Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Our reading biases

In the case of The House of the Seven Gables, I know perfectly well why I have never read it -- I hate people from Massachusetts...
Joe Queenan, One  for the Books

OK, so maybe we are remarkably free of bias when it comes to people of other races, other religions and other sexual preferences, but chances are there is one area where our prejudices come through, and that is in our reading. However much we may read, we can still read only so many books in one lifetime, and so we must make choices. We must discriminate, even if our reading biases, like the one Joe Queenan expresses above, don't always make sense.

Queenan actually mentions quite a number of reading biases in One for the Books. "I will not read books where the main character attended private school," he writes. A little bit later, he says, "I also will not read books by P.G. Wodehouse, a poncey aristocrat who played footsie with the Nazis during the fall of France." Still later, "I avoid at all costs books about melancholy WASPs, teens with social anxiety disorders, and immigrants who simply will not take no for an answer."

He says he started to read David Benioff's novel City of Thieves with enthusiasm, but decided he didn't like it on page two when the narrator reveals that his grandfather, the story's main character, came to America after the war and became a Yankee fan. Queenan thinks the character should have become a Dodger fan, and his choice of teams ruined the whole book for him. He adds, "I also refuse to read books whose characters or authors have any affiliation whatsoever with the Dallas Cowboys, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Duke University men's basketball team, the University of Southern California football team, or Manchester United, the Yankees' vile, English, soccer-playing twin."

Queenan may be a master of overstatement, but I suspect his reading prejudices are real, just as they are real for most of the rest of us. These prejudices may or may not make sense, but they do, in a way, serve a vital purpose. They significantly lighten the task we face, when entering a bookstore or library, of finding something to read. When we can instantly eliminate certain authors and certain topics from consideration, it makes our choices so much easier. Sadly, however, it means we deny ourselves the pleasure of reading some very fine books, like, for example, City of Thieves and almost anything by Wodehouse.

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