While enjoying a coffee with a friend and colleague, we happened upon the topic of books and what is on our personal bookshelves. I confessed that anyone entering my home would see an overwhelming amount of romance novels bulging from overstuffed bookshelves.
In fact, at home, I’ve organized the bookcases in a way that might say a lot about how society is perceived to judge reading topics and those who read certain genres. The bookshelves closest to “foot traffic” house literary classics, and a variety of nonfiction titles (biographies, how-to books, child rearing, fitness, professional titles, etc.). That way, at first glance, guests or acquaintances aren’t immediately introduced to the romance collection. Why?
Going back to my coffee date, my colleague, a well-respected member of our profession who holds a PhD and various other degrees, expressed a wise sentiment; we have nothing to prove by what we read, and our reading habits certainly don’t prove how intelligent we are. Eureka! This is an idea that should be shouted from the tops of libraries, schools, bookstores and homes. We choose our reading material to fit our needs at the moment. Our favorite genres, like romance, continue to be read more frequently because they are familiar, comfortable, and strike a chord that resonates within us. For example, when reading a romance in the summer months, I am always filled with a sense of nostalgia for my teenage years. Having discovered Harlequin romance novels in my mid-teens, I’d spend hours reading on my grandma’s front porch, with the hum of lawn mowers and the singing of birds to keep my company. We all have stories like that.
So let’s revisit my bookshelves and their strategic placement in my home. I’m not sure if the original plan was to organize in a way that biased or influenced guests’ opinions of my reading habits, but it certainly developed into a cognisant awareness. This is where the reading habits of professionals enters the equation. As a professional, should we feel defensive about our choice of reading? Are there different expectations placed on professionals, such as doctors, lawyers, librarians and teachers, to read books that are considered higher-brow or more educational? As a professional, am I expected to read a higher quantity of non-fiction for pleasure because it is expected?
Instead of a female librarian, let’s try this with a well-respected, world-renowned surgeon. You are fortunate enough to be invited to his home and when you enter, you see bookshelves lining the walls full of…graphic novels and fantasy fiction? Or, biographies, medical texts and literary classic? In your mind, what did you anticipate and expect? Why? If there were two surgeons, one with shelves full of graphic novels and the other with literary classics, would you judge their professional abilities differently?
One last scenario to share with you. A cataloguer is responsible for the cataloguing of popular fiction, the majority being either romance or mystery. When a romance novel that borders on Erotica or “mommy porn” crosses her desk, she always writes “SMUT” on the instructions for the processor. As a joke, of course. While this comment never makes it into the record and is never indicated on the book, it does indicate her views on material that is not to her taste. And, in fact, while it is an ongoing joke, she has a true distaste for this genre. It is not respected. What if you are her colleague, supervisor or director and your greatest pleasure is to sit down with an erotica novel and enjoy the escape it give you? Should you hide it? Apologize for it? Defend it? If your enjoyment of these novels becomes public knowledge, will it impact how your staff and colleagues view your intellect and expertise as a librarian?
We often talk about reading as a social or personal experience. The way we share our reading experiences and how we choose our genres are often based on life-experiences, interest and personality. For example, I am not a very social reader and am almost never influenced by a bestsellers list or ratings list. Also, I find romance – lighthearted chic-lit and regency romance – especially enjoyable after reading professional articles and journals. It’s a way to escape and relax. Am I alone in this? I highly doubt it.
Are professionals subject to more criticism and judgement when choosing their leisure reading? Are there biases within our society that impact or influence the reading habits of professionals or at least with whom they share those interests? I think so. However, I will go back to my friend’s words and emphasize, for all of us, that our reading preferences do not reflect our intellectual abilities and we have no need to apologize for what we choose to read.