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This is in response to this conversation about what American teenagers read (Harry Potter and Twilight, apparently, gaaaasp!) that was going on on tumblr recently. If you’re not familiar with the platform, I’m sorry, I know it’s confusing; suffice it to say that’s only a little piece of the conversation I’ve linked you to there on OuyangDan’s tumblog. Also, I had originally intended this post for tumblr, so it’s more ramble style than my usual!

My mother says that I taught myself to read when I was three. I remember teaching the other kids to read in kindergarten. I was reading George Orwell at 7 (Dinah Glass from The Demon Headmaster liked it, okay?!). As a kid, I was the subject of frequent pleas to stop reading and go play. My bookshelf has everything from Murasaki Shikibu to James Joyce. I read, and I read “smart” books, and I always have. [1]

Why do I have to establish that? Because that way I get to set myself up as a smart young lady who knows what she’s talking about when she’s talking about literature, not one of those silly giggly teenagers clutching The Princess Diaries books to her chest. The thing is, I am one of those teens. I’m no more a one-dimensional smart girl in glasses tucking into some theory book than I am a silly one reading books with pink and glitter on the covers when I pick up a book at all. (Actually, I haven’t been in the habit of using the word ‘girl’ to describe myself at all for some time, but that’s by the by.) Those creatures are called stereotypes.

I also read picture books. And folktales from around the world. I’ve got Shirley Barber books and Winnie-the-Pooh. I’ve got several Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants books. I love Emily Rodda’s stuff, and Eoin Colfer’s, and I’m presently rereading Harry Potter (you better believe I own Quidditch Through the Ages and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, too). I generally don’t tell people about those, because what’s a smart girl like you doing reading books like that, YA and fairytales and picture books, for goodness sake? After borrowing The Princess Diaries books from the library, I used to take them out hidden under my jumper because I was that embarrassed about reading books that clearly directed at girls/young women. I was ashamed of being associated with those kinds of people, who would read that kind of thing. Because, as my friend Anna points out, teen girl stuff is held to be inconsequential where it’s not grating.

I read what I read because I enjoy reading what I read. Once you’ve figured out if that sentence is actually grammatically correct and if it actually means what you think it means, it’s as simple as that.

I really resent the idea that someone’s more valuable because of what they read. I need hardly point out that not everyone is able to read. As such, associating reading with some kind of inherent worth really gets to me. Not everyone has access to reading materials, or a variety of reading materials. Lots of people are actively discouraged from reading because it’s not cool or some such. Lots of people don’t have the spare time. And, of course, there’s no shame in wanting to spend time on something else. People aren’t necessarily smarter or more knowledgable or better if they’re readers, or because they read certain kinds of things.

There’s a particular trend in the challenging of teenagers’ reading choices. Everything teenagers read – or everything teenagers are supposedly reading – is baaaaad. It’s immoral! Or it’s sapping their minds! Or they could be reading something better! say the older folk. We must question where such valuation of these books comes from. Is there something particularly wrong with Harry Potter or Twilight? Well, arguably, indeed, as with any books, and certainly a lot of attention has been devoted to issues with those two series. That’s why conversations and critiques are necessary. But those are problematic elements we’re talking about, whereas the assertion tends to be that there’s inherently something wrong with reading those kinds of books. I think there are plenty of reasons to not like the books – no one’s under any obligation to like a book! – but using it’s bad because young folk like it! and young folk like it because it’s bad! to justify dislike is very poor form indeed. Telling young folk they ought to be avoiding the books they read – the books they enjoy – entirely is really bizarre, however dubious the benefits may seem to some.

And then, of course, once teens graduate into 20-somethings, people get to snigger at them for reading pretentious books – look. It might be an idea to let people – yes, including young people, who are quite capable of making such decisions, and are in fact proper people, too – follow their own inclinations in selecting reading material and not shake your head at them for it. How’s that for an idea?

Now, I’m going to get back to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Ooh, and I’ve been meaning to borrow some of Rainer Maria Rilke’s work from the library for some time…

[1] Truth told, I read cereal packaging if it’s the only thing on hand, I love reading!!