Mar 13, 2011

The Sunday Salon – Reading: It’s Hard Work

The Sunday Reading Hard Work

As I’m sure some of you know, there was a minor clamour around the blogosphere recently when Jeff Lemire’s brilliant Essex County trilogy (which I’ll hopefully post about this coming week) was removed from Canada Reads on the first round on account of being a graphic novel. I’m not going to go into this in too much detail, as this excellent post at Irrelevant Comics does it far better than I ever could. But I thought this episode was a great point of departure for an analysis of common attitudes towards reading, which are unfortunately held even by people who hold crucial roles in reading promotion events (yes, yes, you may at this point sigh and think “here she goes again”).

As I was saying, I read Essex County recently and absolutely loved it. To quote judge Lorne Cardinal’s very eloquent words, it did indeed make me “think of things instead of things, you know, like iPods”. The idea that comics not only don’t further literacy but actually hinder it has thankfully long since been abandoned by the majority of people who work with books and reading professionally (dear YALSA annual lists of recommended GNs: I love you so). It seems unfortunate that this competition’s judges have yet to catch up. It might have been interesting to see them use a different and more sophisticated kind of argument for excluding Essex County: for example, that comics are a different artistic medium, one that is visual rather than exclusively text-based, and therefore should not compete alongside traditional novels. I’m not sure how I would have felt about it had this been their reasoning. On the one hand, I’ve been known to regularly get on my soapbox about how comics are a medium, not a genre. But on the other hand, I find their ties with traditional books close enough for their inclusion in reading competitions not to seem incongruous to me.

Of course, different is not the same as inferior, and I would certainly be interested in having a conversation about this if no value judgement was involved. Unfortunately, this seems difficult to avoid, as the comics medium’s use of images in addition to text is very often used against it, as if it proved its inherent inferiority. Arguments of this kind honestly baffle me: surely no one has ever suggested that silent films are not as artistic, thought-provoking or serious as films with dialogue because of their lack of words? Lemire’s Essex Country does of course have words, but apparently not in sufficient number, and therefore there are fears that this will make people unwilling or unable to read books that are exclusively text-based.

If you read the post at Irrelevant Comics, though, you’ll see that the main issue at stake wasn’t at all the fact that different types of media were being discussed. The thing that made these judges who are supposedly trying to encourage literacy so uncomfortable was the fact that the book was quick and easy to read. To me, this is the most interesting thing about the whole situation: the fact that the judges’ arguments rely on the idea that reading should be hard, that it should take work, that it should be a somewhat arduous process. And if isn’t, it can’t have Meaning or Relevance. It doesn’t make you think of “things other than things”.

Of course, I also don’t buy the opposite argument, which is that anything that isn’t easy must be worthless or pretentious. Dense texts are fine; I love many of them. But what they have to say, what about them encourages people to “think about things other than things”, is not necessarily determined by the difficulty of prose in itself. If you take an author of moderate difficulty – someone like, say, Virginia Woolf – you can argue that their experimentation with form can’t be separated from their content, and it’s a crucial part of what makes them so extraordinary. This is a fair enough point, but at the same time, I have trouble seeing form as a thing to be revered in itself, quite separately from any sort of meaning. What bothers me about the assumptions behind the Canada Reads judges’ arguments is the idea that complex ideas are defined by a complex form of delivery: that you cannot possibly communicate anything worthwhile or convey nuanced emotions using accessible language (or even - horror of horrors - pictures).

I sometimes notice that in these debates, people I essentially agree with use the following argument: there’s nothing wrong with having a diverse literary diet. You have your Serious Thoughtful Reading, which is your main course, and then you have your Easy, Brainless Entertainment as your dessert. This is as valid a way to think about reading as any other, but it’s actually quite different from what I’m trying to say. And what I’m trying to say is that there are incredibly accessible books that are just as thoughtful and nourishing as the most dense wall of text imaginable. Sometimes I suspect that my most serious literary crime, the thing that has done the most to discredit me in certain circles, is exactly my propensity to be unapologetic about my reading choices by refusing to file some of them under “easy and mindless entertainment”. I take comics and fantasy and YA and children’s literature (which you can say tend to be ‘easier’ and quicker reads - tend being the key word here. I don’t think anyone who has read John Crowley, M.T. Anderson, Catherynne M. Valente, Charles Burns or Alan Moore would even dream of suggesting this is always the case) every bit as seriously as Booker and Pulitzer winners or classic novels. And I can’t for the life of me figure out why I’d ever want to read them in any other way.

I’ll never be comfortable with the idea that there are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ forms of reading or different scales of worth. You can either Do It Right and be a Serious Reader, or you can Do It Wrong and have people tut-tut at you. Which brings me to a passage from John Carey’s What Good Are The Arts:
Surely, you may protest, multiple-choice questions, of the kind I have been proposing, are not raised by all literary texts. Surely some texts are just simple. Yes, they are. But even simple texts require reader-creativity, and precisely because they are simple the reader may be unaware of what he or she is having to supply.
Unfortunately, the only thing the scales of worth mindset achieves is establishing an association between shame and guilt and the act of reading, which are not exactly emotions conductive to making people want to come back for more. Reluctant readers struggle with hard texts and feel ashamed; then they enjoy easier ones and feel guilty because these don’t count as proper and serious reading. Obviously I’m not saying they should forever give up on challenging texts. But there should be no sense of obligation about it, no performance anxiety, no feeling that your worth as a reader is all wrapped up in our success in conquering, I don’t know, Infinite Jest. By all means read it, but please do so at your own pace and in your own terms.

For the same reason, I’m hugely suspicious of evolutionary views of reading; of the whole idea that at some point the Ideal Reader will “move on” to harder texts. A lot of discussions about how to spread literacy rely on the assumption that there’s an ultimate reading stage where you read x, y but no longer read z; and that this is a stage everyone will eventually achieve. If people don’t, we sigh patronisingly and say, “Well, at least they're reading something…” To me, progressing as a reader is about widening your own personal literary sphere; about including more and more things in what you love, what you spontaneously seek out, what you feel at ease with. It’s not about leaving what you once loved behind so you can prove yourself as a Serious Adult Reader. Again, it’s not about shame or guilt or proving anything to anyone. Emphasising that will only scare people away.

Reading is not cod liver oil. You don’t have to swallow it as you wince because it’s good for you. Thank goodness for that.


  1. reading should always bee fun in my mind ,I enjoy a challenge in my books but also sometimes a throwaway read ,I don't read to prove anything just to my own tastes which are wide and varied I always look at a trip to the library as a huge pick and mix for myself lol ,and not as fattening as real pick and mix ,all the best stu

  2. Stu: Thank goodness for the lack of real calories in books of any sort ;)

  3. I love it when you kick butt! LOL. A fantastic post as always. Not sure if I will ever reach the Serious Adult Reader status. I do love the sound of that statement though.

  4. I do think all books can have merit (though they don't always), whether they're easy or hard to read, no matter what genre they are, or medium they're told in. Certainly the graphic novels I've read (albeit few) are just as valuable as traditional books. I know I can't read all of one kind of book all the time, and I think it's silly to require that of anyone, even sillier that if you don't limit yourself to those dense texts that you're not a real reader. There is definite benefit to challenging yourself and not sticking just to what you know you like, but I love your last paragraph and I think it's so true.

    I do know I tend to classify my own reading into "books that challenge me" and "books that are just for fun" but I never judge others on what they read or don't read. I just know what works for me.

  5. Vivienne: lol, thank you :P I'm glad the "here she goes again" isn't always met with dismay ;)

    Meghan: I think we all use those classifications for ourselves, and there's nothing wrong with that, of course! To me the crucial thing, though, is acknowledging that you can't necessarily tell beforehand which books will be serious and challenging and which will be fun, relaxing romps based on genre or medium alone. I suspect that a lot of people DO decide that before they even start reading - they decide that certain books are not to be taken seriously and therefore dismiss them without really engaging with them. That's a loss for everyone, I think.

  6. Oh gosh, I didn't realize there was time when I should stop reading X and start reading Y. I just read: literary, genre, graphic, illustrated, adult, children's ... I guess I'm not as adult, serious, well-read, or mature as I thought. LOL.

    Reading is reading, people should learn to lay off the judging.

  7. This is the most hug-worthy post I have read in a long time!!! To say I love it, doesn't come close to expressing it. Not even close.

  8. I can't even begin to tell you how important GN have been to my middle school collection. I've been able to get even the most reluctant reader to pick up a book and also that low reader who thinks they're not smart enough to read. Success in reading is important whether it's newsprint, books, graphic a collective group of readers we should all embrace any and all forms of reading and how it is presented regardless of whether it's "literary"!!

  9. I think it's the same problem with the YA and "genre" categories - an automatic contempt solely based on the "ease" of reading. I would guess it probably mirrors the inculcated academic mindset, according to which the more obscure it is (and the more analyses of variance in the text) the more it is worthy of publication. Ah well, as Thomas Kuhn might say, this paradigm too will fall one day!

  10. Rather than subject you to my lengthy internal rant about the whole Canada Reads thing this year, which in my opinion was an unmitigated disaster as far as engaging anyone but traditional readers and in several other ways as well, I'll just say: yes. Agreed. Thank you.

    Reading is reading. I have spent my entire life trying to justify my own reading tastes to myself, and feeling guilty about the things I don't like. I'm finally getting to the point where all of that is moot; I read what I read, and I don't really care about the rest of the world's opinion on my reading choices or tastes.

    There *is* stuff out there that I think is ... well, less worthy of print, to put it harshly. But someone out there will read it and like it, and who am I to even notice, much less care? It's not like I'm forced to read it, and it's not like it's preventing stuff I do want to read from being printed. In some cases it's probably subsidizing the stuff I want to read.

  11. Sometimes I worry I'm a bit of a snob in the closet, I try not to be...

    I agree with all of your points - especially so called 'evolutionary reading' I think people who run along the lines that as an adult you must only read a certain type of fiction and it must be 'challenging', etc. etc. probably don't actually really READ. To say that as an adult, all fiction that hasn't won critical acclaim (not as popular fiction) then it isn't even WORTH reading. People who will only read a book because some other snob said it was good and that if you don't agree you're intellectually inferior.


    Graphic Novels are still quite new to me. I was always a bit unsure if I could really feel quite as involved as I could a novel.

    But I read Maus by Art Spiegelman last year and that apprehension went straight out of the window. And I have never been quite so scared as I was when reading From Hell by Alan Moore. I was terrified and absolutely gripped.

    If people want to start throwing books to the side just because they're not 'literary' enough then they will not have much left to read.

    Anyway, what are they judging on?

    Reading level? Content? Who can judge? I've read many YA books that are much better written, with a higher reading level then some so called adult. The same for crime.

    You can't sweep whole genres to the side just because...

    I read an article the other day actually that you might find relevant...

    It's about the discrimination against fantasy.

    Who decides what it 'literature' and what isn't?

  12. Wonderful post... very well done! Thank you.

  13. Fabulous post :) I do think that form and experimentation adds depth to a novel, but that doesn't mean that any book that doesn't experiment with form of language is lacking in depth, or is stuck in some middling kind of examination of the world when it should have moved on to step x or y to achieve true understanding and greatness. Like you said literature is not some sort of evolutionary path, where only one variation can survive, it's a big gooey swamp of alternate possibility that has enough food for coexistance.

    A book like To the Lighthouse and one like oh say Daniel Deronda (trying to find contemporaries) are working in different ways to produce complexity, like a painter working in oils or water colour and there doesn't need to be a judgement applied as to which narrative form is better at producing a detailed examination of life. Complexity comes in many forms and judgement by a rigid set of criteria is often just a way of reducing that complexity (which no one wants right, I mean we all make our own individual judgements about worth but does anyone really want to be the reductive person saying one huge area of literature is good, another is bad once they get past teenagerhood? How reductive and how limited).

    Modernism, or experimental fiction is a movement which unfortunately seems to have become defined as the one true way for art. Even serious literary fiction that doesn't experiment, but instead uses traditional narrative, gets flack for not moving forward. 'How can we advance our understanding of the world if we continue to use old techniques?' some cry and even the form of the novel is begining to come under fire for not advacing as an artistic format - surely in a modern age we need new modern ways of telling stories and old ones have come to the end of their use, just as oral storytelling has pratically been, anything else is just nostalgia right (hint NO).

    Le sigh. It's very modern to reject and disparage the modes created by past generations to forge a seperate identity. Teenagers grow out of throwing everything from the past out and settle in a changed state where they throw out the bad and embrace the good of what their parents have to teach them to forge new generational identities. When it comes to the arts many adults seem to be obsessed with modernism, or experimentation as the only way to create authentic modern art. And I'm not oppossed to modernism, but I think like anything it needs to be one strand of what is being created, not the only thing that is being created.

  14. Brava! I don't really know what to write here because all I can think is "ditto". I have this conversation with people all the time when they start in on YA or GNs.

  15. Sooooo well said! I love your final line. I'm with you: it's not a contest. :-)

  16. Well said. Sure, not all books might be on the same level with the complexity of their message and their delivery of that message, but I think all books demand *some* thought of us. Every book demands some measure of imagination or connecting the plot dots or drawing connections between yourself and the characters, etc.

    For example, I just read a book that was obviously not intended to be deep, profound literature. It was more of an entertaining romp sort of book, so imagine my surprise to find what I thought to be a profound message lurking in its pages. It wasn't complicated or a hardship to read, but it absolutely *did* make me think about things that went deeper than the face value of the book at the same time as it was entertaining me.

    Certainly we should consider reading books that challenge us from time to time, but no one should feel guilt about any of the reading that they do. It's when people start throwing their hands up in frustration and wander off to gaze mindlessly at the television (not that there isn't a time for that...) that we should start to worry about the way we judge books and their readers.

  17. Well, I live in Canada and missed this debate entirely. I had no idea that the book had even been taken out. I also just read Sweet Tooth by Jeff Lemire and had no idea he was even Canadian! I swear I live under a rock... Great post, though, Ana.

  18. Wonderful post! I suspect the problem most people have with the genre you defend so eloquently is that label "comic books." "Archie," "Popeye," "Batman," "Spiderman," "Superman," "Wonder Woman" are all comic books. Serialized illustrated stories meant as cheap entertainment. (yes, I know, many Victorian novels began in the same way). And we have been conditioned to think of them in that way. Manga is an art form, multi-layered--literally--and primary to the story in my limited understanding. Somewhere in between lie Graphic Novels: Art Spiegelmann's Maus is not a comic book; neither are the Bone books. I don't have a solution to the difficulty, Ana, but I applaud you for raising the questions.

  19. If it was about the fact that there are more pictures than words I could see the reasoning, but if, as you say, it's about ease, then I agree that's it's not setting a good light on reading.

    You talk about the assumption that people will move on to harder books, that struck me because it is basically what I was lead to believe. Even if it wasn't explicitly said, the idea was there. Now I read those difficult books, but I still like the easy ones too. It's important to have a variety of genres, styles of writing etc avaliable, and as to the whole thing about "they are at least reading something" - I can understand that to some extent but then if we label all "easy" works like that then we're saying that only one opinion is good enough.

  20. Beth F: It's alright; we can be children together ;)

    Debi: :)

    Staci: I can't tell you how much it means to me to know there are librarians like you out there, Staci, doing your bit day after day *hugs*

    Jill: Yes, the whole problem of YA is indeed very similar. Let's raise our glasses to the day when the paradigm does fall :P

    Kiirstin: I didn't know much about Canada Reads other than this - what a pity that the whole thing suffered from the same problems :\ I was going to say I noticed some of that with World Book Night in the UK recently - that although I wouldn't say it was a complete failure, it certainly seemed to have trouble reaching anyone beyond "the usual suspects". But after reading Fiona's comment and link, the word "disaster" does come to mind :S I quite like your point about popular but not that great stuff (to us) subsidizing other books. I'm not a fan of Twilightesque YA, but I certainly do appreciate the fact that its success popularised the YA market as a whole. Perhaps the success of such hugely popular books will make it possible for publishers to take their chances with others which will not necessarily be best sellers but will deeply touch the readers they reach.

    Fiona: I think I love Stephen Hunt. Thank you so much for sharing that link! And about worrying you're a snob sometimes, I think we all have genres/types of books we tend to be suspicious of. It's only human, and as long as we don't go around making people who do enjoy them feel inferior it's all good.

  21. JoAnn: Thank you for the kind words!

    Jodie: Aw, you leave the best comments! Yes, yes, I definitely don't want a single strand - and as much as I appreciate Modernism and the fact that certain experimentations with form revolutionised what literature could portray, there has never been and there never will be a single valid and worthwhile way to tell stories. I love literature for its multiplicity - the gooey messy swamp is exactly where I want to be.

    Trisha: You and me both!

    Jillian: It really isn't! If only more people in influential positions would grasp that. Otherwise they do more harm than good.

    Megan: I've had that experience myself many times - a book I'm not expecting much from will surprise me with its depth. It's a wonderful feeling, and one I really try to remain open to as a reader by not deciding what is or isn't worthy of my deep engagement beforehand.

    Kailana: Read Essex County! I need to read Sweet Tooth myself... between you and Chris and Debi I can't really resist :P

    ds: I can definitely see your point about the negative connotations of the term "comic book", but at the same time, I have very mixed feelings about trying to legitimise books as great as Maus or Bone by saying they're GNs rather than comics. Even among those original serialised and cheaply produced comics, there are stories with a lot more depth and meaning than we tend to acknowledge. And of course, Will Eisner was writing comics as early as the 1930's, and they don't get much more literary than his work. When I use the term "comics", it's in a deliberate attempt to reclaim it and rescue it from those negative associations. Of course, I'm not sure how effective that really is :P I don't have a solution either, but I do find the questions worth asking.

    Charlie: But then again, you have something like Shaun Tan's The Arrival, which is entirely text-free and is one of the most beautiful and moving books I read last year. Of course, it doesn't really promote traditional text literacy, but rather a different kind of visually-based literacy. I don't think that will ever really discourage people from reading traditional books, but yes, there is some room there for arguing that an initiative like Canada Reads shouldn't include it. But with something like Essex County, I think the argument had been settled the moment they allowed it to enter the competition at all, you know? If you do decide it WILL be allowed to complete alongside text-only books, then it seems deeply unfair to disqualify based on it being a GN later on. Also, your experience of having the idea that we "should" all be reading difficult books be communicated to you implicitly at every turn is very similar to my own.

  22. the idea ... that you cannot possibly communicate anything worthwhile or convey nuanced emotions using accessible language (or even - horror of horrors - pictures).

    This reminded me of a high school English teacher of mine who said that none of her students had ever written a decent paper on a Vonnegut novel. His surface accessibility blinded the students to the complexity of ideas - they had absorbed this notion that if they were enjoying a text, finding it funny and getting along with the narrator - that it must not have depths capable of being explored. Which is of course quite the opposite of the truth; he's such a thoughtful and socially engaged writer, and there's plenty there (with) which to agree/disagree/argue/dissect.

    I tend to adore formal experimentation, and I actually have "moved on" in my literary tastes in that there are certain genres and story-types that I used to find very compelling and are no longer that interesting to me (a bit sad, but true). But I wouldn't think to argue that everyone should follow the same trajectory as I have, or that the stuff I used to read is inherently inferior to the stuff I read now.

    Also, I laughed at this line:

    Lemire’s Essex Country does of course have words, but apparently not in sufficient number, and therefore there are fears that this will make people unwilling or unable to read books that are exclusively text-based.

    It reminded me of the hysterical anti-queer arguments in which straight people don't want to have to, for example, sleep in the same dormitory as gay people for fear they'll "catch it." What power these arguments accord to graphic novels / gay folks! That mere contact with the feared object would sour readers / straight people on the more socially-acceptable option forever.

  23. As Stu said, reading should be fun, whatever you chose to read! Thanks for this, Ana - "there are incredibly accessible books that are just as thoughtful and nourishing as the most dense wall of text imaginable".

  24. Since I don't care for graphic novels, I didn't suspect how much I'd be wanting to cheer by the time I got to the end of this post...but yeah, absolutely, reading is not cod liver oil! Don't keep reading Pynchon or Joyce if you can't find a way to enjoy it by about the fourth chapter...try again later, maybe.

    When I wanted to go back to teaching after my second child was born, I told the head of the department where I wanted to work that I was ready for a little more "intellectual nutrition" in my reading life, and that was part of why I wanted to come back. As the mother of young ones, I needed that outside impetus. Right now I don't need it the same way, but I do still think there's a difference between what I read for brain candy and what I read to sustain me during the long, boring errands of life.

    If more people could read for their own pleasure, rather even a little to impress others, we'd all have more fun and write better reviews. And we'd quit blaming teachers for "making" us read stuff before we were ready.

  25. Hello Ana, I am sorry about my short response, but can I just hit the "like" button. Especially that last paragraph, not so much like as love? I think I may need to copy it as my motto for when I start blogging again next week. Because those attitudes are part of my struggle at the moment. Hope you're well!

  26. Wonderful post, Ana!

    I'm currently reading Joe Sacco's Safe Area Goradze (which is about the Balkans in the early '90's). I'd just like to see someone try and say that it is an 'easy' read because it's in a graphic novel format.

  27. Great post. When it comes to graphic novels, I personally find them challenging to read because I don't deal well with images. It takes me a long time to figure out what's going on in them. I much prefer words! So what's easy for one person isn't easy for another. I like your anti-evolutionary arguments. People sometimes argue that literature is getting "better and better" over the decades and centuries, and I find that idea preposterous.

  28. I wholeheartedly agree with you. But I have nothing intelligent to say about my agreement except my curiosity this way - I suppose I wonder - non-ironically, not angirly even - what people are afraid of. What is it that people are hiding from when they want to keep books the way 'they've always been'? There is something about not having a genre of 'high literature' that I think is frightneing for people, and I think it has in part to do with the same thing that makes people uncomfortable with, for instnace, nations becoming more secular - if we do not have a 'canon' then the touchstone of mutual understanding that we all build off of starts to dissipate. Or the world kind of balkanizes. I don't know, I think the flat, democratic literature is the future (flat in the sense that it is distributed across many genres instead of 'peaking' in some 'respectable' one), but aside from the merits of any given genre, I wonder, beause there is a real REASON people naturally made the (admittedly arbitrary) designation of genre x as 'goI wonder how that will work when there is no 'canon' as it were. I don't know, does that make sense?

  29. I just finished reading Essex County and LOVED it. When I was searching for other reviews, I came up on some hints of conflict with the Canada Reads issue, but didn't find anything conclusive. Thanks for sharing that link!

    It's very interesting to me. My friend and I have a book club, where I give him books to read. This month I gave him Blankets. Last month I gave him Will Grayson, Will Grayson. Last month he stuck up his nose and said, "YA? We are college graduates!" This month he said, "An oversized comic book?!" Like that was a bad thing! I totally changed his mind about YA with Will Grayson, Will Grayson. Hopefully this month I'll have changed his mind about comics :)

  30. I'm convinced that it's attitudes such as those exemplified in the Canadian controversy that have created the literacy problems that exist in America today. You can only tell people they are not "worthy" to read certain texts so many times before they believe it and walk away.

  31. I agree with your statements wholeheartedly. There are no inferior books, but people like to label things as such, and exclude others who choose to read a fluffy romance novels or a children's books and then persecute them according to their tastes. I like to think of books along the lines of a flavor palate, just because I love a hot and spicy Thai dish, doesn't mean that I can't just as easily enjoy a cup of noodles as well. I think all this pressure really does a lot of negative things to readers, and I am really glad to have read your thoughts about this today.

  32. "Reading is not cod liver oil. You don’t have to swallow it as you wince because it’s good for you."

    Brave, Ana, for writing such a great post. Reading is meant to be enjoyed. It doesn't matter a book is by Dr. Seuss or Toni Morrison. What's important is what the reader gets from the book. It's obvious that the judges don't "get" comics or reading. I don't care how much they read. I love reading and I would never tell someone that a certain genre/medium/format is beneath me even if I wouldn't read a book in that certain way.

    The problem that we have nowadays is that not enough people read. This argument of medium/format isn't one that readers need to have. In the United States, the statistics are that on average adult Americans read one book a year. One. It's more important that people read more often, not what they read.

  33. You hit another one out of the ballpark! I LOVE this, how do you always manage to express my views on this SO WELL? You are my hero.

    I had a book I used to read with my students, a picture book that had rhyming text and was leveled at the second grade level. I remember reading it with students and being struck by just how profound it was...sure on the surface it was a story of lazy summer days and sunflowers, but truly it was about the necessity of death for life and change. I actually have to swallow my anger sometimes when this subject comes up because even if you manage to provide a good example people will still be so freaking condescending about it! It all ties back, I'm sure to the unfortunate connection our society makes between reading ability/skill and intelligence--a false connection I might add the two have nothing to do with each other but that's a whole other subject. Thanks for letting me mini-rant. :)

  34. You go Nymeth! I think the whole idea that reading should be hard does reading a disservice. It it fosters an elitism that is unnecessary and unproductive. I'm not a huge reader of graphic novels but I have read some excellent ones that are just as smart and moving as any traditional novel. Shame on those Canada Reads judges!

  35. I love this post! You are amazing at expressing what many of us feel, but don't have the eloquence to share.

    I've been having similar feelings for the past few weeks. I'm sometimes afraid to admit what books I have enjoyed for fear of being judged. I don't want to be labeled as pretentious for admitting to enjoying War and Peace, and I don't want to be mocked by the "literary readers" for admitting that I was entertained while reading Twilight.

    I don't think complex necessarily equals good, and simple equals bad. I think Kazuo Ishiguro has a pretty simple writing style, but his books are incredibly profound.

  36. "I’ll never be comfortable with the idea that there are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ forms of reading or different scales of worth."

    This! Totally agree with you. I admit I may have been a snob many years ago but I've learned to appreciate and value the different forms and genres in literature. They all serve to open us to other worlds and ideas.

    Wonderful post Nymeth!

  37. Emily: I hadn't heard that argument about forms before, but I can't say I'm surprised to hear it's been used :S What fantastic powers indeed! And yes, Vonnegut is such a great example of an author who delivers complex ideas in a simple way. I think we all outgrow some of the things we used to love when younger (which always makes me sad as well!), but it's so strange to assume everyone Has to leave all their childhood or teenage favourites behind to achieve "real" maturity.

    Gavin, I'm glad we agree!

    Jeanne: The GNs were really just what got me going :P This logic is everywhere, sadly. "Try again later" seems to me the best possible advice!

    Iris: Like I told you before, I have experienced much of the same. So if you ever want to talk about it you know where to find me!

    Christy, thank you! I LOVED Safe Area Goradze - definitely nothing "easy" about it!

    Dorothy W: That's such a good point - people struggle with different things and find different types of books challenging. I certainly became much more proficient at reading comics and GNs with time. Visual literacy is also something you develop, and there's nothing "lazy" about it.

    Jason: That's a very good question. I'm sure some of those people are actually earnestly concerned and don't set out to sabotage literacy or ruin everyone else's fun. But yes, what exactly are they afraid of? What do they think is going to happen if they don't hold on tightly to the traditional canon and old ideas about what makes good or bad literature?

    Lu: I knew you would! Such a beautiful and moving book. It makes me happy to hear you managed to change your friend's mind about YA. Fingers crossed it works with comics too! I can't think of a better choice than Blankets.

    Peppermind PhD: That's an excellent point.

  38. What an insightful post! I have to say that although I don't read a lot graphic novels and the ones I've read have typically been quicker reads than say, Virginia Woolf, I can't say they are always easy! Understanding Comics and Maus come to mind for me as memorable, eye-opening books for me (for different reasons...)

    In my case, I do see my reading as a dichotomy -- I no longer read Alexander McCall Smith and Harry Potter as I did four years ago, but that's simply because I've discovered how much I LOVE reading the classics. In my case, I do see Harry potter as "easy" and some classics as "harder" but that doesn't mean it's castor oil. I still love it.

  39. I read anything and everything and make no apologies for it! You are so right about reading not being cod liver oil. I love that line most of all.

  40. Wonderful post, Ana! I am late in reading and commenting, but I am glad I read this post :) I loved this passage of yours very much - "Reluctant readers struggle with hard texts and feel ashamed; then they enjoy easier ones and feel guilty because these don’t count as proper and serious reading. Obviously I’m not saying they should forever give up on challenging texts. But there should be no sense of obligation about it, no performance anxiety, no feeling that your worth as a reader is all wrapped up in our success in conquering". I remember when I first got a library card and went to the library and got a book which was comfortable for my age (I think I was 7 or 8 years old at that time), my father said that it was too easy and sent my sister with me next time and she got a 400-page book for me, of which I didn't understand a word :) Though it helped me as a reader to tackle tough books when I was young and to become a lifelong reader, I also decided later that I am not going to give up reading books which are supposed to be 'easier' - like comics, books for children and abridged classics (I recently read an abridged version of 'Macbeth' and 'Canterbury tales').

    I also loved this passage - "To me, progressing as a reader is about widening your own personal literary sphere; about including more and more things in what you love, what you spontaneously seek out, what you feel at ease with. It’s not about leaving what you once loved behind so you can prove yourself as a Serious Adult Reader." I have seen many of my friends reply, when asked what kinds of books they read, that they don't read fiction and read only nonfiction. During further conversation, they seem to imply that nonfiction is useful while fiction is only entertaining, they seem to imply that readers start with fiction and as their reading progresses, end up with nonfiction. In that context, I liked your comment about not leaving what we once loved.

    On graphic novels vs regular novels, I think they are two different media and different kinds of works of art and it is difficult to compare them. I think some things which work in a graphic novel format may not work in a regular novel which has only words. And I also think that some things which work in a regular novel format may not work in a graphic novel. But I also think that we are living in interesting times, when writers are challenging the limits of what a novel is and are breaking new ground and redefining the concept. There are writers like Shaun Tan (in 'The Arrival'), who are writing graphic novels without any words, like David Mazzucchelli (in 'Asterios Polyp') who have taken the graphic novel medium to a different level (I read in one of the reviews that in this novel 'style is substance' - I felt it was very true and a wonderful compliment to the book) and writers like Brian Selznick (in 'The Invention of Hugo Cabret') who are merging elements of the regular novel form, the graphic novel form and the movie form to create a work of art for which we probably don't have a name yet.

  41. Nice post, Ana! You are, of course, preaching to the choir, but yes, yes and yes! I must find those books and read them immediately. :-)

  42. Rebecca: Nothing wrong with personal preferences, of course! I just get annoyed when people suggested that's how it needs to be for EVERYONE :P

    Kathleen: Such a simple concept, and yet so hard to grasp!

    Vishy: It's never late to comment! I'n very glad your experience with a difficult book when you were so young didn't put you off reading - I worry that that's what happens in some cases, no matter how well the parents/teachers/educators behind it mean! Also, good point about the fiction versus non-fiction dichotomy. I've heard that argument before and it just baffles me! Last but not least, I agree about these being exciting times and clearly need to read Asterio Polyp and Hugo Cabret!

    Darla D: I'm glad the choir enjoyed the sermon anyway, though ;)

  43. Excellent post! I've linked to it from my blog as a follow up to my original post on the Canada Read debacle.


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