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Sifting Through the Response to ‘Bieber Is Not a Reading Level’

Among some very predictable messages and e-mails I got in response to Monday’s RedEye column, “Bieber is not a reading level,” I did get one e-mail with which I totally agree. A fellow RedEye reporter named Georgia wrote to me:

Just wanted to let you know that I liked your column but felt you overlooked one key element of the debate. In your list of “read these” books, you didn’t include one written by a female writer. But the “Hunger Games” trilogy (and the “Twilight” books) were written by a woman. It’s possible that women, particularly young women, aren’t feeling their voices reflected in the works of people like Vonnegut or Nabokov. Not saying that trite crap like “Twilight” is good just because it’s written by a woman, but there is obviously something missing. I’d have liked to see you mention a woman in your list of books or at least give a nod to the possibility that women have something to contribute to the literary landscape beyond tween romances.

And she’s absolutely right. Reading back over the column in its final published version, it dawned on me that I had singled out books written only by women to deride and only by men to praise. I have no excuse for this except to say that the examples of Tweenization are driven by female writers (again, this is not the author’s faults or the teenage girls who read them) while my favorite books happen to all be written by men. I wrote back to Georgia and told her honestly that if I had to do it over again, I would have included on that list “Beloved” by Toni Morrison and “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” by Marisha Pessl.

I regret that I didn’t because I do try to read female authors, especially in the last five years after I noticed how few books by women I actually read.

My point remains, however, and in sifting through the half-literate responses from both the column’s detractors and admirers, I find it kinda funny that they failed to see the irony in writing a sentence about what an “elitist” I am with half the words misspelled and the punctuation looking like my three-year-old nephew came by for a rewrite. There was also a demonstrable lack of understanding rhetorical points. You know how in fifth grade you had those homework sheets where you had to read the paragraph and then answer questions about what the author was saying?

Here’s what I wasn’t saying: I was not saying that Tween books shouldn’t exist, nor was I saying that teenagers shouldn’t read them in order to “open them up to the other possibility of other great books” (yikes). I wasn’t even saying that adults shouldn’t read them, and I openly admitted I read plenty of junk. What I was saying is this: adults’ obsession with books intended for 14-year-olds is a bit pathetic and obnoxious. Believe me, I feel a smidgen of shame when I’m reading my junk in public, so go ahead and guilty pleasure read, yes, just actually feel the appropriate amount of actual guilt.

Secondly, If you want to call a guy who has just his B.A. and who lived for most of 2011 on an income of less than $300 a week an “elitist” by all means go ahead, but wow, are we ratcheting down the standards for that word. The propagation of the word “elitist” strikes right at the heart of many of our current predicaments: it is now a desirable social and political trait to be a f***ing idiot. Interesting.

Imagine for a second that you’re an architect and you study buildings and structures because you want to build them nicer, better, stronger, and cheaper, yet all around you see a proliferation of wasteful, badly constructed strip malls that blow apart in tornadoes like plastic bombs going off. Wouldn’t you say to people, “Hmmm, you know there’s a better way to build stuff. Here it is.”

That’s how I feel about adults reading an abundance of junk books intended for Tweens. Sure, once in a while it’s fine to build a shitty structure, but why would you want it to be the only building you ever set foot in? This is what people who read exclusively junk are missing: there are a lot of really, really, really great books out there, and if you’re not at least attempting to experience them, if you’re living your whole life in this awful strip mall of chintzy crap, you’re missing out, man. You really are.