Saturday, July 20, 2013

Don't Judge A Book by its Readers, and Vice Versa

ISBN-10: 0451191145 ISBN-13: 9780451191144 Published: Signet, 09/01/1996 Pages: 1088 Language: English
Just like the real world, the internet can be a mean and judgmental place, and I was reminded of this sad fact by an article/list-- I've even heard the horrid portmanteau "listicle" used in connection with this piece-- posted on Buzzfeed called: "28 'Favorite' Books That Are Huge Red Flags." The subheading reads: "These books are harmless. Until a friend or loved one tells you that one of them is their favorite." The basic premise of the article is that certain "favorite book" choices are indicative of character flaws in the chooser. At this point, you would be correct to fasten your seat-belt and prepare for a barrage of lazy jokes and broad stereotyping. A representative passage following The Great Gatsby: "Unless you can show me your dissertation about Tom Buchanan’s biceps or something, this means you stopped reading in 10th grade. Shoo." Ugh, right?

I wouldn't normally give this article the time of day, but it has been making the internet rounds and thankfully earned a very thoughtful take-down from Matthew Weddig on NPR's website. Weddig observes that the Buzzfeed author operates under the false assumption that there is only one reading of any particular book:

"There is, in fact, no capital-R Reading of a book that says, 'This is what this book means and this is why,' no matter how much Bernstein takes for granted that there is. I like Harry Potter now for very different reasons than BuzzFeed's '5-year-old' reader who doesn't 'know where Afghanistan is' does. I just read Perks of Being a Wallflower a month ago, and I liked it for very different reasons than BuzzFeed's 'sensitive teenager' does. I disliked The Catcher in the Rye, but I can appreciate The Catcher in the Rye, all for very different reasons than BuzzFeed's 'no one understands' reader does."

Bravo, sir. That different readers can comprehend a single book in different ways is both obvious and easy to forget. I may not personally care for Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead, but it's my own failing if I stereotype Ayn Rand's readers. Just a few years ago, I read Rand's book Anthem and enjoyed it despite completely disagreeing with her philosophy. To like a book, you don't have to accept it as a manual for living. For example, Moby Dick is probably my favorite book, yet I have killed very few whales.

Weddig also points out that you can't judge a book based on what you perceive to be its most ardent fans. There probably are Fight Club fans who think the book's message can be boiled down to Buzzfeed's imagined theme-- "Oh, it’s so haaaaard to be a white-collar man nowadays, what with laws and feminism and Ikea restraining our healthiest instincts"-- but that reflects nothing on the source material. As Weddig notes, "the formalist argument that the meaning of the text is in the text" is ignored by the Buzzfeed author.  Whether or not some gung-ho fans have misinterpreted a specific text shouldn't render it worthless for the rest of us. 

Well, I'll make my exit before I start pondering my own hypocrisies in this matter too thoroughly. There are things I've said about a certain young adult book series that can't be unsaid. Here's to an nonjudgmental future!

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