How I learned to love the books I actually love.
Born in October, there was a debate when I was four on whether I should start kindergarten early, or wait it out and start when I was five. I would either be the youngest kid in the class or the oldest. My parents decided to let me try school early, figuring that I could always just repeat kindergarten if needed.
I thrived in school. I was an early lover of books, which meant I was an early reader, which meant that teachers assumed I was intelligent. I was placed in academically gifted programs in elementary school, early high school programs in middle school, and AP programs in high school. When I was old enough to understand my family’s finances — and that I would not get to go to college if I couldn’t pay for it myself — I became even more studious, throwing myself into academics as a way to save myself from small town life and escape on the wings of a scholarship.
And then, at seventeen, I was dropped off at my state’s largest university. I’d gotten my scholarship, but there was little to spare. I had enough money to take the train two-hundred miles home for Christmas and Easter, and I was living on cafeteria meal plans at the dormitory and walking to classes between then.
I felt desperately alone, small, and unimportant.
But by God, I was going to prove myself.
I threw myself into my studies. Books had saved me in high school; they would save me in college. I would be the type of person who read Shakespeare for a bit of light reading. I would wear tweed (from Goodwill) and take notes on Chaucer for fun. I would be this person.
It’s little wonder that I defined dead, white European male authors as the height of education. Almost as soon as I got placed on the academic tracts in my lower schools, I had my “fun” books plucked from my fingers, replaced with the “classics.” If I was lucky, I got to read a (dead, white, European) female writer, but that was generally rare.
There is absolutely a level of classism in academia that’s hard to break. In determining my course load, there were options to take entire semester’s worth of studies on Shakespeare and Chaucer, feeding into that image of what it meant to be a perfect college student.
In fact, it was at the end of my first semester, when I’d signed up for a Shakespearean seminar, that I found myself at Barnes & Noble, just before Christmas break, with my roommate. The complete works of Shakespeare was considerably cheaper there than at the university bookstore, and I was pooling together gift cards from my birthday to help pay for the books I needed. I loaded my arms down with a hefty, bright red tome of everything William Shakespeare wrote centuries ago, and even if the weighty volume lugged me down, I did feel like this was the moment where I was really, finally, becoming the college student I’d envisioned myself as for so long.
My roommate glanced over at another section of the bookstore. “You know,” she whispered, as if it were a dark secret. “Sometimes I like to read books from that section.”
I let my eyes linger on the forbidden fruit. There was a huge Harry Potter display — the third book was releasing soon, in time for the holidays. There were box sets of some of my old favorites. The Chronicles of Narnia. Works by Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper, Ursula K. LeGuin.
“I like books from that section, too,” I said, and it felt like a confession.
On a whim, I turned away from the growing line to the register, still lugging Shakespeare, and went over to the young adult section of the store. My roommate followed. We picked up books we’d loved before, recalling favorite scenes. We picked up new books we hadn’t yet tried, wondering what worlds were hidden on those pages. And by the time we left the store, I’d purchased something else — something fun — to go alongside Shakespeare.
I read King Lear and Hamlet and MacBeth in the spring semester. But I also read Harry Potter, and The Once and Future King, and The Chronicles of Earthsea.
I let myself read for fun again.
And I realized…I got far, far more out of the books I read for fun.
The entertainment quality of a book does not cancel out its value.
I had spent so much of my life in academia, being force-fed books that teachers insisted had merit even though I found them dull, that I had, along the way, somehow made my mind believe that if a book entertained me, it didn’t actually have any value. The more fun I had, my simple logic concluded, the less important a book was.
In reality, the opposite is true.
It is within the books that we connect to that we discover the deeper truths the author reveals. People dismiss the entirety of the romance genre, but Austin and Tolstoy both wrote about love. Critics dismiss The Hunger Games as for children, but the themes of sacrifice and dystopian elements have as much merit as The Lords of the Flies. There is nothing inherently better about a book just because it’s old, nor because it’s written by a dead, white, European male.
The classics were made classics in large part because of snobbery, not quality. This isn’t to say that there’s no value to them — but it is to say that they do not hold the only value in literature.
So much of what we consider to be “classics” are only made so not because they have an inherently better quality of writing, but because they are older, because academics have attributed meaning to them, because others have said they are more important. But literature is art, and art is subjective. And a huge part of that subjectivity is wrapped up in who gets a say as to the quality of a work. For a long, long time, academia has been ruled by the same type of person — the same type that values those dead, white, European males.
I had wanted nothing more than to fit in when I started college, but the truth was I didn’t need to force myself into that mold. No one can determine what each individual gets from art. Having the confidence to claim what I saw as valuable in any piece of literature, regardless of what my professors esteemed, is what made me a true critic and academic.
As soon as I looked past my own prejudices, built up by years of academia and feelings of inadequacy, as soon as I admitted that I liked the things I liked, I not only found books that I truly enjoyed — I found meaning within those books that I never allowed myself to see before.
Acceptance is the first step — from there, I was able to define my own Masters in Literature course, convincing a professor to give me an independent study on fantasy literature.
And I started writing.
Not the weighty literary works the one (horrible) class I took in college on writing pushed me towards. No. I wrote about magic and spaceships. I wrote about new worlds and impossible things.
And through that, I found truths. I found themes of death and love and family worthy of Shakespeare himself.
We often forget — especially in academia — how much Shakespeare wrote for the people of his age, the commoners who roared at the dirty jokes and puns that are ignored by the academics enamored of iambic pentameter. He wrote popular things, contemporary, of his own age. He wrote for his people.
That’s the type of thing I’m reading, and the type of thing I’m writing. I want my books to be in that section of the bookstore.
The fun section. The section people actually want to read.
And sure, in a few hundred years, that section will be redefined. I’ll be long dead, maybe long forgotten, except — if I’m lucky — by a few academics who cling to my outdated dirty jokes and puns.