I’ll let you in on a secret.
I’ve never felt that I’ve been “well read” enough to be an English major.
Let’s face it- English majors are often literary elitists. They scoff at reading King Lear or The Wife of Bath in Brit Lit 201 because they’ve already done in it high school. They line up to take that voluntary Shakespeare class. They’ll respond to something that happens with the phrase “Oh, that’s very (enter author’s name here).”
It’s intimidating, and often discouraging, when you’re the only one who has to read The Great Gatsby sophomore year of college in a single night because everyone else had to pick it up in high school (and in eleventh grade I was saddled with an English teacher who blatantly ignored the required reading list). Four years after choosing my major I’m writing my senior thesis on Harry Potter, and I still get the occasional scoffs and eye-rolls, because what I’m working with is “not real literature.” There’s a real anxiety when older people ask who my favorite authors are and I just think they’re not going to understand when I say Rowling, Rowell, Clare, and Armentrout.
After expressing my hidden concerns to my very professor that is overseeing my senior thesis and who has never read Harry Potter, she advised me that I really needed to “free myself” from the social anxiety and stigma of how much canonical literature I’ve read. She said even among faculty and PhD students the elitism is there, but that it is often not a reflection of the intellectual level, or academic performance, of most people. Who gets to decide what’s in the canon anyways? And why is there such stigma about what can be added? Why is there such as fear of children’s literature that it’s now given its own awards and lists so that it doesn’t compete with other literature? And how can reading contemporary be any less valid than classical, when one day contemporary texts may very well be “canonical?”
It’s not that I detest literature from the canon. In fact, I’m reading a Steinbeck novel right now and really enjoying it. It’s that I’ve always gravitated toward reading things that interested me, and that I could relate to, rather than reading so that I can brag about my extensive experience with classical literature. I’m so tired of arbitrary lists that deem “100 Best Books of All Time” by whose standards my literary experience are measured against. Reading canonical books did not foster my love for reading, rather reading the books that caught my eye and absorbed me more than any form of film or music could is what made me a voracious reader. And maybe for some people those books were Catcher in the Rye and Romeo and Juliet, but for me they were Harry Potter, The Princess Diaries, and Walk Two Moons. And now in my spare time I want to indulge in books of my preferred genre (YA and Adult fiction) rather than trying to achieve some intangible status of being “well read” because of how many books I’ve read off of a certain list.
Am I the only one who feels this way? I think that being “well read” is an extremely subjective term and I’d say I’d base it off of the amount of texts and the amount of engagement individuals have with those texts, rather than what those texts are. What do you think the term “well read” means? Have you ever faced social or academic stigma because of what you’ve read? Do you find yourself pushing to read more “classical literature,” or is your TBR list determined by your own whims and preferences? Do you think there should be more variation in the books students read in school? Let me know in the comments- I think these are important questions that merit important discussions!