There’s a quote that goes something like–reading bad books is worse than not reading at all. I suppose the theory is that bad books make you dumber than you were before, whereas if you hadn’t read anything you’d remain at the exact same level of stupid.
I think of that theory whenever someone who seems intelligent says something like, ‘The Da Vinci Code is a great book!’ If I know the person and know he or she isn’t one of the unwashed masses I usually attribute it to most people’s inability to accurately articulate, ‘It had a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter and a neato puzzle in it!’ The thinking is that it was fun so that’s great! Because having fun is great, right?
Then I think of the people who only read one book a year (the national average). And that book was [insert tepid book with massive PR] . Those people probably really do believe Da Vinci was a great book. It’s because they only have five other books to compare it to.
Sorry, I didn’t mean to digress. I started this post with the intention of trying to define what constitutes a ‘good’ book. Or even what means you’re really reading. Recently, in two different realms of my literary life I’ve witnessed conversations about what’s real literature and what makes a person feel they’re really reading. One person considered mysteries to be real lit, which is interesting, because usually mystery writers feel they are not as respected by authors of literary fiction. Other people felt they weren’t really reading if they were reading a non-fiction book. To me, that’s even more readerly.
I think it comes down to how difficult the book is. From school, we associate ‘real’ books with dead writers and pop quizzes and were expected to comprehend themes more likely to be appreciated by people with more life experience. Angela Carter says, ‘Reading a book is like re-writing it for yourself…. You bring to a novel, anything you read, all your experience of the world. You bring your history and you read it in your own terms.’ And if you don’t have much history then you can’t bring as much to what you read.
My point is that reading anything is reading. Sure, there are levels of literature. As listed in The Literature Lover’s Book of Lists, with the note: Readers should move upwards on the literary pyramid. Those who feel less confident might begin at a comfortable level near the bottom and take small steps towards “bette” literature. Of course, these is worthy literature on every step, and each genre has its own classics. In general, however, the more difficult–and ultimately the most rewarding–literature will be nearer the top of the pyramid.
Bottom level: fable, comics, comic book format, limerick, song or ballad
Next level up: melodrama, pop magazine, letter, diary, journal, farce
Next level up: short story, western, mystery, adventure, romance
Next up: novella, autobiography, biography, essay
Next: ode, sonnet, elegy, easy lyric poetry
Next: epic poetry, poetic drama
Next: novel, allegory, satire
Next: literary criticism
Most of the pyramid seems intuitive to me–it makes sense to me, though I’d put graphic novels and some comics a bit higher on the pyramid. I would also move just about any poetry to the second tier with literary criticism, but that could just be my lack of familiarity with poetry.
In these days of video games, TiVo, Netflix and a thousand other ways to be entertained, I suppose I should be happy when I see anyone reading anything; but the Jean Brodie in me will always want readers to read the best books possible. That’s why I’m a bookseller, after all–helping people find books they’ll find rewarding is the best part.