Last week, I experienced what I’ve come to expect as an inevitable occurrence when talking to fellow English majors: someone ranting about how no one seems to read good literature anymore and how trashy young adult fiction has become. As an English major, I value the analysis of thought-provoking literature, and I think that people can gain a lot from reading books that challenge them. But looking down on people for reading certain books and claiming that only older literature is worth reading more than something else serves no purpose other than policing some of life’s greatest joys: reading and writing.
Young adult fiction has been criticized for years. The “Harry Potter” series has repeatedly come under fire for lacking quality prose and plot, and there are numerous blog posts devoted to complaining about how bad “The Hunger Games” books are. Despite the large following these young adult novels have accrued, many have concluded that the plots of these books are formulaic and the dialogue cringeworthy. Rick Riordan’s wildly popular young adult series, “Percy Jackson and the Olympians,” was recently criticized for potentially discouraging readers from reading classic literature by teaching them to enjoy casual, slang-ridden dialogue and predictable plots.
But series like “Harry Potter” and “Percy Jackson” are both action-packed and digestible — they provide readers with distraction and entertainment in an accessible format. One of the functions of reading is a means of escape. It’s a way to pass time as well as an activity that allows us to delve into worlds beyond our own. With the amount of energy we exert in day-to-day life — whether it be via working, student life or simply dealing with the emotional turmoil that comes with being human — it makes sense for people to be drawn to books that allow them to escape reality without requiring significant brain power.
Moreover, in many of the studies done on the benefits of reading — increased social skills and awareness, stress reduction and improved memory and cognitive functioning — participants experienced these positive gains after reading everything from newspapers to classic literature.
Dr. David Lewis, neuropsychologist and co-author of one of the aforementioned studies, reported: “It really doesn’t matter what book you read, by losing yourself in a thoroughly engrossing book, you can escape from the worries and stresses of the everyday world.”
What seems to be most important in reaping the cognitive and emotional benefits of reading is simply engaging with the material, not the material’s writing style.
I understand why the apparent lack of interest in older literature can be frustrating. Sometimes, I wish that more people in my life would give some of the literature that I’m passionate about a chance instead of immediately writing it off as boring and outdated. I also know that for me, reading challenging books that force me to pay attention to small details and to decipher unique writing styles brings me a sense of satisfaction and has been beneficial in many areas of my life.
But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t reread the “Harry Potter” series four times last summer, or that I don’t keep the “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” books on my bookshelf for the days I just want to read something fun. Being enthusiastic about more sophisticated literature doesn’t mean that I can’t also read young adult fiction, or that I gain nothing from reading books that I simply find interesting. Young adult fiction and what is considered to be classic literature don’t have to be mutually exclusive — there is room for both to be read and discussed.
At its core, art is for everyone. Just because I have different preferences doesn’t mean that I have the right to dictate what others create and consume. That’s the beauty of it: I can choose to read what I want to in my free time, and ignore what I don’t like. Who knows? Maybe if we stopped devoting so much energy to criticizing young adult fiction, we would have more energy to spend reading the literature we’re afraid that everyone will forget about. Win-win.
Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.
A version of this article appears in the Monday, Feb. 10, 2020, print edition. Email Helen Wajda at [email protected]