ON “BOOKS EVERYONE SHOULD READ”

Last week, I went to Barnes and Noble with my mother. If I was 14, this wouldn’t have been a particularly notable event; when I was younger, my mom and I went to the bookstore all the time together, but that was before Borders went out of business and my mom never really liked Barnes and Noble.

For the first time in a long time, I was at a bookstore with my mother. One of mom’s coworkers is retiring and Mom, knowing that her coworker quite likes wine but doesn’t necessarily know what beverages pair the best with what foods, thought that if there was a book that kind of explained how that went, it would be a good retirement gift. We did end up finding it, and it was a lot bigger than we had imagined it would have been. It was thorough, apparently.

As a lover of books, I started frequenting Barnes and Noble after Borders went out of business. As a lover of bookstores, I like to look at displays to see what they’re promoting and how they’re promoting certain books. It’s summer, so of course they’re going to have a table that is all books for the junior high and high school summer reading lists. I marvel that apparently my 11th grade English teacher is still assigning Richard Wright’s Native Son as summer reading (it is a book I probably would have liked better had we read it as a class), and that the teacher at my old school’s crosstown rival still assigns The Poisonwood Bible. Other displays (ones that aren’t school-related) promote books that I find questionable, but I can live with the existence and bestselling status of 50 Shades, because I’m glad people read, and I’m glad that they talk about books, my opinions of those books aside.

However, I am forever iffy about the table with the sign that says “Books Everyone Should Read.”

Truthfully, I like the idea of a world where everybody reads. Even better is the idea of a world where everybody likes to read. But those lists of books that everybody should read? I tend to disagree with any statement that says everybody should read a specific book.

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant may well be my favorite book ever, and while I recommend it to a lot of people, I understand that it’s not going to be a book that will appeal to everyone (menstruation! childbirth! Biblical figures!). It’s great when I do find someone who has enjoyed it because then I can talk about this amazing book that I am lucky enough to have found and read and loved.

But the phrase “everybody should read this book” is flawed. It implies that there is something to be gained, often a level of personal growth, from reading certain books. A life lesson.

And not everybody is going to pick up on those hidden messages. Not everybody will learn something from those books.

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In my 12th grade English class, somebody applied “everybody needs to read this” to the book Nineteen Minutes (notable to me because it was the only book by Jodi Picoult that I liked). But even within the book, there is a character who survives a school shooting, and despite having friends who died in the event and even having been shot himself, he doesn’t get that he was targeted by the shooter for having bullied him. He doesn’t change his outlook or behaviors.

It’s also notable that one of my classmates didn’t think the main character’s boyfriend is “so bad.” This was worrisome, even to my teacher, because it’s obvious that the guy is bad news. He has abusive tendencies and refuses to wear a condom when they have sex, and also, right around the time we first encounter him in the book, he’s telling his girlfriend that she’s fat and food-shaming her for eating French fries (I think it was French fries, anyway–12th grade was a while ago).

Not everybody is going to get it. And that’s why, when acting like there is something to be gained by reading a specific book and that everybody should read it, you could be doing more harm than good. Not to mention that the implication that books are for learning from explains why a lot of people don’t pick up books outside of school.

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Confession time: I never understood the appeal of To Kill a Mockingbird, and I didn’t learn anything from reading it. I knew by the time I had read it that racism was bad, and that you should always do the right thing, even if the people around you aren’t. Reading the book didn’t reinforce that message, and ultimately, I didn’t enjoy reading it, even though it’s a standard text in classrooms across the country. Almost everybody has read it, and yet I am sure that there are many people out there who also didn’t enjoy it.

And that’s just talking about texts that are in the American literary canon. There are myriad works that are important in other places that I have neglected to mention here. And to some degree I am happy that they aren’t “books that every American should read” because many Americans aren’t going to understand issues in other countries as they apply to those countries. They might understand an issue as it applies to America, but the context of one’s reading of a text is going to affect the lens through which that text is read. And the culture of that reader is also going to affect the lens.

So, yes, I like the idea of a world where everybody reads, but I’m okay with living in a world where not everybody reads the same books.

Do you think that everybody should read certain books? Why or why not?

2 thoughts on “ON “BOOKS EVERYONE SHOULD READ”

  1. Sherina Harris says:

    This was a really interesting post! I completely agree that the phrase ‘books everybody should read’ is flawed. In english courses at my school, we get to choose between several different books for our novel study (whereas at my old school we all had to read the same book). I think this was really effective, because it allowed people to choose what THEY wanted to read (not what others wanted them to read).

  2. Rosa (@GingerbreadSagas) says:

    YESSSSSS to this, Shelby! And you know, when you actually meet / talk to / hear about people who loves the same books as you do, it is such a special feeling. SOMEONE GETS IT, SOMEONE GETS ME. One of my favorite quotes about literature is one that goes something like this “You don’t want someone to read a book for herself, you want her to read a book the way you read it”. And that just isn’t going to happen. At least not always.
    Sort of related: I’ve tried to get friends to read my favorites before, and you know what’s even worse than them not having read them, and thereby me not having anybody to talk to about them? My friends having actually read the books, and not really cared for them. That is like a whole friendship-crisis waiting to happen, right there.

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