One of my fondest memories of motherhood is of when my younger daughter, Phoebe, learned to read. It was bedtime, and her sister, her stepfather and I were settled in bed with our books. I kissed Phoebe good night and left the light on, and as I walked down the hall I heard her announce, “I am part of the reading family now!” (I felt good about my parenting, in a way I hadn’t since the incident, a few weeks previously, when, on our way to a doctor’s appointment, my other kid looked up at me with a sunny smile and announced, “Guess what I am not wearing today!”)
As an author and a lifelong reader, a girl who found refuge in books, I am glad that my children are part of the reading family. Many Americans are not. According to the Pew Foundation, almost a quarter of Americans said they had not read a book in the previous 12 months.
My guess is that school is to blame. Somewhere along the way, between “Beowulf” and Chaucer, people learned that reading was a slog and that literature consisted of books about characters who looked and sounded nothing like them, living in worlds that were nothing like their own. Reading was a duty and not a pleasure. And so, as soon as no one was forcing them to do it, they stopped.
The list of books that most schools still consider required reading — the canon, still heavy on dead, white, male authors — doesn’t help. Nor does the way some cultural gatekeepers, many of them proudly progressive and reflexively inclusive in other parts of their lives, seem invested in keeping the ranks of readers closed.
See, for example, Stephen Colbert’s recent treatment of the novels the Georgia politician Stacey Abrams wrote under the name Selena Montgomery. With salacious glee, and with a visibly uncomfortable Ms. Abrams beside him, Mr. Colbert read a sex scene from her novel “Reckless” on TV. She writes bodice rippers, was the joke, which played into layer upon layer of prejudice against women writers, women readers, women’s pleasure and women’s stories, especially when those stories are by, and about, women of color. Ha ha, sex! And also, lady-trash!
“There is a long history of using romance writing and, specifically, the writing of sex scenes as a way to discredit the woman who wrote them,” Courtney Milan, a romance writer and a former law professor, told me recently.
“Reckless,” which was published in 2008, is an especially challenging journey to happily ever after, given that its star-crossed African-American lovers were lawyer and the cop who pulls her over. Ms. Milan noted that the book was exceptional at the time because of its subject matter and its author’s identity.
Rebekah Weatherspoon, a romance writer and the head of Women of Color in Romance, said that “Reckless” and its on-camera mockery are part of what has historically been a “problematic narrative around black women’s autonomy over our bodies, over our sexuality, however we decide to express it. It seems to be up for public consumption and judgment.”
The jokes on TV were just the latest version of that judgment. “It was unnecessary in a way that hurt,” Ms. Weatherspoon said.
Compare the snickers at Ms. Abrams’s writing to the response to Pete Buttigieg’s reading. Mr. Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., Democratic presidential aspirant and current shiny new thing, told reporters that he learned Norwegian to read more from an author he’d discovered, whose work was not available in translation. Then he put James Joyce’s “Ulysses” at the top of 10 books he’d take to a desert island. Some people rolled their eyes at this; the literati swiftly leapt to his defense, some saying they’d rather reread Joyce than attempt a graphic novel.
When a politician or other public figure is asked to list his or her favorite books, it’s never just a list. It’s an answer to the question, Who do I want people to think I am?
Clearly, Mr. Buttigieg wants us to know that he is smart. “Ulysses” is a great book, a book that is firmly ensconced in the canon, but probably doesn’t end up in a lot of beach bags. I am ready to concede that Mr. Buttigieg is an outlier, a man who truly enjoys “Ulysses” and expects that other readers will dig it, but it is not a book that many people read for fun.
So what does it say when progressives are putting a difficult, forbidding book, and the candidate who praises it, on a pedestal while, at the same time, we’re laughing at the books that many, many readers enjoy and using steamy, context-free snippets to take the women who write them down a peg or two?
At this point you may be asking: Isn’t it better to have politicians who read hard books than a president who doesn’t read at all?
And the answer is yes. Of course. Absolutely. It is appalling to me that the man in the White House seems to read absolutely nothing — not literature, not best sellers, not his security briefings, not even, if his co-authors can be believed, the books he has ostensibly written. I dearly miss President Barack Obama’s summer reading lists and the glimpse they gave us into his mind.
But let’s be honest: If President Trump doesn’t like to read and can’t come up with a book to recommend, that makes him pitiable to much of literary Twitter. It also makes him totally relatable to a lot of America.
If progressives really have inclusion as our goal, shame won’t help. When we laugh at Selena Montgomery’s sex scenes or take shots at “relatable” stories or “likable” heroines or dismiss mysteries or fantasies, there are readers who hear us condemning them. When we mock nonreaders or books we see as less-than, we do Mr. Trump’s work for him.
As the 2020 election approaches, all the candidates should have a chance to talk about the books they love. In the best of all worlds, their answers should tell us something about how they think and who they are and whose stories and voices have shaped them.
I hope the next person to answer talks about the pleasures of reading and how every book counts, that whether you love the tough classic from the canon or graphic novels or even bodice rippers, you, too, are a member of the reading family. Because progressives gain nothing — in politics or in publishing — by laughing at anyone’s books.
Jennifer Weiner is the author of the forthcoming novel “Mrs. Everything” and a contributing opinion writer.
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