Virginia Woolf draws a line between ‘learners’ and ‘readers’ in how they treat books:
“A learned man is a sedentary, concentrated solitary enthusiast, who searches through books to discover some particular grain of truth upon which he has set his heart. If the passion for reading conquers him, his gains dwindle and vanish between his fingers. A reader, on the other hand, must check the desire for learning at the outset; if knowledge sticks to him well and good, but to go in pursuit of it, to read on a system, to become a specialist or an authority, is very apt to kill what it suits us to consider the more humane passion for pure and disinterested reading.”
I’ve always prided myself on being a reader, but to my horror I might be slipping into becoming a “learned man” without realizing it. My heart might have courted some grain of truth without giving notice to my consciousness. If you asked me why I preferred reading certain books over others, I’d think it a rather dumb question: because I like certain kinds of books and dislike others. I doubt whether “pure and disinterested” reading is ever possible – you won’t catch me reading about art history or botany anytime soon.
But as it turns out, I’m also a hipster. Or not: that’s just the most common word I could find to describe someone who doesn’t do things for the sole reason that said things are popular. Which is weird, because “hipster” refers to someone who likes hip things. So maybe there’s popular, then there’s hip, then there’s what people like me like, which is to read stuff that nobody else happens to be reading at the moment.
I don’t go out and search for obscurity for obscurity’s sake, but for some reason a part of me is strongly against reading authors such as Coelho, Gaiman, and Murakami, or series such as The Hunger Games or Twilight, for the sole reason that said novels are popular. Oh, maybe there are other reasons, which I use as excuses. As a kid I fell asleep reading the first few pages of The Alchemist. I sometimes assume this defensive stance and tone of voice when telling people how Hunger Games is just an expy of Battle Royale. And regarding Twilight, I give the standard answer if queried about it, in the interest of preventing my balls from shrinking to half their size: I haven’t read those books because of their asinine writing, gaping plotholes, and because I’m not a thirteen year old girl.
I’m not going to say those are lame excuses, because they aren’t. But they’re excuses. I’m more than curious about Hunger Games, what with my Facebook wall being spammed every single day by allusions to it. I don’t know why I haven’t read anything by Gaiman, or Murakami; close friends rave to me about how thought-provoking Murakami is, and ever since my Philosophy professor showed us a quick graphic novel based off Gaiman’s short story Babycakes, imagining a future where one day all animals suddenly disappear and babies are instead raised like livestock, I’ve been convinced that Gaiman is worth reading. It’s not that I have no access: Gaiman can be found everywhere, and my older sister collects Murakami books faster than Murakami can write them. It’s not that I’m not interested in them, as shown above. But every mention of those authors and books, cultural symbols of my generation, evokes in me an uncontrollable condescension, accompanied by an odd feeling of superiority. Superiority in deliberate ignorance. The perversely good feeling that I’m not reading what everybody else is reading (with the consequence of not being able to relate whenever these authors and books come up in conversation.)
Maybe I’m selecting books in a manner which enables me to feel good about myself. I’m a ‘learned man’ who continually learns about how not to be able to relate to anyone else.
I know for a fact that it wasn’t like this when I was a kid. My dad’s colleague at work lent me a copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. At my age, I was unaware of any repute that might already have latched itself onto the Harry Potter series. I wasn’t even aware that there was a first book, Sorcerer’s Stone. As far as my innocent kid self was concerned, somebody had lent me an interesting-looking book, which I read and liked. From then on I proceeded to read the first book, and then Prisoner of Azkaban, all the way until Deathly Hallows. It wasn’t until a couple of books into the series that Harry Potter transformed from -mere- “bestseller” into astounding cultural phenomenon. Five books into the series or so, I began to meet people who turned their noses up at Harry Potter, and of course I couldn’t understand why.
If theHarry Potter series had instead taken off right this very minute rather than years ago, I am absolutely sure I would involuntarily sneer at the series and its fandom, the movies and the merchandise and the paraphernalia, just like I sneer now at Hunger Games, unable to check the desire for ‘learning’, unwilling to roll back my perceived ‘gains’ from being such a hipster. Because, you know, I’m not a real reader who reads things just for the hell of reading them.
Otherwise I would’ve read Twilight by now, just because.