how can you read such rubbish?

Do you feel guilty about some of your reading? All of it, maybe?

I don’t recall being judged for my reading as I was growing up. The first instance I can remember was when I was about 16, and reading a paperback called The Possession of Joel Delaney, a horror story set in New York, no doubt part of a flood of such stories that appeared in the wake of The Exorcist. I was enjoying it, and an adult not of my household said something like, “What is that horrible thing you’re reading?”

I either didn’t respond or simply spoke the title. I resented someone making free to comment, that is, pass judgment, on what I was reading. What the hell do you care what I’m reading? I thought. Mind your own business.

I’ve also been praised for what I was reading. A few years later, when I was working as a janitor at Vancouver General Hospital, I would bring a book with me every night to read on my breaks. John, a middle-aged English orderly who came on shift at the same time, noticed the big blue paperback I was carrying one night and asked me what it was. I held it up: Art and Visual Perception by Rudolf Arnheim.

“Good book!” he said, shaking his head, impressed, then went on his way.

I felt pleasure at being praised, but at the same time wondered how he knew that it was good. Had he read it? Probably not. He was impressed by what the book was about, which I supposed was fair enough. But it still felt odd to me for someone to praise a book he hadn’t read.

These memories surfaced for me recently when I exchanged a few tweets on Twitter with someone who had mentioned her “guilty pleasure” in reading certain books (apocalyptic fiction, in her case). I knew exactly what she meant because I’ve had many guilty pleasures in my life, although seldom to do with my reading. But this whole idea of criticizing what other people read on the basis of its supposed intellectual or artistic or cultural worthlessness is an intrusion on the rights of a fellow human being, and in my opinion there is no place for it in a society that respects freedom and mutual respect. Except for the special case of a parent’s or teacher’s responsibility to protect children from harm, and even here the lightest of touches is all that is called for, we simply have no business expressing our unsolicited opinion of other people’s reading material. I’ll go further: we have no business forming any judgment about it at all, even in the privacy of our own thoughts, or in the most secret chamber of our soul. Even if we merely think smug or scoffing thoughts about another’s reading, we are doing that person an injustice.

Why do I feel this way? For one thing, if I really do prize individual freedom and mutual respect, then how another person enjoys himself is no concern of mine, if it does not affect me. I might think, “I don’t like the kind of stuff that person’s reading”—but who cares? No one’s asking me to read it. Have I forgotten that people are not all the same, that preferences differ? Apparently I have, and someone should be correcting me.

Then there’s the arrogance aspect: it’s presumptuous of me to assert or imply my superiority to others. This is the sin and vice of pride, which in no way reflects well on me. Indeed, pride is the first deadly sin; shouldn’t I be more concerned about getting this weed out of my own garden than about feeling smug about my reading?

Another thought is that people’s reading develops along different paths. This relates to the point about individual differences mentioned above, but it stresses the time element more: this person might share your tastes completely—but at a future date, not now, not yet. I remember talking to a Tarot reader years ago on Granville Street, a woman well into middle age, and in the course of the conversation she said that she had just recently read her first novel—until then she had only ever read nonfiction. She had found it to be a wondrous and mind-expanding experience. I don’t know what the novel was, but whatever it was, would it have been appropriate for me or for anyone to have judged her for reading it? Her reading path in life was much different than mine; does that difference in some way entitle me to judge?

But I’ve saved my most important point for last. And it is this: we can’t help what we enjoy. Enjoyment is something that happens to us. We can profess to enjoy things that we don’t really enjoy, for the sake of getting along with others whose good opinion we desire; but that’s not the same thing as actually enjoying them. While we can seek out things that please us, the pleasure itself arises spontaneously and can’t be willed into being, any more than sunshine or rain can be so willed. It simply happens. And criticizing or judging someone for the arising of pleasure in his life is worse than wrong; it seems to stem from a motive in envy and spite. And how well do those things reflect on the judge?

But even if we assume the highest motives on the judge’s part, what is the benefit of judging someone’s reading? Do we hope to shame someone into taking up reading that is, in our opinion, more edifying, and in that way do them a service? Doesn’t this rather reveal our own psychological crudity and ineptitude? Could we possibly imagine that such a clumsy approach would be successful? If we wanted to manipulate someone into reading things that we approve of, couldn’t we find a shrewder way of going about it?

Between the ages of about 11 and 14 I read all the James Bond books. They were in my dad’s library so I just went through them. I enjoyed them a lot; they were “adult” but at the same time easy for me to understand. No one criticized me or tried to stop me; my father didn’t care. I enjoyed them but I moved on to other things as I got older and my tastes changed. Within 5 years I was reading Art and Visual Perception. My tastes changed spontaneously as I read more things; it wasn’t due to being judged, criticized, or otherwise “helped” by those who thought they knew better. It was a natural process.

So I ask you earnestly, on behalf of all readers of all ages: if you’re ever tempted to criticize or judge someone’s, anyone’s, reading, please refrain. Instead, reflect on your own motives, and let nature take its course.

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