‘You haven’t read Dickens?’: Superiority in reading communities

We live in an age of immediacy. TV, social media, likes, clicks, love hearts, snaps; the books are being thrown slowly out the window because let’s be honest – who really has time to tuck into an 800 page Dickens these days?

As an avid reader, the day I came across a Facebook group dedicated to books it felt like I’d found home. The group was a warm and welcoming community, bonding people across ages and backgrounds all with a shared love for reading and books. I didn’t undergo the usual fear of being in a new group and quickly felt accepted as one of the community.

Yet, as with all groups, I’ve witnessed gatekeeping, judgment and exclusivity which shames others and creates tension between members, proving that trolls are hiding under every social media bridge. I have been delighted with how welcoming many of the reading community are, how much support and love there is. However, at times, this community falls short of being the welcoming place it promises to be.

The classics reading debate

A real stigma surrounds books which aren’t deemed classic pieces of literature. The likes of Dickens, Austen and Orwell have dominated book discussions, constantly popping up in recommendations and must-read lists. Historical literature greats are usually cis white men, meaning this classics obsession offers little diversity for readers; classics fanatics opt to ignore a much wider range of brilliant novels by limiting their literature consumption.

It is important to consider that the ‘classics’ are not technically a genre. Yes, they are beloved books which have stood the test of time but their content varies massively. There is no specific character type, plot or structure that all the classics follow. There is no specific age a classic novel must be nor does it have a specific profit criterion.

Though there has been a huge growth in a wide variety of book genres, some readers still feel that only the classics are ‘proper books’, turning their noses up at books which don’t fit this category. These people deem themselves as better readers because of this and will dismiss readers who prefer other genres, claiming they aren’t as ‘serious’ about reading.

But who decides what ‘serious’ reading entails, and more importantly, does it even matter?

Superiority and the demonisation of audiobooks

Does reading carry superiority? People often consider themselves generally ‘better’ because they read and there are people who further praise themselves for reading the most. While reading can be wonderful for informing people of different life experiences, it is not the sole way people can educate themselves. Whether it is the back of a milk carton or Ulysses, we are all readers. There is no reason people should feel better, or indeed make others feel worse, because of their reading ‘criteria’.

To some, reading a physical book makes for a better reader than someone who consumes through e-books or audiobooks. These views, though disguised as ‘traditionalist’ are inherently ableist, as many newer formats can aid disabled people, including them in the reading community. The idea that physical books are the ‘better’ form of reading is outdated, and ultimately limits the success of including more people into the book-loving community.

The harm of reading goals

Furthermore, many members in the reading community believe their own consumption of books is the norm. On occasion, people will use these familiar aspects to judge others who may not follow the same system. One example of this is a reading goal – something which can be set and adjusted on apps such as Goodreads.

People set their reading goal to however many books they want to read in the coming year, this can be as low or high as they desire. While many avid readers can find pockets of time throughout the day to read, others need a lengthy period of time to get into a book. Because of this, some readers aim for 5 books a year while others aim for 200.

In 2018, 16% of participants in the Goodreads Reading Challenge met their goal, begging the question – why do people set themselves goals which they are ultimately unable to achieve? Whilst these goals can help people strive to do better, they can mean reading quickly becomes a chore rather than a hobby.

However, numerical challenges are not the only form of reading challenges available to readers. Challenges which aim to diversify people’s reading by including different authors, genres and cultures have increased in popularity in recent years. Many readers feel this helps them to read outside of their comfort zone and invites them to read wider. These challenges let the reader have a choice, choosing from a specific criterion such as ‘a book by a female author’, ‘a book set in Africa’ or ‘a book about LGBTQ+ characters’.

A step in the wrong direction?

Though the reading community offers itself as kind, welcoming and inclusive, many are pushed out for having different methods and views. Books and their content are progressing but it seems its readers are not. Many are stuck in older times, believing more traditional forms and texts are more valued, refusing to accept change.

Until the reading community is accessible, welcoming and friendly to all, there will still be people left on the outside for not quite fitting the standards others have created in their own heads. As reading content continues to diversify and portray different characters, there is no reason why the reading community should be sealed off to anyone. No one reader is better than another, reading is a hobby, not a competition.

Graphic courtesy of Isabel Armitage

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