the Rights of Readers


drawing of winged books is from a site called decorated school

In nearly 60 years of reading, I have come up with a few ‘rights’ to counteract the unconscious rules I had about how and what to read. My mother and grandmother were English teachers; but I think many of us have these rules stuck in our heads somewhere…we let other people define what is ‘good’ to read and what isn’t, whether we’re going along with consensus or rebelling against it (as I used to do with best sellers — assumed they were all crap.) Along with the ‘rights’, which are really suggestions for how to enjoy what you read, I’ve included some examples.

If you’re reading on your own, for yourself, you don’t have to read anything that doesn’t interest you. (There’s a great Mark Twain quote about this; I’ll bet you already know it.*)

Just because you started a book doesn’t mean you have to finish it. If you want to know what happens but hate reading it, you can skim it or skip to the end. (Many people know this; but I didn’t until my mid-50s, which is why I include it here.)

Just because a best friend/lover/child/writer you respect/”educated people”/someone who writes for a magazine or the NY Times/etc. likes a book, doesn’t mean you have to. That’s why there’s more than one writer in the world, and more than one story, and more than one book.

Just because you were forced to read one book by an author that was called a ‘classic’ and that you hated, doesn’t mean you can’t read another book by that same author now and enjoy it. (Silas Marner by George Eliot was sooooo bad in high school English class; but five years later, Middlemarch became one of my reread-it-every-year books. Also happened with Doris Lessing — hated The Golden Notebook, years later fell in love with The Four-gated City.)

Just because the bookstore or library has shelved the book with children’s books or young adult (adolescent) books, doesn’t mean you can’t read it if you’re older. (I didn’t discover E. Nesbit and the Bastables until my twenties, and that’s the tip of the iceberg.)

If all your reading buddies are pushing a certain author or book at you, saying you will “love” this author’s stuff, and you can’t get into it, set it aside and try again next year. If the time is right, the book will speak to you, and when it does you’ll know right away. Or it won’t speak to you ever. That’s okay, too. (This happened with Robertson Davies — took me nearly a decade to be in the right mindset to read what became some all-time favorite books.)

Just because a book is a best-seller doesn’t mean it’s a good book or a bad book. It can be either. (My first foray into best sellers was Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. Although I didn’t like the foreword, the rest of the book was wonderful, especially the different slant she had on the same stories that Marie Louise von Franz [hot-shot Jungian] had examined in The Feminine in Fairytales.)

Just because a book has gone out of print doesn’t mean it’s a bad book. (Selma Lagerlof’s Liliecrona’s House, just for instance, which finally came out from a publisher called Forgotten Books. Also Cam Hubert’s Dreamspeaker, R.A. MacAvoy’s The Grey Horse, Francine Prose’s Hungry Hearts. All of these verge on speculative fiction-fairytale…are not ‘realist’ books. There are a lot of good out-of-print books out there; these are off the top of my head.)

Just because a book is self-published doesn’t mean it’s a bad book. Think Anais Nin, Henry Miller, Virginia Woolf. And Dorothy Bryant’s science fiction classic, The Kin of Ata are Waiting for You.

Fear no genre.

*From Mark Twain: “A classic is something everyone wants to have read, and no one wants to read.”

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