(and Ron Weasley, obviously) support you in your wonderful bookish adventures.

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36 responses to “The Reading Police Do Not Exist

  1. I love this post! Excellent points. Especially as a blogger and an avid reader… There are no WRONG books. I may scoff at things like 50 Shades of Gray, but those books got a LOT of my friends back into reading. It’s like how people feel about Twilight. It may not be educational or the best-written literature in the world, but especially after school is over, most (almost all?) people are reading for FUN. You read what you enjoy. If people want to judge, I say let them. It’s silly, really!

    • Stormy

      Yes! That’s exactly how I feel about Twilight too–I mean, I’m not going to be pasting a “BEST OF LITERATURE” sticker on it any time soon, but if people like it, then they like it! Why should I even care?

  2. I love what you said about boxes because it’s so true! Why does everything have to labeled and sorted into a box? We are real, complex human beings with so many facets to our existence. Who wants to fit inside one box anyway? Boring. Thanks for this, Stormy!

    • Stormy

      Yup, we really, really love boxes. I think writing has actually made me realize how many boxes we construct because I try so hard to make sure my characters DON’T fit into some box. We really are complex individuals and our taste should reflect that!

  3. anniejacksonbooks

    I love this post. I like your point that the boxes people live in are ones they’ve drawn themselves. It reminds me of the episode of Recess where TJ gets put in the box 🙂

    But I also really like your point on calling things guilty pleasures – that we’re agreeing with their inherent lack of worth. That is such a good point. I mean, sometimes it’s true – I agree that a book or a movie isn’t well constructed or well written but I love it anyway. But there are definitely times I try to “justify” something I love to a person or group that doesn’t see what I love in something. That was all oddly vague but I think it probably makes sense 🙂

    • Stormy

      Re: layout–thank you! I liked these theme but wanted to change it up a little bit. Nothing too dramatic. I like the blue.

      Yes, so many of our boxes are self-drawn. I think the idea of not having boxes often scares us. And the guilty pleasure thing was a point I wanted to make–there may be things I enjoy that I would agree aren’t as well-written or constructed as you say, but that no longer means it has an inherent lack of worth to me anymore.

  4. Yes, exactly! Love this post! 🙂 I admit that I’ve had similar thoughts to the reading police sometimes, when I see someone reading something that I didn’t like. But then I catch myself and go “Their reading preferences don’t affect me, so why am I judging them for it?”

    Of course, I still encounter people who ask me if I’ve read some classic titles when I say I love books. Then they kind of laugh when I answer that I haven’t read like Dickens or some Austen titles. It’s just like “I’m so happy you can’t read my mind and hear the mean things I’m saying.”

    • Stormy

      Oh, I didn’t get a chance to write it in this post(or maybe I was just repressing it), but I used to BE a card-carrying member of the reading police. In high school, I was very much a literature snob. It wasn’t until college that I realized what other people read didn’t really affect me, and I had better things to do with my time.

  5. I loved this! I might just write down “The Reading Police Do Not Exist” on a Post-It and stick it over my desk. There is a lot of shaming in the reading community, especially over the YA topic (by the way, NPR interviewed the columnist about why adults shouldn’t read YA – it’s interesting {http://www.npr.org/2014/06/08/320024790/should-adults-be-embarrassed-to-read-young-adult-books}). Reading is a hobby; we do it for the love of it. So whatever floats your boat, you do it.

    Anyway, sending hugs over the internet. Just loved this 🙂

    • Stormy

      Hah, that’s a great idea–maybe I should put that on a post-it too! Ooh, I’ll have to look at that NPR interview.

  6. You said this perfectly! I understand that knee jerk reaction to defend your reading tastes, but if you’re trying to convince that person who just said that what you read is not acceptable, that’s never going to happen. That person has already made up her mind, and nothing you do will change that.

    And oh my gosh, I couldn’t agree more about calling books “guilty pleasures” because it makes it sound like it’s bad somehow. I really feel that no one but you knows what you get from a book. Each reader had their own feelings for loving a book, and each person gets different things out of a book.

    Well said!!

    • Stormy

      I have that knee-jerk reaction to. . . and sometimes I give in to it. Sometimes people are receptive, sometimes people aren’t. But I think the important thing is to make sure you don’t feel like you *have* to defend your reading taste.

  7. Wow, I seriously don’t think I have anything to add because you said it all and you said it so wonderfully. People just love to judge even for things that don’t have anything to do with them. Reading is so personal, as you said, and for me, it’s just kinda sad and ridiculous when people think they have the power to make rules about people can or cannot read, not to mention so offensive!

    Anyway, I LOVED this post and I think you hit the nail on the head!

    • Stormy

      Yeah, I’m not sure why people, in general, really love to judge others over things that don’t really matter. I know I have before, but it just makes me wonder-why? Why do we feel such a need?

  8. I love this post! I’m with you…you should never feel guilty for loving a book, ANY book. I’m a pretty eclectic reader and I love a wide range of books from children’s to YA, thrillers, classics, fantasy, even romance. Whatever anyone wants to read is okay with me. Thanks for writing this. It’s very well-said.

    • Stormy

      Yup, I’m the same! I can go from reading a classic to reading non-fiction to reading MG or YA. . .and I am COMPLETELY happy with that. And instead of judging others for what they read, I’ll just be over here, reading what I like.

    • Stormy

      Thank you! I have eclectic taste too. I’ve noticed my reading taste seems to go in waves of years. In HS, all I wanted to read were 18th century classics. In college, I was ALL about nonfiction. For the past year I’ve read a lot of YA and science fiction. And my taste will probably change again in the future, but I won’t regret reading any of this!

  9. Cait

    This is an incredible post. 😉 I agree! DON’T LET THE MUGGLES GET YOU DOWN. I hate being judged for hobbies or being kind of looked at in the “well you’re not a real fan” way. That sucks. What makes a “real” fan anyway? I did a whooole long post about it like ages ago, now, but I still think there are so many different levels of fans. And judging people for what they read also sucks. It’s quite pointless. Everyone’s different!!

    • Stormy

      Right? What is the point of judging someone for their hobbies? Does it enrich your life in any way? A big resounding NO.
      I remember your fandom post–it was great!

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