Joel Stein is being roundly booed as a snob for opining in a recent Times roundtable that “Adults Should Read Adult Books” and steer clear of young adult fare. Maybe out of pure contrariness, I’m inclined to offer a qualified defense. It has to be qualified because, let’s face it, I’m a 33-year-old man with an extensive comic book library. I even read all the Harry Potter and Hunger Games books, and I can’t see why that’s any worse a light entertainment than watching an action movie—which takes about as long. Nor—since he mentions the shame of seeing an adult crack one of these tomes on an airplane—are they appreciably less sophisticated or intellectually challenging than any number of spy thrillers, conspiracy yarns, and other airport bookshop staples. None of them contain prose as clunky or appalling as nominal “adult” author Dan Brown churns out. They even provide a broad form of common culture, an easy source of metaphors, because many more of us have time to blow through one of them on a lazy Sunday than can commit to tackling Ulysses or Infinite Jest—which means it’s hard to believe there’s some kind of one-to-one displacement effect.
All that said, while there’s often a surprising amount of thematic sophistication to mine in literature aimed at kids and teens, let’s not kid ourselves that it’s equivalent to what you’ll find in the best literary fiction. Well-rounded adults need their share of that too, and some of the most rewarding of it can be hard going. Infinite Jest is an enormously fun book in many ways, but nobody’s going to honestly call it an easy read. Serious literature is too enjoyable to take an eat-your-lima beans approach, but like most really worthwhile things, it can be difficult, and there probably is some danger of getting so accustomed to a diet of effortless page-turners that we lose our ability to digest richer food.
Most of us, let’s admit, are fundamentally lazy: After working hard all day, who wants to work in their spare time? Even if we’d be glad we did it at the end, it can be hard to motivate ourselves to pick up Joyce when Rowling beckons, promising fewer demands. So in the same way that a little bit of physical vanity can be healthy, if that’s what it ultimately takes to get you out to the gym or the yoga studio a few times a week, maybe a dollop of snobbery is beneficial in the long run if that’s what pushes us to bear the initial mental strain of reading challenging fiction. Sure, ideally we wouldn’t need it: The intrinsic long-run rewards of the activity would be motivation enough. Ideally everyone would behave decently because it’s the right thing to do, and not out of fear of public shaming or legal penalties.
But realistically, we all need and employ all sorts of social commitment mechanisms to help us overcome akrasia and short term bias—to do what we reflectively know is better for us in the long term, rather than always and only what’s immediately pleasurable. (Of course, once we’re in the habit of working the relevant muscles, we get more immediate pleasure out of the “difficult” activity too.) That is, ultimately, a huge part of what it means to grow up, to be an adult: Taking the long view rather than acting on your immediate desires and impulses—but the internal fortitude to do this develops through, and is sustained by, all sorts of external sanctions. Perhaps more so when it comes to our fictional diets, because it’s hard not to notice that you’re developing a paunch and getting winded climbing stairs after a few years of subsisting on junk food and skipping the gym—whereas the way our thinking and personalities are flattened when they’re starved of nutritious fiction can be hard to notice until you get back in the habit and realize what you’ve been missing.
So I’ll go ahead and say I think we’d probably be worse off in a world completely bereft of this kind of cultural snobbery. It’s hard to resist poking fun at the pretentious undergrad lugging some William Gaddis doorstop to the local café so everyone can see what they’re reading—but I’m not sure I’d prefer a world where grown men and women didn’t feel slightly sheepish about settling in with teen lit day after day instead. This probably isn’t an issue for the sort of wordsmith public intellectuals who felt inclined to comment on Stein’s squib: Of course they’re going to read plenty of adult fiction, and of course they’re right to bristle at anyone who’d sneer at them for throwing something a bit lighter into the mix. But that’s not a given for most adults, and a little nagging voice in the back of the head that says “Hey, you’re a grown-ass man/lady, shouldn’t you challenge yourself a bit?” is probably a net cultural asset.