“You haven’t read it yet? Ohmygosh, you haaave to! It’s so good!”
Maybe you don’t read a lot. Maybe you haven’t picked up a book once this month, let alone once this year. Maybe you haven’t read a novel since high school or college. Maybe you cheated during your quiz on The Great Gatsby in twelfth grade English and never even read the book.
Regardless of your status as a reader, I’m sure you’ve witnessed, be it on television or in real life, an exclamation like the one above. And it’s applicable to anything. A television show you “have” to watch. A video game you “have” to play. Maybe even a restaurant you “have” to try. It’s probably coming from a well intentioned friend, and there’s nothing wrong with expressing your love of something. I do it all the time! You love this book/movie/podcast, and you think your friend will love it too, so you share it.
Typically, though, you don’t have hundreds of friends telling you over brunch that you must read/watch/listen to this one particular thing. On social media, however, it’s easy for these recommendations to add up and unintentionally turn into nagging reminders that you aren’t good enough unless you’re familiar with x, y and z.
As you all know, reading is a big part of my life. You could argue that it’s a cornerstone of my life, having shaped me into the woman I am today. But lately it has also been a significant source of stress. Not the books themselves, necessarily, although I’d argue that Shadow Kiss by Richelle Mead is THE MOST STRESSFUL THING EVER. What stresses me out is the numbers game, the pressure to read a certain number of books, and the need to read the “right” books. Both of these benchmarks can contribute to one’s so-called literary currency.
Like social currency, literary currency follows the idea that in order to have a valued position and/or opinion in the literary world/the book community, you must have certain “credentials,” or currency, that justifies your place. These credentials can take many forms. Reading at least one book per week, reading the popular new releases discussed on BookTube, posting only aesthetically pleasing photos of books on Instagram (cute socks and twinkle lights NOT optional), reading classics, completing reading challenges, spending thousands on books to have an expansive and impressive bookshelf, etc. And I fall victim to these pressures all the time.
There are books sitting on my shelves that I’ve purchased but never read, and maybe never will. I often feel embarrassed about all of the classics I’ve yet to read. I set reading goals and am devastated when I don’t meet them. Last night, for example, when I struggled to sleep, this is what was running through my mind:
I’m reading Turtles All the Way Down because I’ve heard great things and I love John Green and if I don’t read it then I’m not a fan, so I have to read it because duh. But I should be reading the book my friend gave to me. He’s already read the book I gave him so I have to catch up. It’s only fair. Meanwhile there are five other books on my TBR that I also want to read, but I’m running out of time and should I put Turtles down and move onto something else?? Also, Michelle Hodkin’s new Mara Dyer spinoff about Noah Shaw is out and I still haven’t read it! And I call myself a fan? In order to read that, though, I have to re-read the Mara Dyer trilogy first because I want to remember every. single. detail. But those are three more books to add to my list and re-reading books feels like a waste of time, but also Noah Shaw is bae, so I should prioritize it. Maybe I should just re-read Goblet of Fire that always cheers me up, or maybe Vampire Academy because Dimitri and Rose’s banter is legit fire.
I have to ask myself why. Why do I feel these obligations? Why do I worry and have anxiety about something I love so dearly? Why do I allow myself to feel like a failure over something so trivial as a reading goal? It’s because I want to feel that my opinion when it comes to books and literature matters, at least a little bit. I want to feel included in the discourse, but also worthy of said inclusion. I want enough literary currency to pay the cover at the door of the “readers” club.
Ariel Bissett is a YouTuber who’s made a brilliant video about this very topic. It’s titled “Not A ‘Proper’ Reader?” and illustrates that these notions, these ideas we have in our brain about what being a reader means are utter nonsense. Her thoughts mirror mine in many ways. You are a reader if you enjoy reading. That’s it. It doesn’t matter how many books you read, own, review, or write. Ariel is a reader. I am a reader. And it’s something I have to remind myself of from time to time.
Read what you want to read. If you want to re-read Harry Potter for the thirtieth time, do it! If you want to read Twilight, do it! If you want to read just YA, do it! If you want to read anything but classics, that’s fine too! Don’t read what you think you have to read. Don’t read what you feel pressured to read. Just read.
Hopefully the next time I feel overwhelmed, I can take my own advice.
Keep calm and read on,