Dispatches | July 02, 2014

By Rachel Rowsey

Last week, in a room full of people who’d chosen to work at a literary magazine, I heard the question, “What is everyone reading?” I listened as the people around me listed off Fancy Books. A couple people were reading The Goldfinch. I heard Game of Thrones mentioned as a guilty pleasure. People nodded along to books and authors I’d never heard of. I wasn’t currently reading anything other than textbooks and manuscripts, but would the last book I had read measure up to the standards of my peers? What is a good book? How do you find books? Why do you read books? What are books?

A friend came over several days later and asked me for some books to read. Having just been shaken up by my newfound literary insecurity, I didn’t know what to give her. Do I do enough Fancy Reading? What happened to the nerd status I’d earned from being the library aide in middle school? I had a reputation to uphold. She left my house with six books piled in her arms. The first was the book I had just finished.

  • Hollow City by Ransom Riggs. It’s the sequel to Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, which I read because the author roomed with John Green in college. It was written for someone younger than me. I loved it.
  • Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. It’s a nonfiction book about the morality of, you guessed it, eating animals. I’m a vegetarian. My boyfriend gave it to me for Christmas. I loved it.
  • East of Eden by John Steinbeck. I was forced to read it in high school. I resented it on principle. I trudged through the first couple pages and thought it would take me all summer to finish. I loved it.
  • When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams. Someone cool tweeted about it. I bought it the next week. I’m not great with poetry or poem-like prose (I feel like I need to spend five minutes on each line). I loved it.
  • Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. It was on my mom’s bookshelf. It was one of her favorites. It’s the sweeping love story of a boy and a girl and a cathedral. I love my mom. I loved it.
  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo. John Green said it was great. I pretended for months that I was halfway through it before I’d started it. It took a 13-hour plane ride for me to finally crack it open. I loved it.

I’m obviously a John Green fan, but enough blogs have been written about him lately, so we’ll skim over the boxed set sitting in the corner of my room.

When I was younger, I clung to the title of “reader.” I read all the time. But you might say I read more in quantity than I did in quality. (There was a point in my life that I think I’d read everything James Patterson had ever written. Alabama’s abstinence-only education didn’t have anything on J-Pattz.) It wasn’t until college that I realized that I seemed to have wasted a lot of hours, money, and shelf space on sub-par novels. But how to correct? How to redirect the course? I had to rely on recommendations from people I thought were cool. And I found Fancy Books that I liked. That I loved, really. I held my own in class discussions about nonfiction writing. But part of me thinks I’m faking it. There’s still a huge soft spot in my heart for Jack and Aliena and their cathedral. Was this book less good because it lacked a grand theme and a greater meaning? I don’t think so.

I think a good book is a book that you think is good. A book that makes you feel good. A book you want to read again. I can overlook bad writing for a good story. Words are for communicating, not always for Being Fancy. Tell me about Anne Boleyn’s sister and her affair with Henri VIII. Tell me about the unruly teenager whose dad sent her to an island boot camp to set her straight. I read Twilight in middle school with everybody else. I read Angels and Demons. And I liked them. I won’t defend them now (love you, Professor Langdon), but 13-year-old me liked the stories and the people and didn’t care if they were written “well.” To a certain degree, I still don’t.

I can appreciate good things in the world. Great works of literature, great music, great art. But I don’t think life’s quite as fun with everything starched and pressed to perfection. So I buy tickets to see Maroon 5 and hang up a picture of an eagle in the living room. And I put Pillars of the Earth on my bookshelf next to A Clockwork Orange and The Great Gastby. It’s certainly the most well-worn of the three. Isn’t that what matters?