Confessions of a literary snob

Question for discussion: Is it better to read anything, no matter how bad it is, than to read nothing at all?

Yesterday, out of boredom while on the Metro, I was reading a woman’s Kindle over her shoulder. It was very crowded and I was standing, so I couldn’t pull out my own book to read. The sheer awfulness of the book she was reading captured my attention and drew me in. The word choice was bizarre, the sentence structure was not well thought out, and it was mind-numbing in its dullness and simplicity. Essentially it had been written at a 3rd grade reading level. When I finally caught a glimpse of the title I discovered it was a David Baldacci novel. I’ve never had the pleasure of reading Mr. Baldacci, but if the 4 or 5 pages I glimpsed on that lady’s Kindle are any indication of what I can expect, I think I will give him a wide berth in the future. Wikipedia tells me that Mr. Baldacci has published 27 best selling novels, and he’s only 54 years old. By one count he’s published at least 36 books since his first in 1996, which is an average of 2 per year. I can’t imagine he is able to spend much time agonizing over word choice and sentence structure if he’s cranking out books that quickly. But he must be fabulously wealthy, and I see that he is involved with a charity that promotes literacy, so good for him.

I’m not here just to slag on writers like David Baldacci who crank out mass produced dreck. They are just feeding a demand. People read for all sorts of reasons, and as long as people are buying books like this, writers will continue to produce them. It’s the same with music and movies and painting and all sorts of art forms. For every box office smash romantic comedy there are lots of small budget indie films that barely get screen time. It’s fun to indulge in the escapism of something that doesn’t require much brainpower.

I admit that have read similar popular fiction. When I was a kid I was a huge fan of the Hardy Boys, which is as mindlessly formulaic as literature can get. A couple of years ago someone dumped his entire Clive Cussler collection in our workplace’s book exchange and I read probably 20 of those delightfully awful Dirk Pitt novels over the course of a summer. They were a mindless distraction. The plots featured more holes than a truckload of Swiss cheese, and at times I became infuriated by the implausible events, shameless misogyny, continuity issues, research failures and numerous other problems that a more careful editor would have caught. (One that still sticks in my mind is when Cussler referred to Jason’s ship as the “Argonaut.” The ship was the Argo, the folks aboard it were Argonauts. A five minute google search would have told him that, and any editor worth his salt should have caught it). But it was still a guilty pleasure and I consumed them gluttonously.

But the difference is that I read many other things as well. I have read every word of Moby Dick, for crying out loud, and not because it was assigned to me, but for my own pleasure. It took me almost a year to complete it and it was one of the most tedious things I’ve ever read but I’m glad I read it. At the same time I was indulging in the adventurous escapism of a Dirk Pitt underwater adventure, I was also reading works by Nobel laureates like Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee. There is absolutely nothing wrong with reading mass produced pop fiction. As long as that’s not ALL you read. One could conceivably live for many years eating nothing but McDonald’s cheeseburgers, but isn’t it great to once in awhile indulge in a really nice meal at a good restaurant?

Mass produced popular fiction will always exist, and it will always fill a niche. For some, it may be all they ever read. For others, it offers a relaxing break from more serious literature. But I guess my answer would be yes, reading anything at all is better than reading nothing. Because reading activates our imagination, it makes us think, even if only a little. And even a little thinking is better than none.

Please post your comments below using the Leave a Reply box. Do you read pop fiction? Is it an occasional guilty pleasure or do you really enjoy it? Are you a literary snob? Have you ever hidden the cover of a book in public because you were ashamed of it? (Come on all you 50 Shades readers and adult readers of Harry Potter, I know you’re out there!).

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