I’m a Reader, Seriously
In the Publishers Weekly article The Franzen Kerfuffle and the Question of the ‘Serious Reader’, Rachel Deahl ponders the question: What is a serious reader? Is a serious reader someone who reads serious books or someone who takes reading seriously by reading a lot? Deahl contends that the latter can be considered a serious reader since the terms “serious reader” and “serious book” (whatever that means) may not necessarily intersect.
I personally dislike the term “serious” as applied to a book or a reader because “serious” could mean anything. I do not set out to read literary books or novels that have won prizes. Nor do I read two hundred novels in a year (currently, I’m averaging almost two books a month). I’m sure some people would call me a casual reader or a recreational reader. Yet I would consider myself a serious reader. If I had the time, I could write up reviews. I can also discuss books with other people if queried. But why should I do any of these things? A serious reader is not defined by how many reviews she writes or how many book club discussions she has let alone what sorts of material is read. Why should a serious reader need to prove anything?
A serious reader, in my mind, is one with intent. In fact, I would go so far as to say that there aren’t people who are serious readers but ones who are readers with intention. (The word “serious”, I feel, is fraught with too much cultural and emotional baggage. What sort of emotion does one associate with “serious” anyway? Surely, something sad and tragic has grave import. But is happiness and comedy any less important in our lives?) It does not matter what the book is about–the subject matter is irrelevant. What is relevant is the mindset that the reader has when reading the book. And what sort of mindset is one that I would consider one with intention? It is the sort of mindset to read the book primarily for the book’s sake. It is a willingness to read without outside pressure. This would include everything from scholars and book critics to Oprah book club lovers. Are you reading something to glean information and/or to enrich your mind? You’re included. Are you a sci-fi book geek or a romance novel junkie? You’re included, too.
Even if someone only reads a book a decade, he or she could also be a so-called serious reader if there’s intent. I’d argue that the very process of reading is one of intention. Something is going on in the brain when the words on a page get transmitted as images to your eye, converted to nerve impulses, and translated in your brain so you can grasp the word’s meaning. And once you’ve grasped the word’s meaning, it is almost impossible not to relate it to your own experiences or whatever information that you already possess. If you don’t, you’re brain dead.
“Serious books” are another subject entirely. Serious, in this case, is mostly a matter of taste rather than any objectivity. There are award winning books that I’ve thought were crap and vice versa. Sometimes, I think it’s all in the packaging. If a novel that one person might cover with a chick in chain mail was clad in post-modern abstract art instead, wouldn’t the novel’s quality be perceived differently due to a critic’s cultural conditioning? I’d say, absolutely yes. One example that immediately comes to mind are young adult novels that also had different covers to appeal to adult audiences. If those YA novels only had their original covers, a certain segment of the population would still think those books were children’s books with no redeeming value for grown-ups. So anything can be serious–depending on your point of view.