Friday, July 8, 2011

Friday Forum: Is there an ethics of reading?

The idea of the Friday Forum is to take some idea, issue, or story from the week, think about it a little, and then open it up for discussion. Last week's discussion of why we care about authors was fantastic, but it's a new week, so time for a new topic.

I saw a couple of posts this week that, while not on the same topic directly, both spoke to a larger issue.

First, from Rachel's post on reading guilt:
I read a lot. I read a lot of books that I’m pretty sure I’m going to like. When my constant refrain is “so many books, so little time,” doesn’t it make sense to choose books I’m pretty sure I will enjoy? How much obligation do I have – as a reader, as a book blogger, as a consumer – to discover and promote books that may not get as big of a voice as others because they come from small publishing houses or because they do not get as large a cut of the promotional pie in their big houses? And is the obligation to my readers, to authors who need the voice, or to myself ? Am I too comfortable in my reading choices? And is that okay?

Next, from Amy's thoughts on reading and diversity:
If your passion are the new big books I’m not saying you should abandon them, and I have nothing against people who read only review copies or only new books. But I do think, as Teresa said, that we all have to think about what our passions truly are and what we find important. We have to realize that these books are often white, heterosexual, cisgender, and North American or European. If you only request those books, what message is that sending to the publishers about what sells? Diverse books are being published (though not enough), so if new books are your passion there are still options to diversify if you are willing to try!

Both posts imply, quite correctly I think, that our reading time and attention as both social and economic value. Not only does what we read influence what gets published, but also what kinds of authors and ideas we let into our consciousness.
Rachel's concern about split "obligations" between her own pleasure, emerging authors, and her readers is a tacit acknowledgement that there is no single driver of our desire to be good readers: we do not serve one master when deciding what to read.

Amy uncovers a deep schism in our reading desires with this phrase: "we all have to think about what our passions truly are and what we find important." A couple of things are implicit here. First, the notion of obligation in the "have to." I don't think she is suggesting that we are in thrall to some external arbiter of our reading, but rather that in order to align our practice and our ideology, we must be watchful.

Second, the coordinated phrases "what our passions are" and "what we find important" shows that these two elements are not always the same: we sometimes sacrifice our passion in the service of a greater good and we sometimes forgo the "important" concern for something we enjoy.

Ideally, we would all buy, read, review, and champion books that we love to read and that serve the causes and ideas we care about. But, by and large, we oscillate between the two, sometimes reading for ourselves only and sometimes with an eye toward the wider world.

So my questions to you are the following:

Do you think about the impact of your reading outside of your own pleasure?

What reading "causes" do you care about and how do you express that care?

What balance do you strike? Mostly for yourself with the occasional forced reading of something you think important?

How much effort do you put into finding out about books outside of your immediate recommendation/exposure sources?


  1. Emily @ Reading While FemaleJuly 9, 2011 at 2:07 AM

    I try my absolute hardest to read books by authors from diverse backgrounds, including women, people of color, and LGBTQ people. I do this because I find that these books tend to be overlooked, but they are just as good as books by white straight cis-males. In fact, they are sometimes better, because I find that they are slightly less likely to be racist, sexist, or homophobic. I believe that society should be more equal and value the experiences and narratives of marginalized groups, so it makes sense that my reading habits would reflect that.
    I think where my reading habits fail to reflect my morals is that I don't usually read books by independent authors and other non-mainstream sources. This is mostly because I don't have very much money, so I usually read classics or other books that I can find at used bookstores, libraries, or on paperbackswap. I am also not as well connected as many book bloggers seem to be in the way of promotions, ARCs, and general book information. Most of the time I don't even know that indie books are happening until someone else reviews them, and even then I don't have enough money to buy new books.

  2. I don't give a second's thought to the impact my reading has outside of my own enjoyment. Except for this second right here. Since the classics are my main source of reading, a good amount of what I consume is written by men, but I'm not really bothered by that. I just go for what I like, or what I think I might like based on what others recommend to me. If the author happens to be this-that-or-the-other, I don't really care. I'll read any author. I'm not seeking out a particular "type" and I'm not avoiding one, either. 
    The only sort of guidance I give myself aside from just following my own taste is when it comes to modern lit, which I generally don't read. About once a month I reach out to other bloggers to get a modern lit recommendation because I want to stay a bit in touch with what people in the present are doing. But even these recommendations are from people I trust who know my taste, so that's not really outside my "immediate exposure sources." I guess all of this is to say, I like what I like and I'm comfortable with that. And when I find that taste changing, I'll be comfortable with that as well. 

  3. I never thought too much about reading outside my own pleasure until I started blogging. Now that I'm publicizing my reading habits, I feel more of a responsibility to be well-informed and well-rounded. This doesn't necessarily affect what I read as much as what I blog about. In other words, I'm still going to read the new Ann Patchett because I loved Bel Canto. But I'm not going to spend the time to write a full review of the book when everyone is already talking about it and it doesn't need any more exposure. On the other hand, if I read and love a book that not a lot of people are talking about, I'm going to make an effort to introduce it to my blog readers. This means I'll probably be blogging about books that traditionally get less exposure but that I enjoy -- literature in translation, short stories and books by debut authors. I don't think that all book bloggers have to share my same priorities. That's the beauty of the book blogger world. We have such varied interests.

  4. Interesting topics and discussion.  Cisgender is a new term for me.  Do you mean someone who is not transgendered?   

    My first obligation is to good books.  A book can be good even if its author is not a good person.  That said, some people are so bad that I will not read their books.  A book can also be good even if the values it presents are not.  That said there are some books with values so bad I will not read them.  I think reading books to learn more about certain groups or causes is fine, but reading books because they are by or about gay people, for example is more problematic.  I'm not convinced that reading books about gay people will improve our legal standing in America, for instance.  I do see that this has helped improve overall acceptance of gay people in America.  Truth be told, Harvey Milk and Kurt on Glee have booth done much to improve the lives of gay people in America. Books also play their part.

    But I'd be much happier if people read books with gay characters or books with gay authors because they are good than because they are gay.  I've no problem with books being used as a means to advance political causes.  However, the primary 'cause' of literature must always be an aesthetic one.  If not, aren't we then talking about propaganda instead of literature?

  5. Interesting post, thanks for furthering the discussion :) Personally I started reading more review copies and ya books because I was seeing them everywhere. The books that are important to me are the ones that I am passionate about - the African lit, the GLBTQ lit, etc. I find it hard to slide into the bestsellers when I really find I don't like them as much and am not as passionate about them. For me what is important is my passions. And I am always searching for new authors because I'm looking for the next gem - and finding lots of them!

  6. What's interesting is that is sometimes takes quite a bit of energy to avoid
    the popular books and turn to what you care about. There's a moral here

  7. I don't feel any obligation to read certain kinds of books - but I do feel obligated to try to make myself into the kind of person to whom a broad range of reading matter appeals. I try to use the library to read books by authors who have made a lot of money already, and to spend my book budget on ones that I'm pretty sure will be "keepers" and on those written by emerging writers and those publishing with small presses.  I'm a sucker for any book on the natural history of the place I'm livinig in or visiting,