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When in Rome…Do as Elitists Do?

So Many Books points to the short PDF e-book ROMAN Reading: 5 Practical Skill for Transforming Life Through Literature by Nick Senger. His 5-step method of reading uses the acronym ROMAN, as in: Read the book, Outline the book, Mark the pages, Ask the right questions and Name your experiences. (Mark the book? Gasp!)

Senger is a schoolteacher who developed the ROMAN reading idea to help his students become better readers. Specifically, he teaches by encouraging the reading of classic literature, the best of which he determines by collating data from 13 “best of literature” lists. (Topping the list with 12 citations: Don Quixote by Cervantes, Iliad by Homer and Aeneid by Virgil.)

Encouraging reading is a good thing, but I detect a smack of reading elitism here, particularly in this passage:

Books are like neighbors, and your personal library is your neighborhood. Take a look at your bookshelves. What kind of neighborhood are you living in? Are you in a slum or in the suburbs? Who are your neighbors? Are they trash talkers or shrewd sages? If you live next door to Socrates, then invite him to dinner every night. If you live next to Dan Brown, then put your house on the market.

An interesting analogy, to be sure. My own taste in reading spans both the “lower” and “upper” ends of the literary spectrum, even if I do tend to spend more time at the “lower” end. (This even applies specifically within the band of science fiction itself, which some would consider wholly existing within the “lower” end — but that’s another story…) Sometimes I like reading Literature with a capital L. Other times I like reading a good yarn. Basically, I go wherever the whims of my mood take me.

And yet…

I sometimes hear people speak as if (or say outright that) reading is not a worthwhile activity unless you are reading Literature with a capital L. Enter self-doubt. Am I wasting my time by reading anything else? Am I denying myself the true value of reading? Am I becoming a literary snob? Is this self-doubt the beginning of a midlife crisis?

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

14 Comments on When in Rome…Do as Elitists Do?

  1. Thanks for the mention! I appreciate your comments and I wrote about them in this post: Are ROMANs Elite?


  2. [Cross-posted to Nick’s post]

    Thanks for the clarifications, Nick!

    I’m glad the post didn’t offend — it was not meant to. My position is that dictating what someone should read doesn’t quite seem right to me. Your clarification here makes your stance more clear: read what you want, but know that there are books out there that offer deeper meaning.

    BTW, I like the ROMAN approach to reading — though it will take some time before I can bring myself to mark up a book. πŸ™‚

  3. Personally, I recommend a moderate amount of elitism in reading, especially as one gets older– there are a lot of really good, really enjoyable books most people never get around to, because they are capital L literature. WAR AND PEACE is, without doubt, the best book I’ve ever read, and yet I would not have read it had it not been assigned to me in school. MOBY DICK is supposed to be a by-word for boring and obscure, and yet when you really read it, it is an inspiring, if dark delight, shot through with a wicked sense of humor. The ILIAD and the ODYSSEY and PARADISE LOST and Dante’s Divine Comedy are to books what Alan Moore’s WATCHMEN is to comics, or SEVEN SAMURAI is to movies. Nothing wrong with a cheesy B-film Western if you are in the mood for cheese; but SEVEN SAMURAI has things in it that can stick with you for life.

    Think of the best book you ever read: think of how much you wish friends of your had read it, because of what they are missing in life if they don’t read it. Now imagine they are reading Dan Brown instead. So instead of learning about life, the universe, and everything, they are learning some crackpot conspiracy theory.

    You’ll understand what these ‘elitists’ are actually all about if you think of it this way. They have something they love, and they want to share it. It’s just too bad it comes across as elitism. I don’t think a love of good books is supposed to sound like anything but a love of good books.

  4. Literary Elitism bugs the shit out of me. I know some wonderfully smart people who nevertheless will look down their noses at someone for reading Nora Roberts, or Robert Jordan.

    My theory is, at least they’re reading. Who cares what they read? Just read, damn it.

    The theory that you have to read a book the same way you’d study a text seems like a really terrible idea to me. I just read casually and pick up what I pick up. Usually I pick up the stuff that’s under the surface, but I’m not sitting there going, “Ah, the clever analogy for the Iraq war, good job, old chap,” I’m just reading, acknowledging it, and moving on.

    *stomps off to hang a free-verse poet*

  5. I agree with Pete on this one. I read for enjoyment and not to find some deeper meaning in things. I am glad others have that experience, but thinking that everybody must share that experience is where the feelings about “elitism” come from. For kids, I agree that anything that improves their comprehension will make reading that more enjoyable as they get older, but for me – I am not going to that same level.

  6. When I awoke this morning my copy of Robert Anton Wilson’s “Schrodinger’s Cat” had cornered my copy of Brian Jacques “Redwall” and tried to eat it! So I separated them with one of my three year old son’s copies of “Clifford, The Big Red Dog” by Norman Bridwell. But then Clifford decided to chase Schrodinger’s Cat around the shelf! You should have seen the look on Schrodinger’s face! It was as if he wanted to put the dog in a box permanently! So to end the paradox, (ba-dum-teeee!) I decided to put Douglas Adams “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” in-between the unruly books to put some, you know… SPACE between them but then to my surprise the whole bookshelf suddenly spoke and said, “I hadn’t though of that” and promptly vanished in a puff of logic.


  7. Senger and Wright are both saying the same thing – if you’re going to read, why not make it something with a deeper impact now and then? If it takes a book about conspiracy theory or a book about culinary mysteries to get you to read, then that’s great. But in between a collection of the latest bestsellers, why not squeek in a classic now and then? Variety is the spice of life, and the occasional steak of a book should be had instead of a steady diet of hot dogs.

    I’ve said it before, but I believe Ender’s Game is such a book in the sci-fi realm. There are more to be sure (I think there is a post about it around here somewhere but this internet cafe’s slow access is making it painful to search), but this one is accessible, smart, and deep.

  8. I don’t understand why folks feel this need to push that agenda. We discuss how great it is that folks are reading, but now we say that it is not enough. You should read the classics which for many of us have such negative connotations due to some being on the “required reading list” of our primary school years. Furthermore, I still think that the decision of what book to read is a personal one, and my book queue is at the point that I could probably be reading for the next 10 years and still not clear out half of what I have at home versus stuff that “I should read since its a classic”. I also think its great that some folks get such enjoyment out of classic titles or look for those books that would be called “literary”. I am not one of those.

    Another thought I had is that some of this starts to make reading feel like a chore or work, and I already do enough of that. My belief is that most folks are not going to do this for that reason. Think about it from the perspective of almost any other form of entertainment and you will see that folks do not play games or go to movies and feel the need to search for something beyond what was shown. Sure there are situations in both of those where that does happen, but that is not the norm – they are seen as an escape or diversion.

  9. John,

    Don’t you follow a very similar process right here on the ‘Signal?

    Digest the book

    Expound its virtues and/or flaws

    Notate the book

    Assign it to a blog entry

    Rate the book

    Discuss the book

    Opine on the book

  10. Pete,

    What, nothing on Klausner, biblioholism, or supermodels? I am disappointed. Good use of opine though! πŸ˜‰

  11. I’ll use those words if you want to have those letters added to your name! I tried, believe me, I tried!

  12. Your neighborhood sounds great, like a nice place to visit. And tditto’s comment gave me a good laugh.

  13. It’s pretty hard to push “the classics” on people (kids especially) when there isn’t anywhere near universal agreement about which ones we ought to value. The Moby Dick debate mentioned above is a good example, the same has been argued of Shakespeare. While I might enjoy reading Melville or Shakespeare, I wouldn’t belittle anyone who doesn’t. Just because something is a classical work doesn’t make it sanctified beyond criticism. I do believe the classics have value, but that doesn’t mean new literature, of which SF is at the forefront, is somehow lesser. It’s folly to think the new is incapable of measuring up to the achievements of the old. Civilizations have weakened or died for holding this belief.

    I also don’t put much stock in the notion that people have to dedicate themselves to reading “that which has meaning” as defined by the canon. In our stressful world, there is a value to reading for pleasure. There is an art to the simple where everyone else is striving to tell you how deep they are. You find meaning in books, film or life where you happen to find it, whether it’s an acknowledged work of greatness, or something that’s been overlooked. A book that’s reputed to be complex and meaningful may, in fact live up to its reputation. It may, on the other hand, be so boring, convoluted and pretentious as to be completely pointless beyond an author’s own ego-stroking. By the same token, non-critically-acclaimed stories ostensibly written sheerly for entertainment may be deeply profound (and there are many SF works in this category) and may contain things that strike a chord with a reader and keep him/her pondering for days. Or they may be merely quick, shallow reads. But so what? If they’re enjoyable, they’ve paid for themselves in the time & money investment as a de-stressor.

    It’s a postmodern world, folks: the classics are on a level playing field with the new works. It’s up to the individual to decide which stories have merit and why. Whether a person reads for meaning (which ought to be pleasurable as well) or for pleasure (and sometimes accidentally stumbles upon meaning), what’s most important is that people are reading.

  14. I’d have to respectfully disagree with bloginhood’s comment that the classics are on a level playing field with the new works. Some modern fiction is very good, and in time will be considered “classics” too. It’s already happening with some of the mid-20th century SF and fantasy like Tolkien’s LOTR, Orwell’s “1984”, Huxley’s “Brave New World”, and Bradbury’s “Farenheit 451”. However, most modern books will NOT stand the test of time and will be forgotten the same as all the previous pop fiction titles of the past.

    I think you underestimate the capabilities of the general public. Oprah’s book club has shown that regular folks are willing to tackle literature like Tolstoy, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Garcia Marquez, and so on.

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