I recently heard this true story about this guy who tried to break up with this girl, and she didn’t like that, so she photoshopped a bunch of pictures, staged a recorded phone call, jumped in front of his moving car, and pressed felony charges. This all sounds so out of left field and untrue–it is hard to fathom how someone could come up with these ideas (but it is–there are police reports and court documents to prove it), so the first question that came to my mind was: what kind of books has this girl been reading?…
When we first teach people how to read, we encourage them to read as much as possible. The theory is that practice makes perfect: the more they read, the better readers they become (their vocabularies expand, their comprehension skills strengthened, their visualization abilities engaged). And, we encourage young readers to read voraciously because that means they aren’t getting into trouble–a book is a solitary object in which, when they are reading, we know they are not beating up their younger brother, coloring on the wall with mom’s lipstick, or digging holes in the backyard. We can contain their activities, and allow the young reader to channel all of their energy into the book.
As young readers grow up, we hope that they continue this hunger for reading–that they continue to pick up anything and everything, because books are books, right? As long as you are reading someone else’s writing, that means you should be automatically gaining a larger vocabulary, strengthening your comprehension skills, and engaging your imagination, right?
I’m currently reading this chick lit book that I picked up from Barnes & Noble (I won’t say the title of it in case it ends up being your favorite book). I normally don’t read chick lit (for the reasons I am going to denounce in a moment) but it happened to be a title I’ve heard thrown around a few times, I’ve seen it posted on a few famous people’s InstaGrams AND it was buy 2, get one free, so I said–why not?
After reading a few pages, I’ve decided that no–not everything should be read–there certainly are things out there that might be more detrimental to the human mind than the benefits of ‘increasing vocabulary’ (I had to look up NONE of the words), ‘improving comprehension’ (I read 232 pages in 90 minutes because there were no ‘stop to pause and ponder’ moments), or, ‘to build our visualization skills’ (I skipped a few pages for visualizations I did not care to conjure in my mind).
First of all, there is just a lot of crappy writing out there. I’m sometimes appalled at some of the titles that make their way onto the New York Times’ Bestseller lists and it makes me lose faith in our culture that these are the kinds of titles that people are buying, and that these are the kinds of stories and topics people want to be engaged in. The ideas are shallow, the vocabulary is elementary, and there is nothing creative about the sentence structures and phrases whatsoever.
But more so than just crappy writing, some of these books should not be read because I believe some of these books cause moral issues; they teach us and train us to be immoral people. One of the most powerful aspects of reading stories is the ability to learn about ourselves through the characters and their trials/tribulations. I remember reading ‘The Awakening’ by Kate Chopin in college, and identifying so much with Edna’s rejection of societal customs–it was not until I read about Edna moving into her own apartment that I realized that I, too, identify as a person who is most driven by individual desires. We see ourselves in our characters, and we bring those expectations, those lessons, those thoughts into our own lives. So, it becomes a moral issue when we read something that encourages immoral behavior and indulges in our corrupt human nature.
The kind of book I’m specifically referring to here is the story about the home wrecker–the poor, disadvantaged small town girl who moves into the big city, meets a wealthy man, plots her snatch, and breaks up the man with his wife (there are about a million of this same plot out there). The first moral issue is brought up in the description–the book promises to be a real “page turner”, “with twists and turns” and “unexpected secrets” revealed on every page! Since likely I’m not reading this story because it has “good writing” or because the “characters are relatable” (I really hope none of you identify with the psychopathic home wrecker), the only thing pulling me into the story is the promise of juicy gossip and for finding out hidden secrets and airing out someone’s (even if fictional) dirty laundry. These types of stories encourage us to engage in discussions that are gossip in nature. We aren’t discussing ideas, such as why Atticus allows Bob Ewell to spit in his face, or how societal rules implode when a bunch of kids are left without supervision on an island, or how the bad guy might actually have a moral lining. Instead, we make comments, like, “Can you BELIEVE that she did that?”, “Did you see that coming?!”, “I’m appalled that someone would have such behavior!”–all gossip in nature.
The second moral issue is that, if we read in order to seek understanding and to make meaning of our own worlds, then likely, I’m (even if unconsciously) considering how the characters, situations, and outcomes might be in my own life. In the story of the home wrecker, the original wife “never sees it coming”, and everyone always has “hidden motives” and, when we hear the internal dialogue of the characters, we see that everyone is nasty, conniving, and only out for themselves. So then I translate these ideas into my own life, and I am automatically skeptical of my husband’s secretary (“I won’t be played as a fool like Mrs. Richardson was!”), I question everyone’s actions (“She isn’t offering to do that just to be nice–there is something else going on”), and I assume that everyone is always out to get me (“She’s been in the bathroom too long–is she taking pictures of my medicine bottles and Snapping it to her friend to oust me?”), I can’t have intimate relationships with anyone, and therefore, I’m lonely, feel like my life is meaningless, and I drop back into reading these immoral books that continue to give me these unrealistic and negative views of the world.
When we indulge ourselves in these stories, we allow ourselves to remain stagnant. Because the premise is merely to “be a page turner”, there are no beautiful quotes or symbols to stop and contemplate, there is no important discussion regarding human nature and the meaning of life, we do not build sympathy for the awful and treacherous characters. We do not investigate our own identities, produce ideas for new experiences to be had, become more sympathetic and understanding of people’s situations. And, if we aren’t improving our current situation–whether that be our moral development, our knowledge and insight into the world, our understanding of other people, then why are we reading? Stephen King would say there is a benefit to reading these kinds of stories (like ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’) because reading these types of stories allows us to stir up our suppressed gross, hidden, violent, criminal tendencies–that reading a story about a murderer allows me to expunge my own murderous feelings, and then I don’t have to enact on them.
However, likely none of us will ever commit murder (we know the stakes are too high, the plot too complicated to plan), but there are no real legal consequences to mere gossip. And, is it also true that, when I put myself into a venue where I’m able to pick up on these ideas, that I’m more likely to enact on them? There is something unique about being a human where we are guilty by association–we don’t realize that we are cussing like a sailor (because our co workers are doing it) until someone points it out to us; we don’t realize we are doing too much day drinking (because our friends are all doing it) until we remove ourselves from the situation; we don’t realize that we are spending too much time on social media (until our lawn dies, our trashcan gets fruit flies from neglect, and our dog starts regressing and pooping in the house because we aren’t paying attention to them). It is so easy for us to fall into peer pressure, to do what the group is doing, to be immersed in the ideas at the time–that we don’t always recognize when that corruption that is happening. So, when we expose ourselves to these kinds of stories, we allow ourselves to fall victim to gossip, to negative language, to ideas of deceit and affairs and untrustworthy people, and we unknowingly (and honestly, ignorantly) bring those ideas and expectations into our everyday worlds, because we do not know any differently.
Reading should be done for intellectual development. We should read because (a) we want to increase our vocabularies, allowing us to better communicate our own thoughts or to understand other people’s situations more accurately, (b) because we want to be introduced to a new lifestyle, a new idea, a new scenario, (c) because we are seeking the answer to a question, such as, what is the meaning of life? what is my identity? what is justice?, or any other reason that stimulates intellectual growth (I would even argue that reading because you want to escape your own life stimulates intellectual growth because that strengthens your imagination).
And if the reading does none of these things, then perhaps it should not be read. Somethings are just best locked away in a bedside drawer somewhere, collecting dust…