Smart Books Only for the Smart People

At the Wall Street Journal, James Hall makes one of the great specious arguments surrounding great literature. Telling us that it’s okay to read bestsellers, he writes:

That’s the beauty of reading for pleasure. When you turn the final page and shut the book, that heady blend of sadness and joy you feel can quickly ripen into a hunger for more. I like to think of bestsellers as a gateway drug. Once you’ve found one you love, books will forever hold a special allure. All comers welcome. No special education required.

OK, that’s actually two specious arguments. I don’t read for any reason other than pleasure, and I don’t know of any reader that I trust and respect that reads for any other reason either. Yes, it’s true that we find it rewarding to learn new things, challenge our assumptions, stretch our grammar, etc, but those things are fundamentally pleasurable experiences. A different pleasure than reading Stephen King—obviously, but a kind of pleasure nonetheless. (Hall isn’t trying to tell us that pleasure can only come in one variety, is he?)

The other baseless argument is that non-bestsellers require “special education.” Right, which, I suppose, is why we encourage teenagers to read Camus, Shakespeare, the Greeks, etc, because they all have that lifetime of reading and learning required to read great literature. Obviously, you can get more our of a book if you have greater context in which to read it, just like you’ll get more out of a baseball game if you understand how the sport works, know the standings/history/etc of the team involved. Pretty much anything you do in the world is like this. But we don’t tell people not to watch Mad Men unless they’ve acquired all that special knowledge of how to watch hour-long cable shows.

The idea that one needs special knowledge to read great literature is ridiculous. Bad on James Hall for perpetuating this myth that keeps readers from trying out great books.


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