Dispatches | July 28, 2007

En route to a recent doctor’s appointment, I realized I had made a grave mistake: I forgot to bring my own reading material. After being sentenced to a lengthy stay in the waiting room, I looked around desperately for something decent to read. An elderly lady sitting across from me had already claimed the months-old issue of Time magazine. I sat debating between the February issue of Field & Stream and a well-worn copy of People when I spotted a slim book on the far coffee table. It looked like a book that the proverbial tourist would take on a family vacation; I could just imagine the stereotypical Midwestern beach-goer who would buy five such paperbacks at the souvenir shop and read all of them, nestled beneath a towering beach umbrella.

I was horrified to discover that, twenty minutes later, I was still reading the book with mild interest. I didn’t race out of the doctor’s office and pledge myself to Oprah’s book club, but I discovered that my former beach-book snobbery had softened a bit.

It has ceased to surprise me that a large percentage of Americans read for sheer entertainment (think “chick lit”) and not due to an innate appreciation of literature. Some can’t get enough, dutifully waiting a full two weeks until the Danielle Steel team churns out yet another must-read.

The age-old debate between popular genre fiction and quietly celebrated works of literature has often left these popular works ignored by the literary establishment. Critics don’t want to waste their time reviewing the ubiquitous James Patterson or Nora Roberts novels that line grocery store shelves, even though these authors attract devoted hordes of readers. Could this debate, perhaps, explain the dwindling space newspapers allocate to book reviews?

Yet my brief encounter with the waiting room mystery/romance hybrid melted a little of my literary skepticism. Do we have to live in a society where mothers lug tomes of Tolstoy to the beach? Should waiting rooms be stocked with William Faulkner and Charles Dickens? While I don’t think that readers should spend all of their time consuming mindless fiction, not every reader – especially those who haven’t chosen to confine themselves to the literary pursuits – should feel obliged to toil over Ulysses while getting a suntan.