Shame, Shame, Shame, and the New York Times

This week, the subject of the insufferable Bookends column of the New York Times was ‘Is There Anything One Should Feel Ashamed of Reading?’ (last week, it was ‘When It Comes to Reading, Is Pleasure Suspect?’, so clearly Bookends is in the middle of some sort of terrible binge-purge episode).  The highly predictable yet verbose answer to that question, written this week by James Parker and Charles McGarth, was essentially, ‘No, of course not! Reading is great!’

Reading is great, but so is shame.  Of course, it is unpleasant to experience and remember, and it has been used many times to evil ends, but let’s not throw the shameful baby out with the bathwater: shame is an emotion with high specific utility.

Shame is one of the leading indicators of wrong action.  Shame is what tells us when we have behaved badly, when we have been a lesser version of ourselves.  Shame is a measure of the discrepancy between who we want to be and who we have proved to be.

James Parker at least nods at this, with his distinction between “top-down shame”, which is imposed on us from someone else, and “bottom-up shame”, which we impose on ourselves, and which he endorses.  But he doesn’t believe that anyone does or should have bottom-up shame about what they are reading.

But we have all had the experience of hoping we are not caught reading something – that is shame.  And when we are ashamed of what we are reading, it is because we know that the book we are reading is beneath our ambition.  And our ambition so often defines our best self.

Books are one of the places where we express our hopes for ourselves.  We don’t just read for who we are – we also read for who we want to be.  We read books we ‘ought’ to read, to know more, to advance intellectually.

And that is right and proper, in appropriate measure.  All things in moderation; I don’t recommend reading exclusively for self-betterment.  Reading well is like eating well: it protects and strengthens you, but being too rigid about it robs you of joy and makes you a bummer to hang out with.

So we have our vegetable books, which we read because we should but which we may also love, and we have our junk food books, which we read even though, perhaps, we should not, because it’s really fun and we can’t help ourselves.

And our relationship with these latter is, in part, modulated by shame.  And it should be, no matter what the New York Times says.  The truth is, you’re going to die one day; your time on this earth is limited, and you are spending it reading Twilight.  That is a decision which deserves a second thought.

Which is not to say that you definitely shouldn’t read Twilight.  If you have the urge to, you probably should indulge it.  Fun isn’t evil – it’s fun.  But you should be a little ashamed.  That’s what keeps you from reading nothing but books like Twilight, and to read nothing but books like Twilight is to turn down an intellectual dead-end.

The cultural value which informs pieces like this week’s Bookends is one we’ve all encountered before: at least it gets them reading!  Parker and McGrath make a very good show of joshing around this point, but it lurks in the dark heart of all such discussions.  It’s also patronizing and wrong.  The New York Times knows full well that reading Fifty Shades of Grey is not the moral or intellectual equivalent of reading The Gulag Archipelago – the lack of shame they champion, the standard they promote, is one they do not and would not apply to themselves.  Of course they don’t read only for ‘fun’; of course they experience shame when they read trash.

But for the great unwashed, the mouth-breathing masses, whatever gets you idiots to turn off ‘Keeping Up With The Kardashians’ and crack open an actual book should be celebrated.  It’s hopeless to expect you to read anything at all difficult – dreck must suffice.  Charles McGrath will even jovially admit to having joined you, once, but then only really out of anthropological interest, to “understand the fuss”.

Don’t be fooled – Charles McGrath is ashamed of having read Fifty Shades of Grey (as would I be, if I had ever sunk so low).  But he doesn’t think you should be, because he never expected better of you.

I do, though.  I think we should all be ashamed of Fifty Shades of Grey.  I believe that a great day is within our grasp, when all people, rich and poor, black and white, young and old, will join hands and, whether they have read Fifty Shades of Grey or not, deny it.

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