You know that pile of books on your nightstand—the ones you keep meaning to start but just haven’t gotten around to yet? Or the book that everyone was talking about last year but when you went to check it out, there was a long waitlist? Or perhaps there is a classic novel you were supposed to read in school but didn't, which now haunts you in the form of crossword puzzle clues and social media quizzes.
We all have these—the "Books We Haven’t Read", which so often coincide with the "Books We Feel Guilty About Not Reading". I am here to tell you not to worry. It’s okay, you don’t have to read all the books.
You can trust me: I’m a doctor. Having recently completed a PhD in literature, I spent years devouring novels and poetry like it was my job. (It was.) But even I haven't read everything; I haven't even read all of the ones that are considered "Great Books". I started Moby Dick but never finished it. (Please don't tell the Rosenbach.) Despite or because of growing up in the southeast United States, I am not well-acquainted with the works of Mark Twain or Eudora Welty, or even that controversial doorstop Gone With the Wind. I have read neither Martin nor Kingsley Amis, and have yet to pick up translations of novels by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Marcel Proust, or Jorge Luis Borges.
Will I read these books? Maybe someday. Should I read them? Would these books change my life if I gave them a chance? Quite possibly! But I don't feel any shame about the books I haven't read, even when they are supposed to be important.
Think about it this way: Why do you read? You may have several answers, and your reasons will be uniquely personal to you, but it often comes down to this—reading is a way of experiencing a reality apart from the one you’re currently in. It is a mental exercise that may enrich the imagination, absorb your attention, temper your moral compass, or encourage deep empathy with others. Any book can do this. Reading may also offer a shared experience; in a class or book club or even among friends, reading the same books can provide not only a better understanding of the writing but also of one another. If we all have a passing familiarity with one set of stories, whether that is The Odyssey or the Harry Potter series, then we share common ground in our memories, vocabularies, and minds.
Now ask yourself: What should you read? Your answers probably have more to do with the second example than the first; the idea of "should" is a social expectation. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; often, lists of "Great Books" or "books everyone should read" are developed to encourage that common ground of ideas and stories. On the other hand, lists of "Great Books" tend to lack diversity, or discount the work of brilliant contemporary writers, or risk replicating the prejudices of past eras. How great can a reading list be if it doesn’t include rich and varied perspectives on human experience? Having had it both ways—a rigorous program that incorporated many (though of course, not all) of the literary giants of the past century and a personal appetite for diverse contemporary fiction—I think it is important to question the idea of what we "should" be reading and the guilt we may feel for not meeting those expectations.
So don’t worry about the shoulds or what’s good. Just keep reading, and don’t forget to share.
For the entire month of November, Free Library staff will be embracing our so-called “guilty pleasures” without embarrassment! Join in and show us your pride for whatever you’re reading, watching, or listening to by snapping a photo with the hashtag #FLPNoShameNovember. We’ll feature your photos on our social media accounts and curate a list of the now-shameless titles!