A Little Stone: The Rippling Repercussions of Bookshaming by Priscilla Thomas

“You’re reading that?”

“Oh, I don’t read those books.”

You hear such admonishment in bookstores, read it in reviews, see it online, find it anywhere that reading is discussed. It’s easy to think that nothing harmful could come of it, that it’s simply a matter of “taste”, but bookshaming can devastate even the most accomplished of readers.

A lifelong booknerd, I’ve stopped apologizing for my tastes, comfortably juggling Antigone, Percy Jackson, and the latest from John Green. But when a book I am truly enjoying earns me scorn, I revert to the middle schooler who feels compelled to agree that, like, platform sneakers are so lame (even though her parents finally let her order a pair from dELiA*s and they look rad with her corduroys). Present day, the uncoolness stings familiar. The impulses hit simultaneously: defend the shamed book with a sizzling burn on its attacker, or pretend I’ve never met said book, but if I did, I’d probably think it was lame. Neither option feels right; both leave me a dejected and self-conscious reader.

To be clear, opinion and disagreement are important elements of literary discourse. Bookshaming, however, is the dismissive response to another’s opinion. Although it is sometimes justified as expressing an opinion that differs from the norm, or challenging a popular interpretation, bookshaming occurs when “opinions” take the form of demeaning comments meant to shut down discourse and declare opposing viewpoints invalid.

Sometimes, bookshaming is disguised by good intentions, or at least harmless ones. I’ve found myself guilty on more than one occasion: turning up my nose at popular titles, making jokes about readers of trendy series. But as with most harmful things, we easily underestimate its impact. Here are just a few of the problems with bookshaming.

1. Bookshamers fail to recognize that reading is, for many, a brave and terrifying act.

For readers who have struggled, either with the mechanics or the love of reading, implying that their approach to reading is somehow “wrong,” undoes the hard work that one engages in when conquering a fear, or strengthening a weakness. A reader who has never seen herself mirrored in a book, or connected so deeply with a character that she cried for him, often views the world of reading as an exclusive club. It is a world she cannot enter, because reading has been difficult. Thanks to devoted teachers and the writers who inspire them, many struggling readers find that there are books for them, books that are Just Right. But bookshamers look down at someone’s Just Right Book and declare it unworthy, confirming to that reader that he was right all along; he can’t be a member of the club. The judgment passed down from bookshamers, who have no more qualifications than those they award themselves, closes the door on many readers. Many won’t knock again.

2. Bookshaming has repercussions we often cannot see.

I used to ban Twilight from my library. In fact, it’s only there now because I inherited it from the classroom’s previous occupant. I take issue with the books and have never felt comfortable with students reading them.  Even so, I didn’t need to tell students who expressed interest in Twilight that if they really wanted to read those books, they were on their own. I assumed my students wouldn’t take my disdain seriously. Then during a reading conference, a student “confessed” that she wasn’t stuck in her book, she just wasn’t really reading it. Instead, she was secretly reading Twilight at home, where I couldn’t judge her for it. As a recovering secret reader, I was aghast. What an anomaly of a student, reading the books anyway. Most of my students would have given up on reading what they wanted, never telling me how they felt.

3. Bookshaming is considered motivation and high standards.

Having worked in three different high schools, I have seen many forms of bookshaming. I’ve celebrated students delving into their reading, only to hear colleagues dismiss their choices as “baby books.” I have worked with teachers who refuse to let students read YA during Independent Reading, or who fail to appreciate a well-written essay that focuses on The Hunger Games over Animal Farm. I frequently grit my teeth through rants that describe teaching YA as “dumbing down” and “pandering.” I’m not against high expectations; I’m not against pushing students to achieve more. But I am against diminishing accomplishments, refusing to acknowledge growth and achievement; I’m against confusing motivation with shame.

4. Bookshaming does not support academic growth.

Teachers who snub certain titles and their readers often do so in the name of maintaining high standards. But as mentioned above, high academic standards for reading come with literary discourse. The idea of argument has been skewed recently, in the same way that “apology” no longer means what Socrates famously illustrated. Instead of seeing argument as presenting a possible viewpoint and reasonable evidence, we think of an argument as something to be won through aggression, rebuttal, or talking the loudest. Academically, argument and discourse require conversation and exchange, but bookshaming favors the shut-down over dialogue or reasoning.

5. Bookshaming perverts the purpose of reading.

Bookshaming is not a new concept, and it has wormed its way into how we regard reading. I can say it no better than the brilliant Alexandra Stumpf, fellow NYC English teacher,  who explains that bookshaming, “divorces us from our souls and makes us put on airs.  We are suddenly reading for someone else, for appearances, rather than to replenish, inspire, and imagine. …this doesn’t just happen with struggling readers–it happens with all readers.  …so many people do not read as adults; if you don’t read NY Times best sellers or literary classics, then you’re not really a reader. …we have a very limited view of why people read and how personal the choices and journey should be.” How many books have you explained away as “beach reads,” or justified as “keeping up with your students,” or pretended to have read so you would appear smart enough? When we make reading about satisfying others instead of our own enjoyment and education, we replace the joy of reading with anxiety. Is this how we create lifelong readers?

One of my 11th graders used a beautiful analogy in our discussion of environmentalism: “It’s like when you throw a stone into water,” he explained. “Even if it’s just a little stone, the waves go all the way through. All of the water feels it.” A single, shaming comment can seem insignificant, but the effects reach farther than we realize. As teachers, as booklovers, we can’t keep underestimating the impact of our actions and our words. We need to be mindful, so that our students will. The next time you see someone reading a book you wouldn’t, don’t shame them. Ask them about that book, open a conversation. It will be a little stone, but the water will feel it.

Priscilla Thomas teaches 11th grade in the Bronx, where she’s been converting teenagers to booknerds for eight years and counting. You can catch her blogging at ThoseWhoCan.org, and reading at every possible moment.