I’ve worn the title of bookworm proudly since I was a kid. My brother and sister used to tease me with the phrase, inferring that I was a nerd or somehow not cool because my nose was always buried in a book, but I’ve secretly always cherished the title. In fact, the running joke in my family is that when I’m reading a book, the entire house could be burning down around me, and I wouldn’t even realize it. Starting with The Babysitter’s Club, my love for reading crept across my life over the years—like ivy, slowly, but simply and beautifully. At age 28, I’ve probably read enough tomes to fill a small library (and my New York studio apartment resembles one).
And yet, there are a few blind spots in my reading repertoire. Working in media in New York City and calling myself an avid reader has brought them more to light. It’s in this world that I find myself questioned or even challenged about the books I have—or haven’t—read. In the realm of a writer (especially in Manhattan), certain titles are included in work meetings or even everyday conversation; dinner party chatter is brimming with references to “the classics,” and there’s a certain pressure to automatically get those references, even if you weren’t an English lit major. And while I know enough to carry on this literary banter (and may have even convincingly pretended to be in the know when I wasn’t) here is my confession: I’ve never actually read many of those classics.
I suppose I should be embarrassed by the fact that I’ve never read Ulysses, The Grapes of Wrath, or Slaughterhouse Five, or that my knowledge of Shakespeare is admittedly limited. I should probably hang my head in shame that I tossed aside the last Franzen novel in favor of Me Before You and once spent a summer reading the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy (and possibly re-reading it…) instead of catching up on a classics bucket list. But the truth is: I’m not ashamed.
For me, reading is an act of pleasure. The way I see it, you only live once. So you only get one shot at filling your life with the kinds of joyful, delightful reads that make you want to hug the book to your chest after you finish the last page because you’re filled with an aching longing for more. Why would I force myself to read a dusty classic that someone in some ancient university office in the middle of nowhere once deemed mandatory when, instead, I could pick a novel so delicious—and relatable to me—that I’ll never forget it?
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Don’t get me wrong. There are certain “classic” reads in the literary canon that I did make it a point to read. But those were chosen carefully, with purpose, like flowers in my personal, lifelong bouquet of books. As a woman of color, I knew that works by Morrison, Allende, and Angelou were mandatory for my own personal growth; after The Great Gatsby became my all-time favorite in high school, I happily gobbled up all things Fitzgerald and later, by extension, Hemingway and the rest of The Lost Generation. But while the words of many other authors keep me company on my bookshelves—everyone from Adichie to Weiner takes up residence on my walls—here is the honest truth: I have never read The Sound and the Fury, Catch-22, or A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. I read the CliffsNotes versions of Animal Farm and 1984 in high school—but *gasp* never went back to read the originals as an adult. I’ll likely never get to All The King’s Men, or Lord of the Flies, or Darkness at Noon, but I just finished The Nest and The Assistants and this summer, I can’t wait to get my hands on Sweetbitter and The Girls. Sorry, George Orwell, but you’re on my backburner, maybe permanently.
So go ahead, readers. Break out your pitchforks, burn the books you consider trash on my shelves, and strip me of my bookworm title. Because you know what? I’m ok with that. While the professors and book snobs of the world might be judging me because of what I may (or may not) have read, I’ll be snuggled up with my next great read—no matter who it was written by, smiling because it matters to me.
Featured image: Liz Casal