The Root of My Reading Anxiety

I think my strange reading anxiety has been well-documented on this weblog. If you’re new here this is the gist of it: I worry about reading the wrong sort of books. I don’t always read the right sort of books, nor would I suggest one do so religiously, nor do I even consistently agree with myself on what the “right sort” means — regardless I’m always worrying about it. So it was with some surprise mixed with telling obviousness that I finally realized where this anxiety comes from, a place I’ve never been, University.

First, though, the right sort of books, what are they? You’d find them in the curriculum of any gold-standard humanities program of the future. They range from those seminal desert epics and the Greek Classics all the way up to post-modern experiments and even graphic novels. Each one tells us a little bit more about how to be a good human and, surprisingly, isn’t afraid to make you laugh at some point in the process (although, on reflection, this is realized to be a necessary part of some process). “Important” books, might be a good standard label, or rule of thumb. The ones that feel like they mean something.

Of course, the paragraph above reveals the problem. Who thinks like that? In my early twenties, as I went to work on a bus packed with University students and later watched my high-school peers one by one graduate, I began to think, “Everybody thinks like that!” I was wrong, obviously, but that was the start of my intentional personal education in the liberal arts. And, even though I was always a little weird about reading (recall my high school ban on pre-twentieth century authors), this is probably where I started to go a little south. An unguided regret-fueled tour through the literary fruits of six-thousand years of civilization is going to make anyone a little funny.

But that was then, this is now. The regret is gone and my reading  passions, which were there before, remain. The anxiety, the I-haven’t-read-the-right-things feeling, remains but who cares? I kind of like being the weird anxious guy anyway.

11 thoughts on “The Root of My Reading Anxiety

  1. I totally relate to this… I always feel like I need to have a good answer when people ask, “what are you reading?” Preferably something highbrow and literary. I get especially nervous when other women ask me what I’m reading, because I’m often reading fantasy or sci-fi, which are decidedly NOT cool or feminine. A lot of that anxiety stopped when I started blogging about my reading. Now, I’m public about what I read, and when people ask, I just tell them about my blog then give them a recommendation of a book I think they’d like to read.

  2. So, what is the ‘wrong sort’?

    For instance, ‘Cross Time Engineer’ and following titles, Leo Frankowski. A modern engineer falls, drunk, into an unsuspected time portal, wakes up hung over in 12th century Poland. The novel paints an interesting perspective of what life might have been like back then, socially and economically. The novels describe the re-invention of technology 6 centuries early, and possible impacts on history. Including a version of a bunny club, ‘The Pink Dragon’, that all the nobles want near them. Is this a ‘men’s adventure’ with plenty of adventure and sex, basic SF time travel, or SF alternate history? Do we get an inkling of how the introduction of change impacts society? Of how morals tend to vary with poverty/affluence levels? I find the basic story telling amusing and rewarding, and I re-read them every year or two.

    What about ‘The Great Gatsby’? That sordid tome might be great at depicting a (decadent) moment in an isolated community in America, but the characters are all despicable, murder is covered up, and the innocent allowed to be slandered and slain. Yuck. I waited 45 years to actually read that waste, and wish I had shelved it with the ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ movies and materials, which I have no intention of ever viewing or reading.

    Some books are meant to entertain. Most give some glimpse and insight into living and how people act and think. Some books are wonderful expressions of good storytelling, others are avant garde, and dedicated to depicting some literary variant or aspect. The first entertain. The second are useful in studying literature. Only rarely are powerful, edgy books also good storytelling.

    I enjoy the good storytelling, and am not ashamed to tell people, ‘I am reading SF’. I cannot find the reference any more, but I read that Joseph Campbell wrote in the 1950’s that “A good science fiction story is a good people story.” Also, “SF is 90% drekh. But 90% of everything is drekh.” Try C. J. Cherryh’s “Pride of Chanur” for a ‘good people story’. And the second part? Reassures me that SF is no better nor worse that Dickens, bodice rippers, crime novels, or ‘On the Conquest of Gaul’ (attributed to Julius Caesar).

    Sign me ‘Not Anxious’. Now I want to go read my two new books, the new Harry Potter and ‘Beguilement’, the new Sharing Knife story from Lois McMaster Bujold. Right after I finish my re-read of “Lt. Leary Commanding”, David Drake.

  3. The only books not worth reading are the ones you regret every second you spent with it in your hands. And there are very few of those if you think about it.

    I got over worrying about what people would think of what I read when in my early teens. I had to. (Unfortunately I didn’t get over everything else they might think of me until decades later).

    Yet even saying the above, there is limited time, and the time you spend on one book is time spent away from another. One must have priorities!

  4. What’s wrong with Dickens?! Dickens is hilarious. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge SF fan, but, Dickens is good too.

    And, on technology: I just spent a few hours reading about medieval technology. By the 13th and 14th centuries they had plenty of technology and some of it was better than the classical stuff.

  5. I’ve felt similar since going to graduate school. I was speaking to a friend of mine about this recently. We were lamenting there wasn’t enough time to read all the books we’d like to read. I tend to drift toward the “classics” of literature and neglect contemporary authors almost completely. She tries to be more even handed in her reading, but said she has reached a point that if she’s reading a book and she isn’t completely drawn in by a certain place (I forget whether it was within the first few chapters or first few pages), she puts the book down and moves on. She’s realized she has a finite amount of time and wants to read the books that draw her in, whether “classics” or contemporary. This philosophy helped me to forgive myself for putting down Samuel Beckett’s “Malloy” after reading only two pages. The first line of the story drew me in, but by the second page, I’d forgotten what I’d read and my mind was drifting. I put it down in exchange for the Satanic Verses, which I enjoyed immensely.

  6. Wow, thanks for your great comments everyone. I’m trying to come up with a reasoned objective response that outlines what I think the wrong sort of books are — but fat chance of that ever happening. Look for a rambling subjective rant on Monday (I hope).

  7. I see a big difference between ‘wrong sorts’ of books, and ‘books not worth reading’.

    I figure the wrong sorts cause harm, those not worth reading give no benefit – the storytelling doesn’t give insight into the subject matter, the characters don’t give insight into society and the way people think, act, and behave, and the setting and background of the story don’t give information about life, living, history, or anything else. I think the books and stories ‘not worth reading’ happen most often when the reader is disengaged from the story. Sometimes this happens permanently, sometimes this is a periodic thing. Sometimes I may be in a mood or frame of mind to appreciate a certain story, and not other times.

    What harm can the wrong sorts of book do? By focusing attention on particular acts or scenarios, a book can create changes in the reader. Patriotic stories increase patriotism, or we would never read of the ride of Paul Revere, never sing the Star Spangled Banner. We would never read and study religious references and fiction, if they didn’t focus attention, increase awareness and affect character. Murder novels, gruesome crime stories in general, whether fictional or fact, tend to generate copycat criminals. The immense media attention to the Columbine shootings .. The intense scrutiny of bomb making such as Timothy McVay in the Oklahoma City bombing of the Murrow federal building indicates law enforcement at all levels believe there is a chance of others using similar materials and tactics. And books that deliberately scare, disrupt sleep, or cause character changes similar to bullying and other emotional abuse .. In my opinion.

    I suspect very few books can be considered wholely ‘right’. We should be aware, though, of those that are likely to cause harm.

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