You Should Read This! Right Now. I’ll wait.

I’m getting a little tired of lists and books and blog posts and articles and even blog comments by people telling me what I should be reading. I’m even getting tired of all of the above telling other people what they should be reading. Worst of all, sometimes I catch myself doing it, and then I have to roll my eyes at myself, and that’s just a waste of everyone’s time.

This isn’t, by the way, aimed at any one individual. I don’t blame anyone who has done it, because quite frankly we’ve all done it. I’m railing more against something in the SF community culture (and indeed the larger culture of book readers) which has supported and enabled the bad habit of telling people what they SHOULD be reading. I was inspired to write this by the recent SF Signal Mind Meld (which asks which anthologies SHOULD be on someone’s shelf)

Now, I’m all for recommending books. Recommending books people might like is like meat and drink to me. I rec therefore I am. But the older I get, the more annoyed I become at being told that I SHOULD do anything, especially something that is going to take up a lot of my time. It’s particularly annoying when it’s a ‘should’ aimed at a general audience because book recommendations are actually quite personal things. There are no ten books that SHOULD be on everyone’s shelf. The ten books I wouldn’t be without are going to be completely different to anyone else’s.

I don’t have time to read even the books I desperately want to read, let alone the ones I want to have read so I can be all knowledgeable about them, let alone the ones I know that I ought to read because they would be terribly good for me… I have piles and piles and lists and lists and I add new books to them at a rate far faster than I can ever catch up with. So being told that I SHOULD read a particular title is – well, it’s intrusive. And patronising. It seems to imply that I am somehow not doing a good enough job at prioritising my reading – or worse, that someone else thinks they know more about my reading needs than I do.

Believe me, I put a lot of thought into my reading needs. I can spend hours and hours contemplating my reading needs. Hours that could perhaps be better spent reading a good book.

I know that most people use the word unthinkingly – it’s only recently that I’ve become aware of why I’m so uncomfortable about it, and I’m sure I’ve thrown around my fair share of ‘YOU SHOULD READ’s in the past. I try to do better now. There’s something so judgemental about it – we are generally as people reasonably tactful and/or restrained when it comes to suggesting friends should change something about their dress sense, hair style, social habits, and so on, but when it comes to reading, we just barge right on in.

The first time I really started thinking about this recently was when some completely well-meaning person someone told [info] girliejones that she should read Bujold, and she replied in that tired, slightly defeated ‘yes I know I should’ tone of LJ comment, and it occurred to me that the reason that her answer was so familiar was that I have spent years telling her what to read. How awful! She has even less reading time than I do, and I know that, and my first instinct was to comment agreeing that yes, GJ really should stop everything she was doing for the next month and read Bujold until she had Vorkosigans coming out her ears.

My second, much more measured response, was “Nooo, don’t tell GJ she SHOULD read something, that’s like telling Jonathan Strahan he has to eat his feminist bran muesli, now she thinks Bujold is something boring and worthy that she has to force herself through one day so she can talk intelligently about it at dinner parties.”

As opposed to, for instance “Oh, you would really enjoy reading Bujold, she’s fun and smart, and no matter what she says in interviews she is totally a feminist and there is all kinds of genderfuckery going on in those books, plus a whole lot of issues to do with biology and psychology and lots of other ologies, plus did I mention they’re fun and have hot romance that doesn’t get in the way of the space battles and environmental politics?”

By the way, I had to redraft the above paragraph several times because my brain kept trying to insert the word ‘should.’ See how hard it is?

I’ve talked before (possibly not here, but somewhere, I talk a lot, you know) about the uncomfortable relationship I have with the concept of ‘canon’ – largely because, as a woman who likes to read books written by women, my interaction with canon often revolves around noticing what stuff I like has been left out, rather than celebrating what is actually there. I have a long experience with people telling me I SHOULD read something, only to discover that in fact, I shouldn’t have. And those are hours of my life I’ll never get back. I love book reviews, I love hearing about books that other people love, and I completely love it when someone knows enough about my tastes to suggest a great book that I might get something out of, whether it’s a good night in or some of that fancy learnin’.

Recommending books to each other is one of the best things we do as people. It’s an awesome habit. But that one little word, ‘should’ can make all the difference between something that sounds awesome, and something that sounds like homework.

3 replies on “You Should Read This! Right Now. I’ll wait.”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Stephanie Gunn, Tansy Rayner Roberts. Tansy Rayner Roberts said: on the intrusiveness of telling people what they SHOULD read […]

  2. Jason says:

    Wow, this article is very timely. My mother and I have been working on being more polite and less intrusive about how we speak to other people. It has become a game at home that we catch each other doing something or saying something like that and then mock each other. I probably would never have thought of this specific scenario since it is something I do so often.

    I recently joined an “reading challenge” online and have been trying to go through my whole to-be-read list of books. The ones I really enjoy I suggest to my brother and friends. I know I have done exactly this, telling them they SHOULD read them. Well, my presumptuousness ends now. (Presumptuousness? Presumptuocity?) Its those little things and details that people pick up on (like my grammar) that we need to be careful of. I enjoyed this article.

  3. I so know what you’re saying here, and you said in a tactful way, something I rarely manage to do these days. I get overly defensive, but sometimes I don’t have another way to do it.

    As much as I love my “Tribe” of writers/beta-readers, I’m tired of being told to read X book, X author or even more annoying at times, read X genre you don’t find appealing or capable of writing in the first place.

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