“Should’ve Read the Book” Elitism

'Augustus Waters dies - should have read the book!' t shirt

I like to think I’m a pacifistic and generally nice person, but if one thing makes me want to start throwing furniture it’s people being snobbish and awful to each other in totally unnecessary areas. One of these is most definitely the brand of elitism that comes from people who read books looking down on those who don’t. I mean come on, there are far more grievous issues in this tumultuous world of ours, and you’re making the time to turn up your nose at people who take interest in non-novel forms of entertainment?

It’s a huge and stupid problem that manifests itself in all kinds of forms, reinforced naturally enough in a lot of fictional character types and translating into the real world. It’s almost a classist thing, if you trace its roots back to past eras where only the privileged were literate. Or perhaps it stems from the (perfectly grounded, if you end up among the wrong crowd of cranky schoolkids) stereotype of people being teased for being bookish, causing said bookish people to retaliate and want to protect their safe space, or take the opportunity to rise up and be the bully they always feared. For the record, not everyone does this. As with most forms of isms, it’s only a select and vocal percentage that manage to ruin it for everyone else. But it is something that’s ingrained in us as readers, I think, whether we notice it or not.

A lot of book heroes, for example, are book readers. There’s nothing wrong with this, and it’s totally cool as it gives the real-world book readers an immediate connection with the character because, whatever magic or adventure might make their lives different, at least they share a hobby. And reading is one of those fantastically immersive hobbies, essentially and easily becoming a way of life. However, the distinction we should make is that it’s those who love stories that share this love, not just those who read (though obviously in things written before movies and the internet and stuff, that’s not an option), and also enforce that your heroes can be perfectly relatable and lovable even if they can’t get through a book.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Because not everyone can. Consider dyslexics, for whom all reading is a huge effort, but also people with a less diagnosable battle with reading. Some people just don’t read, whether it’s a matter of attention span, being unable to get into it or visualise things from the written word. This doesn’t make them any less intelligent, and it certainly doesn’t make them any less able to fall in love with stories. Levi from Fangirl is possibly the first book character I’ve come across (with a possible exception of Dolphin from The Illustrated Mum, who actually turned out to be dyslexic) that doesn’t deal well with books. The heroine does a double take at this since she’s a huge reader and has, subconsciously or otherwise, associated reading with intellect her whole life. That is not the case—Levi is a perfectly sharp person with an appreciation for storytelling (not to mention a wonderful spaghetti noodle of a love interest), he just can’t wrap his brain around the written word.

And that’s something we should clarify more often, in fiction and out. Whether it’s books in general or just some stories—hell, Jane Austen writes some ripping dramas, love quadrangles and pathos and societal comment to boot, but not everyone (myself included) can get their head around her writing style to get to that. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with going to see movie adaptations to get the story without the stuffy prose, except of course that you may run into a bunch of book snobs in the process.

While we’re talking about classical elitism, it would be almost rude not to mention the great irony that is Shakespeare, because his writing was never meant to be read in the first place. They’re stage plays written for a rowdy mosh pit of Elizabethans, so poring over them in script form is never the way they were intended to be enjoyed. Not to say you’re not allowed to enjoy them in the written form, it just doesn’t necesscarily make you able to enjoy them more or see their true meaning. Of course, if you’re complaining about people giving you spoilers for Romeo and Juliet at this point, I admit I have little sympathy for you, but only because our pop culture is so obsessed and saturated with Shakespeare that you don’t have to get bogged down in the playscript to immerse yourself in the stories. And again, they’re fantastic stories, full of murder and love and intrigue and inappropriate humour, and you may as well take them in in a medium that suits you and lets them have their full impact. You do not get a gold star for having read the books first or instead of the films or stage versions, and certainly not a free pass to be rude to people who haven’t.

Romeo and Juliet

But literature snobs reign in all genres, and comics certainly aren’t immune if that whole Fake Geek Girl thing is any indication. I know jack-all about the Marvel comics (except for tidbits I pick up from WB, for instance, did you know in one universe Iron Man’s suit comes to life, carries him to a deserted island and becomes his abusive digital boyfriend? You do now) but am perfectly capable of enjoying the movies as art pieces in and of themselves. The fact is, we have to hack down the prickly fence of ‘true fans’ vs ‘new fans’ where it pops up, and just band together in mutual enjoyment of the subject matter.

Reading voraciously is good for your brain, but it doesn’t automatically make you smarter or better than people who watch movies or TV (or read comics, because for every comic geek berating a movie-only viewer, there’s a book snob berating a comic geek for only having the childish brain for visual storytelling) instead. Some of the best analytical writing I’ve seen has been about TV, and generally it brings together a wider audience that can talk to each other and pick it apart more easily than books, simply because of its medium and style of distribution.

Yes, there are a lot of god-awful book-to-movie adaptations, and if viewers miss out on the story’s potential due to only seeing the film, that is a loss. But it’s also no reason to be an ass to them. Just don’t be an ass to people in general, that’s a good place to start. Set out with a pitchfork to kill the stigma that those who read are more intelligent and worthy of praise than those who don’t, especially where it appears in YA ‘she was different from Those Other Girls who were all shopping/ he was different from Those Other Boys who were all playing football, because s/he drank tea and read and was trapped in a place where his/her superior intelligence will never be appreciated’ stories, because lord. This is not the message we need to give pre-teens, or they’ll grow up to be those self-described assholes who made that The Fault in Our Stars shirt.

Read a book if you want to, watch a movie if you want to, flip through comics, marathon TV series, appreciate the different nuances of storytelling in its many forms and just have fun immersing yourself in fiction. You don’t even have to pick a favourite, and you certainly don’t have to tape the tip of your nose to your forehead when it comes to dealing with people that don’t or can’t agree. Drink some chamomile tea, for crying out loud.



1 Comment

Filed under Things We Need to Stop Doing

One response to ““Should’ve Read the Book” Elitism

  1. While I can relate to people who don’t read about as well as people who don’t breathe, I agree–this kind of snobbery is obnoxious. Ditto for people who claim audio books aren’t really ‘reading,’ or e-books and graphic novels not being ‘real’ books.

    People should just respect what other people love.

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