Book-loving hedonists and alienated intellectuals: why readers need to settle down about reading

READING FACT: Reading a book will transform you into Keira Knightly, traipsing the pristine English countryside.

READING FACT: Reading a book will transform you into Keira Knightly, traipsing the pristine English countryside.

I love book culture.  I love book blogs (obviously?) and book festivals, and readings, and #FridayReads and #amreading. I do not love the way we book people talk about ourselves, though. The memes, infographics, think pieces, quotes and such that grind my gears fall into two categories:

  1. Readers are different
  2. Readers are better people

I’ve been thinking about these ideas lately, with help from a couple authors I’ve been lucky enough to see in person.

Readers are different

There are two ideas wrapped up in this one: that readers are rare, and that readers are different from non-readers; in the Buzzfeed sense that there are an arbitrary number of things “only we will understand,” and in the subtle (or not) snobbery of the “I don’t even own a TV” reader who is above other forms of entertainment.

And here’s the thing, I don’t think any novelist, even Stephen King or James Patterson, is writing for all Americans. They’re writing for the segment of Americans that reads books. And then within that large but not 100 percent segment, there’s a smaller audience that reads trade paperback fiction as opposed to mass market paperback fiction, which is no longer a distinction. I realize that it doesn’t hold up so well, but you know what I mean (laughter). And they are, readers are, to some extent, ipso facto estranged from American culture because reading is slow and requires a long attention span, and requires you to sort of check all of the electronic distractions while you’re engaged with it.

Jonathan Franzen, ladies and gentlemen! I was in the room for this interview at Book Expo America and I remember vividly the phrase “estranged from American culture” because my eyes almost rolled outta my head.  Please, tell me more about how reading and electronic distractions don’t mix… but wait till I’m done live-tweeting your interview and creating a Vine of your new book (oh yeah, I’m doing that now.)

And okay, I know there are subsets of “book people” that agree with Mr. F and think I’m a cretin for reading on my phone or even participating in the #amreading, book-blogging, galley-bragging online “book culture” (as opposed to literary culture,) but that’s the point: readers, like everyone else on the planet, come in different flavours and habits and preferences. Some like e-readers, and some like the smell of books, and some don’t talk about their reading at all. We aren’t all the same and we are able to choose our level of engagement with American or Canadian or whatever culture.

I was at a somewhat lower-key author event back in April with Lynn Coady, who gave the phrase “book loving hedonist” to the title of this post. She, like Franzen, sees readers as different, but not in an alienated-intellectual sense, but in the sense that we simply love something to a greater degree than most people. More on Coady’s lecture in a moment, as a lot of her talk relates to the idea that:

Readers are better people.



You’ve read one of these studies, or at least seen this kind of infographic:

Readers are more empathetic.

Reading reduces stress 300% more than going for a walk.

Reading enhances connectivity in the brain.

And then there are the lists and memes and quotes, which don’t even pretend to be based in science. This is just the latest in Buzzfeed’s near-identical backlog of “Reader problems” lists (most of the problems boil down to how hard it is to be smarter than the great unwashed.)

I can’t stand this stuff. I won’t even get into the methodology (correlation does not equal causation!) or the objective definition of terms like “reader” and “empathy,” though that’s a large part of my distaste. It’s more that I find this kind of back-patting smug at best and dishonest at worst.

Here’s the thing: people who read, capital-R Readers and casual readers alike, do it because it feels good. Does anyone pick up a book, let alone dozens of books per year, because they want to develop more empathy? The New Yorker’s story about bibliotherapy is really interesting. I own The Novel Cure, the book written by the bibliotherapists in question, because of course I do; I’m squarely in the target audience. I bought it because it’s a book about books, not because I was thinking “hmm, I really need to do something about my lack of empathy,” and I read fiction because of how it makes me feel, not for self-improvement.

Reading reduces stress? For me it sure does- perhaps not because of some inherent quality of reading, but because I like it. Of course doing something pleasurable reduces stress!

Back to Coady – she was giving the Kreisel Lecture for the Canadian Literature Centre at University of Alberta this year. When the title of her lecture was revealed to be “Who Needs Books?” I was worried. Was this going to be some feel-good “books are awesome” thing? Well, yes, kind of, but where Franzen alienates himself from popular culture, Coady positions herself right in the middle of it, and gets to the root of the anxiety around readers being different, and separate, and better, with this quote from Steven Pinker:

As people age, they confuse changes in themselves with changes in the world, and changes in the world with moral decline—the illusion of the good old days.

Rather than a morally superior enclave of “serious” people, under attack by the TV and Twitter loving masses, Coady sees readers as just one flavour of hedonist, no better than any other, and challenges us to look to ourselves if we don’t like the way the culture (book, American, or otherwise) is going. She illustrated this with a close reading of the children’s classic The Monster at the End of this Book (feat. Grover) and displayed a better sense of humour than you’ll find in any number of think pieces about the decline of society.

Spoiler alert: the monster is YOU. The horror the horror, etc.

Spoiler alert: the monster is YOU. The horror the horror, etc.

Not convinced? I just happened to read this story, an extremely detailed account of the Ed Champion fiasco, while writing this. Read the whole thing, and the comments. I’ll wait. I couldn’t have asked for a better portrait of book culture as a dysfunctional space full of people distinctly lacking in empathy.

Look, I’m not completely cynical. I’m a book blogger. I’m a member of the book community. I just met a blogger in person (hi CJ!) and it was magic – like, here’s this stranger who already “gets” you. And we went to BEA, which was that feeling exploded to fill the entire Javits Centre. But let’s stop kidding ourselves. We are regular people, and we aren’t any better than our friends who watch TV, or read things that aren’t books, or have some other weird hobby.

What do you think, book lovers? Are you a hedonist? Do you feel removed from popular culture? Do you, like the Hachette Hawk, have paper cuts in unspeakable places?





  1. bookarino

    Can I just say that you have written the post that I’ve wanted to write for such a long time! ‘Here’s the thing: people who read, capital-R Readers and casual readers alike, do it because it feels good. — We are regular people, and we aren’t any better than our friends who watch TV, or read things that aren’t books, or have some other weird hobby.’

    Yes, yes, and yes! Although I have a long history of reading as a hobby and do consider myself a bookworm, it has never been a reading-only relationship. I’ve never defined myself as 100% reader, because let’s face it, no one is defined by only one thing. Right now reading is something that I enjoy doing on my spare time, but it wasn’t that a couple of years ago and, who knows, in few years it might be something else.

    As for readers being better than others, I heartily agree. Sure, I have learnt things through reading but it has never been my reason to read. At heart I am a selfish reader reading for my own enjoyment and personal goals – not those of the community. I thought the New Yorker article was interesting, but I don’t think reading is the only form of entertainment/culture that can be used for “self-improvement” – similar recommendations could be done for TV shows, music, plays, art etc. I enjoy getting film recommendations from my non-reader friends and giving book recommendations in return – because in the end it is all about the story that’s being told, not the media.

  2. bellarah

    No papercuts anywhere, but what on earth were they doing with that book? No… I don’t think we need to know.

    Literature plays a huge role in my life- I’m a lucky human who gets to live and breathe it every day. It plays a huge role in my relationships with other people too… Yes, I’d say it has affected some, who have seen me as “too weird” or having a pointless obsession with books, making me a massive “nerd”. People have used my reading habits as an insult against me. But does that make me a better person than the non readers? Nope. I just enjoy other things. Sometimes I do look down on people who are absolutely uncultured and unread- I do try to catch myself on it though, because it’s often unfair.

    But gosh, that article is terrifying. If I ever become even a quarter as bad as him, I’m giving you permission to get rid of me. Fear and intimidation is an extremely unhealthy way to go about your dealings with the world, not just with books.

    Though I do read every day, and want to become a literature academic, I’m certainly not of the group who has no TV or computer… that, to me, is not a sign of superiority. I know people who are of that camp, but figure it’s up to them. None of them have judged me for it though. They’re too busy talking books =P

  3. bellarah

    I had a thought right when I hit send:
    In regards to the separation of readers from “normal society”, I think the media has gone a long way into making this a thing. I think the people who’ve been bashed for being a bookworm both in real life and in the media (by comments on TV, in magazines, movies etc) then turn around and want to feel superior in their own way…. by being “better” than those who don’t read, for whatever reason.

    • lauratfrey

      Oh yes. You are so right. I don’t think people who do the whole “superior” thing are terrible, I’ve done it I’m sure, and probably for just that reason. I was bullied relentlessly in jr. high & being a reader was one of the reasons!

      • bellarah

        I was bullied for reading in high school and primary school too, it was awful. Yeah, sometimes I do think I’m superior to those particular people, since I’ve gone further in life than them, but not to non-reading society as a whole =)

        *hi five bullying survivor*

    • Bridget

      That’s exactly what I was thinking. It’s like how it’s “cool” to be “nerdy” now, and then of course there’s the backlash of “he/she (but mostly she) is not a real nerd because [reasons].”

      A few months ago I started a new job that requires an hour-long commute, so I thought I’d finally try getting into audiobooks. Because I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about them, I decided to start with something comfortable and familiar: Harry Potter. I mentioned this to my new coworkers one day, and immediately got shit (friendly shit, but shit nonetheless) about listening to Harry Potter (I got the sense it would have been the same for any audiobook) on my drive to and from work.

      I never in a million years expected this. I’ve spent my life surrounding myself with readers–I’m married to one, almost all my friends are readers, I have a book blog, I even made a reader out of my very reluctant sister by giving her The Hunger Games and The Book Thief–and I was shocked to find that “normal people” still find it okay to hate on people like me who enjoy reading. And yet *I* look like the jerk/killjoy when I say I don’t watch The Bachelorette or Dance Moms or whatever.

      I think this whole “readers are amazing and everyone else is a mouth breather!” thing is born out of years of denigration of readers as lame or boring or nerdy or whatever, whether real or perceived. And it’s totally fair to be annoyed with it, because–as readers–we are more exposed to it than non-readers. But stuff like this doesn’t just appear from a vacuum.

      • bellarah

        Your co-workers are missing out! I read audio-books in the car too, it’s so much better than listening to an hour’s worth of mindless radio! I get kind of annoyed that I feel like I’ve read wayyyy more of the book than I have in the time I spend (I’m a fast reader) but it’s still so much better!

        I truly loathe the “cool to be nerd” trend… because of the people I see doing it. They’re so often the people who would have called me names and socially rejected me during my teen years. I think they still do that to people they think tip to the “too nerdy” spectrum. I hate the whole “true nerd” thing that tends to go on between people, and yeah, mostly men to women. I have a LOTR tattoo and was quizzed by a friend of my cousins who was trying to catch me out on my knowledge of the series- like that would somehow disqualify me from being allowed to have a Tengwar tattoo. Sorry, but fuck that for a poor joke!

        My partner is a big reader and academic, which is an amazing difference from previous boyfriends- the dynamic is fantastic. It truly does make a difference in my social interactions… all my friends are readers too. I hardly know what to talk about to non-readers, since so much of who I am revolves around books! And yeah, I still get a bit shocked when someone mocks it, because not only are they mocking reading, but they’re mocking me as a person for loving it. Whenever I try to watch those “cool” shows, I just feel sorry for humanity!

        Yep, this stuff really doesn’t come from a vacuum. There’s big negatives on both sides of the argument, but what it comes down to is acceptance of other people.

  4. Elle

    What I find really interesting is the disconnect between “book culture” or “reader culture” and the actual act of reading. Yes, you have to read a certain amount to be an active participant in book culture (Twitter, Vines, live-tweeting interviews), but you don’t actually have to finish that many books. You just have to be sufficiently aware of what the latest releases contain. That, more than anything, is what I see as the dark side of “book culture”, especially via the Internet. It’s provided a beautiful, wonderful place for like-minded people to get along and be friends and exchange ideas, but it also provides so many distractions. sometimes I get knackered by the “need” to keep up with Twitter and books blogs and publishing news, and all I want to do is go somewhere with no wifi for a week and just…like…read.

      • Elle

        The thing is, it’s so tempting, and it provides such good filler for blog posts during the week, and everyone loves talking about it! And a little bit of it is fantastic, but if people spent even half the time that they spend talking about “Mount TBR” actually *tackling* the damn thing…

    • bellarah

      This is such a good point! There have been a few big booktubers who I’ve kind of watched their videos and wondered if they actually read any of the books they haul, because they often get referred to as their TBR things and then go into their massive unhauls. Is it an offshoot of the consumer culture- buy alllll the things, then don’t actually use them, then discard and buy more?
      I too sometimes get too distracted by all the reading culture things on the internet, that I’ve then realised I’ve lost a ton of reading time thinking or talking about books, but not actually doing it!

    • roxannemfelix

      Excellent post, Laura – and Elle, your response really resonated with me as well. Even as a writer! I write a specific genre fiction (speculative fiction) and I thought the “love of it” (and being published) would be enough to find a community – I was quite surprised at the strange rules about the “culture” of it all. I had to work find to find others who were more interested in sharing the exchange of ideas …. rather than “what we knew” … didn’t realize there was a distinction! It reminded me of this portlandia skit

  5. Carolyn O

    I love this post, Laura. I definitely identify as a reader, and books are a big part of my life, but they are also my favored form of media, and it’s totally cool that other people favor other forms of media. It makes me nuts when people write about readers being better because my husband isn’t a capital-R reader, and that is okay. He is not a lesser person because of that. (Of course, do I hope my son is a reader? Well, yeah. But as long as he’s a happy person and kind to others, what kind of media he consumes doesn’t matter much.)

    • lauratfrey

      Thanks. I have a whole other post brewing about loving non-readers. You know that stupid quote about “if you go home with someone and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them?” ughghghgh. My husband reads but isn’t a “book person.” And it soooo doesn’t matter.

      Also had many thoughts about my kids & reading, but feeling a little awkward about “exposing” them online like that.

      • Bridget

        I mean…it does matter to some people, though. That’s not to say it HAS to matter, but I personally have dated book people and non-book people and I would personally prefer (and I married) a book person. This is simply because I love books, I love talking about books, and books take up the large majority of my leisure time. It’s the same as an outdoorsy person wanting to marry another outdoorsy person or not wanting to compromise on that particular quality when looking for a mate. Why should it be different with books?

  6. ebookclassics

    Well, hello back! I’m so glad you wrote about this because there were so many great points. I also like what people said in the comments especially about being so caught up in bookish culture, you realize you haven’t actually been doing any reading! I try to take a social media break here and there, so I can actually just read and not think about that stuff. I have a Twitter account for bookish stuff and one for news and other interests, and it always amazes me looking at the non-bookish feed it’s almost as if the book world doesn’t even exist. There are so many other things going in the world. Great post and I hope you get to write about the other issues you are fired up about!

  7. Naomi

    Great post! I pretty much agree with what everyone else has been saying. My husband is also a non-reader. He likes the outdoors and camping, and when he’s in bed he likes to watch videos about other people camping/canoeing/snowshoeing, etc… I think this makes a good balance between us – he gets me out doing that stuff more than I would otherwise. I also have a very good friend who i rely on to fill me in on all the good TV I miss. The internet is where I come now to be with other readers, and most of them seem pretty nice to me. I haven’t run into too many people who feel superior because they are readers, but I do get that sense sometimes from some of the articles you mentioned. I just ignore the irritating articles (and the irritating readers/bloggers). I do find the science of reading interesting, though, just as I would find the science of other things interesting to read about. And, I own the Novel Cure, because I find it fun to flip through and see what books they recommend.
    As for my kids, I do hope they become readers (on some level), but not because I think it will make them better or smarter – I just know that for me, books are like friends. If they are readers, I am hoping they will always be able to find comfort when they need it (if there is no live person around to do it for them at the time). If not, hopefully they can find something else that makes them happy.

  8. Lucy

    I think there’s an element of the membership/exclusion obsession we humans are fond of, getting all tribal and marking our territory (urine optional). It’s nice to find your people, book groups and others to fangirl/boy with over the Penguin clothbound editions, but yeah, this thinking we’re better than other is wrong, and almost an epidemic, runners, weight lifters, etc, are all at it too with their memes about how their mode of living is the best. The only walls we need are the ones high enough to keep White Walkers out, there doesn’t need to be one between readers and everyone else.

  9. John Richardson

    I read books. I eat chickpeas. The fact that I read books does not make me a member of some sort of book lovers’ club any more than the fact that I eat chickpeas makes me a member of some sort of chickpea lovers’ club. I find eating chickpeas to be a great way to get fibre and protein. I find reading to be a great way to learn stuff, whether I’m reading fiction or poetry or drama or non-fiction. Ever since I was a kid I figured learning stuff was what people do. Later I figured out that people also consume fibre and protein. Not special people, not a type of person — just people. People learn stuff. They don’t all learn at the same rate and they don’t all want to learn the same things, but something that pretty much every person does all their life is learn stuff. And eat fibre and protein. So, I read and learn stuff and eat chickpeas. I guess I might be a member of that learning lovers’ club called Humanity. But I’d really rather not be a member of *any* club. Even a chickpea lovers’ club.

    To be honest, I find most of modern book culture kind of distasteful – book clubs and must read lists and Goodreads recommendations. . . . Oddly perhaps, to me, reading is really not a social endeavour, except insofar as it is an exchange between author and reader. Each book read, like each daily experience and every nighttime dream, makes a change and becomes a part of the person of the reader. It’s one of the most singularly personal and private activities. I am selective about sharing my personal and private activities. Yes, I admit, I sometimes blog some thoughts about something I’ve read, but it kinda weirds me out a little to imagine that some guy in Bosnia actually read what I scribbled about an obscure H.G. Wells book or a poem by Archibald Lampman.

    Maybe I should blog about Hummus.

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  11. Michael

    I had a co-worker once who told me she had picked up a classic novel (I can’t recall which one) and said she only read the classics because those were “good for her.” I asked her if she was enjoying the book and she said no, but it didn’t matter because reading it would make her a better person.

    I felt like she was kind of missing the point of reading for pleasure. Or she was reading to be seen.

    Harder to do these days with e-readers, I’ll admit.

    I can’t help but feel that there is a certain subset of readers who don’t want it to be fun. Or if we’re having fun, then we must be doing it wrong.

    Don’t get me wrong — I love delving into a “classic” or something literary that engages me in ways that other books don’t. But I also love a well done tie-in novel or something equally less “classic” that is bubble-gum for my mind. And I take no shame in the fact that some of those have been my favorite reading experience even if they are not great literature.

    And then I read your post and I want to applaud. Because readers are readers. But I don’t just read — I also watch TV, movies, sports, etc. I cook, I have other ways to fill my spare time. I jog for exercise and listen to audio books….because it helps the mileage go by more enjoyably. For all of these, I have a feeling I wouldn’t be considered a good reader by my high school AP English teachers (who were appalled at my reading choices in the high school when not directed by them). But I learned to not feel guilty about it and just enjoy it all.

  12. james b chester

    Well, this post, the comments and the link to that article about Mr. Champion has distracted me from binge watching Heroes season two. I may have to rewatch an episode.

    My two cents: I basically agree with you on both points almost entirely. I think we are a little different from our non-reader friends, but not enough to keep us from being friends or spouses or anything. The happiest person I have ever known was my grandfather who left school before finishing 6th grade and to my knowledge never read a book in his life. Baseball games on the radio were all he needed. So who am I to judge whether I’m better off becuase I read two books a week.

    I do think the Ed Champion article doesn’t really debunk the reading increases empathy idea. He’s such an exception, he can only prove the rule. I don’t think anyone reads to increase their own empathy, but I do think the act of reading, specifically fiction, makes a reader more empathetic as a kind of by product. Steven Pinker has written about how the introduction of novels brought about a decline in the overall amount of violence in society in his ‘Better Angels of our Nature’ book.

    It’s a complicated argument, one I can’t really summarize here because I did not read it. My partner, who reads one or two books a year, read it and told me all about it. My partner, by the way, reads very little, hates television and rarely ever goes to a movie. I read two books a week as I mentioned, watch more television than I care to admit to, and would go to the movies all the time if I was married to a man who’d come along. And we’ve been together for almost 20 years.

    In any case, thanks for a very interesting post.

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  14. June price

    Hi, I see most people commenting here are readers so I hope you don’t mind hearing the perspective of a non reader. I used to read a lot when I was younger before I discovered other things that I liked doing more. I have read a lot of classic novels as well as science fiction, Greek and Roman mythology, Shakespeare …basically I think I am well read but not so much in the more modern publications. I have studied at Uni…social work so have read text nooks on psychology, politics, law etc. I feel I am intelligent and articulate and enjoy my life without reading. I play several musical instruments and attend many live concerts, music being my major hobby. I also present on community radio. I feel I am a well rounded, happy person despite the fact that I don’t read.
    Getting to the point of my comment…I met a woman a few weeks ago who apon finding that I don’t choose to read, stated that she felt sorry for me. She actually knew nothing else about me except that I am a social worker, as I was at her home to assist in a family matter. She was a retired librarian. I did not pursue the conversation as I was there for other things and the client is always right, but I felt insulted by her remark. She came across as superior because the fact that she felt sorry for me for not reading was like she was saying that I was ignorant to the great pleasure that reading brings, and if only i could be shown the way I would see how my whole world would become so much better. That is all I have to say. Basically, I have always got the feeling from readers that if only I would read, I would discover how the activity was far superior to any other activity I was currently undertaking and that I would be in the select group just like them!
    I also feel that I have a great imagination and express it through music. Others are entertained by my music also and I am happy that I can share it with those who for whatever reason do not play an instrument or sing but enjoy to listen. Basically, I feel like readers judge non readers and that is totally unfair. That is why many non readers don’t like readers cos. They make out like their hobby makes them superior for some reason.

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