Fluff Reading vs Hard Literature: Find a Balance

Too many concepts for me to understand this novel.  
Do you ever meet those people who read ALL THE TIME, and yet you've never heard of a single title they are reading? As if they've somehow tapped into the completely irrelevant book club, where every book is fluffy cupcake fun, and the most difficult theme in those books is having an overbearing aging parent or a bad case of inner thigh razor burn?

I call it the reality television of book reading.  Technically, yes, you are reading. But nothing that makes you think. It's purely escapism.

Great, fine. We all need escapism. We all need entertainment, and fun, and a feel good moment before we shut the side lamp off, and hit instantaneous sleep from the exhaustion of living in a constantly demanding world. Perhaps this fluff reading is actually good for us on some psychological level.

Even I get confused and have to reread
hard literature 
Yet, I can't help thinking, with all those great reading skills you've been perfecting; why not pick out a classic story every once in a while, and read it while also doing some online analysis of the themes/motifs /symbolism/etc. and see if it does something more for your brain.

Some people (not in education) seem to think that learning is done once you've graduated from whatever level of schooling you needed.  From then on, it's purely on-the-job experience that makes us more well-rounded. Need information?  There's a youtube video that will explain it all, or a wikipedia link that will give you all the answer you need.

Which is information, but it isn't thinking.  Wikipedia doesn't make you think.

A few days ago, I was talking to my science fiction class about string theory.  I realized while talking about it, I only understood the theory on the most basic level.  I decided to do some quick research before the next class.  So I googled it.  I read layers and layers of encyclopedic type information, and still had no better understanding of the complexity that is particle physics than if I made it up myself.  It was information, but not the kind that made me think. I put it on my to-read list: more quantum physics by non-professor types.

I realized I was missing Michael Crichton, one of the rare science fiction writers who wrote fluffy novels with hard facts in a way that the lay-person could understand it.  Jurassic Park did wonders to my understanding of DNA and genetic manipulation. While you could hardly call Crichton a master of the English language, he did research the heck out of whatever subject he was writing about, and present it back to the reader in easy to understand language, while also making the reader think about the morality or ethics of the science.  Sadly, he didn't get the credit he should've when he died, because he wrote a book called State of Fear, where he tried to debunk global warming, and the elitists turned on him.

And people are always turning on authors. "Oh, I don't read Twain because he uses racist language..." Really?  You missed his commentary and satire? "Oh, I hate Fitzgerald, because he glorifies rich beautiful people..." Look closer my friend, you're wrong. "Sherman Alexie's stories are only about Native Americans..." You couldn't find yourself in even one of his stories?

How many times did I watch parentless kids do the same thing
at Sears? Enough that I stopped caring when they got hurt. 
I think the reason we turn on so many "classic" authors, is because their works represent WORK. As in, it takes longer to read, has hard passages, and leaves a lot to the reader to conclude themselves. It makes us think. And thinking, used to make us better conversationalists. We could talk about issues in interesting ways, and cite literature or studies that backed our ideas and opinions, and now we post memes with 13 word captions to make our opinions for us.

And we say we read, but really we are reading pop culture porn. Fluffy words attached to worthless paper, that have no significance and don't represent reality.  The equivalent of saying, "I'm going to exercise today," and turning on the computer and making your SIM exercise instead.

I don't mean to be condescending. I read at least six or seven books a year with no intellectual merit, just as I sometimes watch Ax Men on TV. I need it to balance myself. Yet I also need a little McEwen or McCarthy or Steinbeck or Munro or Alexie, as well as Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey on television, to make me think on a deeper level a few times a week.

Read and then watch Life of Pi.  I'm still
thinking about all the layers of the story.  
Am I the only one who watches Pawn Stars and secretly hopes that Rick will finally tire of Chumlee's stupidity, and say something so profound and intellectually stimulating that Chumlee's brain will literally be blown, thus removing his character from the show, so that we can learn something about antiques once again?

What are you reading or watching (or even  writing about) that is making you think, question, or investigate?  I'd love to know.


  1. Like you, I read classics and fluff. Hopefully more classics. Currently, I am finishing Wiesel's trilogy. I read Night every year with my students (love it every time), just finished Dawn, and am beginning Day.

    1. I was just talking about how I haven't read either Dawn or Day. But I do have an autographed copy of Night. I don't get to teach it though, as the SS department does (but good for them).

      Let me know if Dawn or Day are almost as good as Night.

    2. Dawn and Day are novels not memoirs, so they are different. Dawn is short, but it definitely made me think. Night is still my favorite.

  2. "In the Skin of a Lion" by Ondaatje is pure genius. I've read all of Steinbeck and Garcia Marquez. I just bought "The Master and Margarita" by Mikhail Bulgakov, which I can't wait to start.

    For contemporary, intense, thought-provoking, I liked Jo Nesbo's Harry Hole series. "Bel Canto" stays with me.

    1. I just read Hundred Years of Solutide and loved certain aspects of the novel. I've read nine different Steinbeck, (Jill read East of Eden and the Round Table stories, so I feel like I've read them...) and love his language.

      I'll look into the others you mentioned.

    2. I'm with you in that I want something that leaves me thinking when I'm done with the story, but fluff is okay every now and then.

      I second The Master and the Margarita. I've read it at least half a dozen times, and each time I'm still finding a new layer to it. Bulgakov also has some great shorter stories that I used when I taught high school world lit - we read "Heart of a Dog" as an analogy for the war in Iraq and what happens when you try to force someone to be something they're not (in this case, forcing democracy upon a country). I love Russian authors in general though: Chekhov, Gogol, Dostoesky, and especially Leskov.

      JM Coetzee is a favorite, as is Hemingway. As a way to expand my reading list, I've set myself the goal of reading at least one book by every Nobel lit prize winner. Some I've enjoyed more than others, but everything so far has at least been thought-provoking.

    3. I like your idea of reading one book by each Nobel prize winner. I often look at the Nobel/Booker/etc. and find one that seems interesting, but sadly, I don't always like the works. I've tried to like Faulkner, but I just don't. His short stories are good, but I get lost at the beginning of his novels, and set them down. I know. I need to try harder.

      Thanks for the suggestions. I'll check out a few.

  3. You know I'm with you 9 times out of 10, in my case I'm happy to see people reading anything. I'm sure it all isn't complicated or thought provoking but anything that keeps people away from "Real Housewives of 8 Mile" and a faux reality tv series I'm all for.

    Don't get me wrong, I'm all for people reading great stuff. I just know that in my circumstance,e I still managed to use my brain more reading "I Hope they Serve Beer in Hell" than I would watching anything with Honey Boo Boo in it.

    Maybe I've lowered my standards of people too much.

    1. I'm not trying to be elitist or anything. I just think that people who read all the time (for fun and stuff) should attempt a harder book every now and then.

      For some, just reading a book or two in a year is an accomplishment...I wouldn't recommend James Joyce to those people. Baby steps.

  4. Despite having earned a BA in English Lit at UO, I find there are numerous classics that I never actually read - whether they never made it into any of my reading lists in the first place or were among the many that, due to lack of time, I skimmed and took notes on without properly taking in. So now I try to alternate classics and "lighter" selections. Honestly, though, I read The Hunger Games for escapism and found it surprisingly thought-provoking (the same goes for the Harry Potter series). I'm currently reading Sherlock Holmes, which is wonderfully entertaining but not terribly deep.

    My biggest frustration is that it takes me a lot longer to get through a book than it did before I became a Mom, so the "hard" works that used to merely present a challenge are now a marathon undertaking. I spend months slogging through something that I might have read in the same number of weeks (or even days) when I was younger, usually getting tired of it before I've finished it. I'll finish it anyway, but out of a sense of obligation rather than enjoyment or curiosity. So while I crave intellectual stimulation and will always come back to the challenge, I can certainly see what leads some to linger indefinitely at the "fluffy cupcake fun" shelf.

    1. I know Hunger Games was aimed at the Young Adult crowd, but there is actually a lot of higher level concepts in the story. Anything Dystopian makes one think more than say, Shopaholic.

      It was difficult for a few years when my children were young to get anything complex accomplished. Any day I didn't get baby bodily fluids on me was a victory.

      And all of us...no matter how good a student we were, skimmed a few classics (and history texts in my case) to get through college. I remember one semester where I had to buy 26 novels. Uh, sorry, I think I read maybe 9, heavily skimmed 5, and hoped the rest wouldn't be on the test.

  5. I love this post because it is so important to balance fluff with substance! I think both are necessary for a creative brain - equal parts challenge and rest. While in grad school, between semesters of reading Said and Gubar, Kipling and Shelley (both Mary and Percy Bysshe :), I would read total crap to rest my mind. Grisham, King, yes, even Nicholas Sparks (who is so terrible, but somehow I keep going back for more...ugh, I lose respect for myself every time). This is a habit I've clung to in post-graduate life, although I read much more contemporary literary fiction rather than pop-fluff because I'm not studying grueling theory (sayonara Freud and Lacan!). Marquez and Ondaatje are some of my favorites, too, but Zafon and Kostova are a lot of fun. And of course, I can't let the Victorians go. Wilkie Collins, you complete me.

    1. I feel woefully inadequate in this conversation. I consider myself well-read, but at the same time, there is so much to read and so little time. I guess when I find an author I like, I read their entire cannon, which makes me specialized for that author, but not exactly well-rounded when it comes to an age or genre. I've read a few Thomas Hardy and really liked Wuthering Heights, but that's the extent of my Victorian tastes. (unless you consider Austin a Victorian, as her prose I am recently discovering. She might just have the perfect English tone...challenging my hero Fitzgerald).

    2. I am totally the same with authors I like. Does it surprise you to know I have read every single book King every wrote? Consequently, I know a lot about vampires, apocalyptic plague, zombies, etc.
      And no, Austen is more romantic than Victorian. Her tone is more playful and style less rigid than, say, Dickens (who is sometimes boring, it pains me to say).
      Collins is a more fun Victorian - mystery & adventure stories, with strong characters. No boring sitting rooms for him.

  6. I'm in a long distance/texting "book club" with my best friend and cousin. One of them isn't really into thinking books, so we tend to read fluff pieces all the time. However, I'm always reading my own book right alongside our club one. Sometimes, I'm totally reading two fluff books at the same time, but usually, I choose a more meaningful book for my "me" book. Currently, I'm reading Setting Free the Bears by John Irving. I'm still at the very beginning, so I don't have much to say on it except that I'm drawn in. Also, I love Life of Pi..the book and the movie! :)

    1. John Irving tends to get people really divided. Some people love Cinder House, and other's loath it. Same with Door in the Floor, and his other works. I guess when you write about heavy subjects, people have strong opinions. Let me know if it's any good.