The Intensely Personal, Private Act of Reading

As a librarian and book blogger-type-person, I share my thoughts about the books that I've read very openly.  Yet, there are many aspects of my life that I don't talk about at work or on this blog, because they are mine.  It's important to note that my upbringing, beliefs, and experiences shape how I read and why I feel the way I do about books.  That is the private part of reading: how your past informs what you read in the present.

Today, I had an illuminating discussion with a peer about a book that I unreservedly and unabashedly adore.  She didn't like it so much, and she had really valid reasons for what she didn't like.  I was reading a lot of the plot and character development as metaphorical, while she saw it more realistically.  I love sci-fi books about the nature of humanity, sentient AI, the fate of humans 10,000 years in the future, and all those kind of woo-wah big picture concepts.  She was reading on a more practical level: how does the presentation of these characters affect diversity in literature today.

Unless you've been completely out of commission for the past two years, diversity in kidlit and teen literature is a huge issue.  Huge.  And I am so happy that the book community has begun this massive pushback against the erasure of PoC, non-hetero, or characters with disabilities.  I have certain topics that I'm always looking for in a book, and when they're not treated properly, that is to say, with respect and accuracy, the alarm bells go off and I go Wolverine.  The ones I notice right away have to do with body image, eating disorders, girl-on-girl hate, and mental illness.

But I can do better; I know I can do better.  I've been exposed to so many amazing resources for noting racist depictions of characters in literature, or gaslighting of women, or treating Native people as if they no longer exist, that I am slowly but surely becoming more adroit at spotting those issues in literature.  Certainly, I am not perfect.  None of us are.  I don't have the experience, but I'm working on gaining it.  Soon, I hope that any alarm bells related to any diversity issue will go off just as naturally as the ones I have now.

So, did I gloss over a potentially problematic treatment of bisexuality?  It's absolutely possible.  When I go back and reread the story and its treatment of love, relationships, and sexuality, it makes total sense to me.  But I am not bi.  I have not been violently insulted and harassed because of who I love.  I can't speak for them.  Basically, what I'm saying is, I'm not your go-to girl on that.  My (admittedly sheltered) life experiences shape how I read a book and if I enjoy it or not.

One reason I loved the book we were discussing is that the relationships weren't the sole focus of the plot, although they played a large role in character development.  This was a Big Idea book.  A Big Choices book.  I found that and I ran with it and fell desperately in love with it.  My personal experience meant that I was drawn to this book.  The pleasure of reading it was mine; I couldn't even express my feelings coherently in the review I wrote.

There's that quote by Garrison Keillor that adorns the thank-you cards sent to pretty much every English teacher ever: "A book is a present you can open again and again."  I would go further.  Every time you open that book, there is an exchange.  Parts of the book enter your soul and minutely shape who you are and how you see life.  In turn, you project your personality into the book, imbuing it with a unique reading experience.

I will never see a book in exactly the same way as someone else does, and that's part of what's so wonderful about books.  They're practically quantum in their inability to be concretely pinned down and autopsied.

Here, I should also note that I am a very stubborn person.  I'm not sure how much of that comes out on social media, but anyone who knows me in real life would agree.  Discussing this book that I loved today made me extremely uncomfortable.  To be clear: I was uncomfortable with myself.  And disappointed with myself, just a bit.  Had I missed something that was hurtful or poorly written?  Why was I so out of practice talking about books?

But I am aware enough to step back and say: "This is your opinion.  The opinions of others are equally valid.  Listen to them."  A criticism of a book I love can feel like a personal critique, especially when I've bonded with that narrative, but it's not an attack on me.  Not at all.  I am not the book.  My reading of the book is my personal, private experience to keep and from which to draw, but I am not responsible for the success of any work.  I believe that you can love something while criticizing it, that you can adore something while acknowledging its faults.  Nothing is perfect.  But I'd like to think that some books can come close.


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