In one of my first seminars at university we were asked to say our favourite book. I became almost frozen with panic. As the room was filled with texts I had never heard of or hadn’t gotten round to, I tried to scrape the hollows of my brains to find a text that would sound semi-decent.
Lolita by Vladmir Nabokov. That was what I managed to choke out, and hoped would be enough to validate my space in that room. It wasn’t a Yeats collection of poetry or an obscure 18th century writer, but it was a Russian author that I did genuinely like. And I hoped this would be enough to help me blend into a room full of intellectuals I felt intimidated by.
This anxiety was not always a part of my student existence. As this is a safe space, I will admit to you now: I was a book snob. From fifteen to eighteen I read voraciously – albeit at a very surface level – as many of those books that you’d see on a ‘50 classics everyone should read before they die’ kind of list.
And then I aspired to be more pretentious.
Flaubert, Nabokov’s lesser known novels, Icelandic sagas for a brief period. If there’s one thing to know about me – I don’t do things by halves. And thus, the snobbiest, YA-hating teenager was born.
Over two years later, I want to laugh at the naivety, but instead it makes me feel sad. Sad that I felt so much innumerable pressure on my shoulders to fill shoes that never suited me the first time. It doesn’t matter what anyone reads, it doesn’t matter what you read – that is partially the beauty of reading.
A book is entirely personal to that person. And thus, every reading experience will be entirely personal. So what if someone’s escapism comes from a different genre to you? What if Twilight is the book that brought them the most joy? Or made them realise how much they loved reading?
The debate between high and low literature is one that continues to confuse and excite me – it is slowly changing and yet the academy does not move fast enough. The Canon is widening but it appears to be doing so in millimeters. What I am excited for is for people to read these fundamental texts – things like Pride and Prejudice, Crime and Punishment, anything by Charles Dickens – because of genuine interest and not because it can be a piece of dinner party talk.
The difference between a book snob and a classics lover is evident when you have met both types of person. I would list names off – probably with terrible pronunciation – without truly being able to say anything of interest about those books before. And yet now I can sit here and tell you what I love about James Baldwin, and in the same breath talk about how much I adored This Time Next Year by Sophie Cousens. The key of a true reader is not simply how much they have read, but what they can tell you about those books.