Reading between the lines: Elitism in the reading community is toxic

Photo of popular books by Niamh Brennan

It’s midnight. You’re under the bedcovers, flashlight illuminating the pages of a book — your eyes swim with exhaustion, and your hands shake, but by god, you’re going to finish this chapter. 

You’re driving to work. But you get a notification that your favorite fanfiction is finally updated, so you run a few minutes late to quickly read the new chapter while still in your car.

The professor in class mentions Dante’s Inferno — and you sit up straighter because you once went down a rabbit hole of research one night, and now you’re obsessed.

We all love stories — that’s a human thing. But books bring people together in a particular way. And over the last few years, reading has become more popular than ever. 

If you’re wondering why that is, think back to the smell of bleach and the smothering of an ever-present mask. COVID did give rise to at least one good thing, though — books! 

A reasonable alternative to mind-numbing boredom and oppressive anxiety, reading as a hobby rose exponentially in popularity through the pandemic. Inspiring social media like “BookTok” and elevating archiving sites such as Goodreads, books were something that people connected over. 

But where there are nerds, there will be gatekeeping as well. Elitism in literature looks like a person sneering at “bubblegum”, lighter-read novels, then bragging about their latest read from an obscure Russian author they still can’t seem to pronounce. As Alexander Pope said, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” Given this environment of elitism, it’s no wonder that people would prefer not to share what they’re reading.

Is this elitism a movement, though? Higher education in the literature departments says it’s just a phase. They’ll grow out of it. And contrary to gatekeeping, literary professors have no qualms about what or why you’re reading. They just care that you’re reading.

But if you’re still worried about validating your book choice, have no fear. Professor Ann Campbell, Chair of the English Literature department, Jane Austen Society leader and all-around bookish advocate, has your back. 

Professor Campbell, an active literary community member, insists that all reading is equal. “I think that’s one of the things studying literature and reading stories does—it quiets your mind and opens it to other ideas, other stories. And I don’t care what the book is; honestly, the goal is to give people tools to read. So they go out there and have their own reading life.”

Two genres are dominating the bookshelves right now: fantasy and romance. 

The Atlantic printed an article with the quote about why we lie about what we’re reading, and it’s because we want to be relevant, intelligent and cultured.

 “Reading big books, and lying about reading those books, is all part of some mental competition…On one hand, we have big, painful books we feel compelled to see through to the end. On the other, the books we’ve sort of read and glibly lie about having finished,” the article reads. Or maybe we just don’t want to be mocked for our book choice. Two genres are dominating the bookshelves right now: fantasy and romance. Coincidentally, those are the two genres readers most often feel embarrassed or ashamed to admit. 

So why are romance novels so popular right now? Professor Campbell says it’s the lack of social integration. We live in a time where, despite the influx of social media, we feel isolated — a fact only emphasized by the lingering trauma of COVID-19.

 More than ever right now, we seek to feel a positive connection with the people around us. As professor Campbell says, the Shakespearean truism goes that a comedy ends in marriage and a tragedy ends in death — marriage (in spirit if not actuality) signifies the completion of that social integration, that connection between self and community. 

Similarly, fantasy offers an escape from the conflict and trauma of our everyday lives and a sense of joy and wonder. It’s not just an escape to another world. It’s a reframing of our lives. Books make you see the world differently because you are different once you read them. 

So, what’s next down the printed pipeline in terms of popularity? If we use the same logic explaining why romance and fantasy are so popular, the next “best thing” in reading genres is science fiction and true crime. 

Of course, it can be hard to read sometimes. The average student’s emotional bandwidth is short: attention spans have the lifespan of an iced coffee on a Monday morning. So, if you can manage to crack the spine of a book, you’re already doing your brain a service. 

Reading gives your mind the same rest as meditation (except it’s a lot less tedious). So, whatever draws your attention is not only valid but also exceptional. Whether it be romance, true crime, or even fanfiction — it doesn’t matter. 

Professor Campbell’s words ring true, “Reading is fantastic for anyone—all the time. Whatever you’re absorbed in, you’re absorbed in a story. You’re in that other world. You’re taking yourself out of the strife and stress. You’re resetting your mind. Whatever you’re reading — read on.”

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