Dispatches | July 31, 2013

Now, I should start off with a confession: I have never read Nora Roberts. Except for the excerpts in the recent blog post comparing Roberts and Nabokov, I’ve really never had much to do with modern adult romance novels.

Traditional Romance Novel Covers
Traditional Romance Novel Covers

But I am an avid reader, one who adores both classics (I’m a huge 18th century-est) and whatever else you put in front of me—“crap” or not. I spent 3-4 years of my life reading nothing but schlocky teenage romance novels with descriptions of kissing not unlike the ones Roberts wrote. This included a really hormonal year of my life (7th grade) spent reading nothing but the Twilight series.

And it was really good for me.

Now, I’m not going to pretend that these books are the same quality as Nabokov—as much as I’d like it to, Meg Cabot’s All American Girl won’t be passed down through the ages the way Lolita probably will, and it shouldn’t be.

As good as Lolita? No. Fun to read? Absolutely.

As good as Lolita? No. Fun to read? Absolutely.

But these books are getting people to read. At the time when my family bought its first TV, Meg Cabot kept me hooked to pages instead of screens, moving me from the classic kids’ books through a time when I needed something just plain entertaining, and then into a greater world of literature. Without Meg Cabot, I might have stopped reading long before I discovered Jane Austen, Frances Burney, Samuel Johnson, and Jonathan Swift—the brilliant authors I now read for school and for fun. Without Meg Cabot, I might not be an English major.

Parents complain all the time that their kids don’t read, but that’s because they, the parents, don’t read. As Anne Fadiman, the ultimate bibliophile, wrote in an essay in her collection Ex Libris: “some […] parents complain that their children don’t read for pleasure. When I visit their homes, the children’s rooms are crammed with expensive books, but the parent’s rooms are empty. Those children do not see their parents reading, as I did every day of my childhood. By contrast, when I walk into an apartment with books on the shelves, books on the bedside tables, books on the floor, and books on the toilet tank, then I know what I would see if I opened the door that says ‘PRIVATE–GROWNUPS KEEP OUT’: a child sprawled on the bed, reading.”

But does it matter what those books are? Sitting down to pick up a book is sitting down to pick up a book—why should we mock what is getting people to try reading? Why is it in any bibliophile’s best interest to denigrate something that moves people into the world of the page and shows them how much fun that world can be? If some child sees her mother sitting with a Nora Roberts novel, one that maybe isn’t the best quality but still has a solid spine and page after page of words, won’t the child think that reading is fun? That her mother’s laughter and attention and tears for something held inside those pages can be found in other books as well? And won’t that push another kid down the path that might ultimately lead to Nabokov and his ilk?

He got to serious literature a little before most.

He got to serious literature a little before most.

To broaden, and probably dramatize, this situation, isn’t this division of “good enough” and “crap” part of why the humanities are in trouble? Every day I read articles about how the humanities have no value, how no one can relate to the humanities. And people respond with wonderful infographics, passionate articles, and well-worded replies insisting on the humanities’ usefulness.

But all those articles and graphics are trying to prove that our study of books is not impractical and elitist, that we really do prepare English majors to get jobs—while we sit here and declare unworthy the thing that brings some people to our major.

Talk about impractical and elitist.

If we want people to read, we cannot keep telling them that what they want to read isn’t good enough. If we want people to value English majors and history majors and all those people who read their way through college, we can’t declare any kind of reading unworthy of people’s attention.

There’s no point in comparing Roberts and Nabokov—naturally Nabokov’s writing is going to win.

But if we ask ourselves which one individuals who are younger or less well educated are more likely to pick up, which one they might see other people enjoying and decide to pick up on their own—well, I don’t think I need to tell you which author I see people on the Washington, DC, Metro reading more often.

And if our goal as readers and English majors is to keep our books around, maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

But that could just be me—after all, this 18th century British literature major was once a Twihard.