When I was a kid, I was a notoriously fussy eater. I did not like foods that were too green, foods that were mushy, foods that looked weird, foods that smelled weird. I’m not entirely sure if I had a method for deciding which foods were unacceptable, but I do know that, among other things, it meant I did not like pickles or onions, lettuce or tomatoes, raisins or bananas. I was wary of avocadoes and I outright didn’t trust mushrooms. At some point in my life, I realized I was being ridiculous and that maybe some of these foods were okay for me, so I set about teaching myself to like foods I had previously hated. I taught myself to eat my vegetables.
Now that I’m all grown up, at least in terms of chronology, I enjoy all kinds of things that my six-year-old self would have sneered at disdainfully and I am of course a better person for it (though to this day, I still think tomatoes are completely vile, and I'm not eating mushrooms either, because come on, they're fungus). Take broccoli for instance. When I was a kid, there was no way anyone was going to get me to eat broccoli. And now, even though I freely admit that broccoli isn’t my favorite thing (I never find myself thinking “Gosh, I really wish I had some broccoli right now,” for instance), I can often be found eating it. And I don’t hate it! It’s actually pretty decent. It’s not ice cream, or anything, but that’s okay because as far as I can tell, no matter how much I’d like for it to be true, a girl cannot live on ice cream alone.
This naturally leads me to the subject of literature. When I was a kid, I was the opposite about reading as I was about food: I couldn’t get enough. I would read anything, from the backs of cereal boxes and labels on shampoo bottles to average children’s book fare to big heavy reference books (I once spent an elementary school vacation memorizing the bones in the human skull for no reason other than that seemed like a good thing to do). Anyway, I was a reader. A voracious one, even.
But as I got older, I started taking classes that had assigned reading, and for as many gems as I found, I encountered just as many (if not more) books that I never would’ve read in a million years if I didn’t have to in order to pass a test or write a paper. And suddenly I was reminded of being a kid again, staring down a plate of vegetables with a stubborn scowl, thinking “No way,” or perhaps the even more mature “Ew.”
I can think of all sorts of books I thought of as broccoli: Robinson Crusoe (not very adventurous and actually rather boring and full of disturbing racism even by 17th century standards), Aeneid (blah blah Troy blabbity blah), Heart of Darkness (the horror, the horror indeed), Lord of the Flies (oh just kill each other already), Paradise Lost (so dull I wanted to stick a fork in one of my eyes), The Scarlet Letter (Puritans were uptight, I get it). I could go on (and on and on), but I will be nice and not do that. The point, anyway, is that there were a lot of books I had to read in one English class or another, in high school or in college, that I couldn’t have cared less about if they were actually books about broccoli. Perhaps a lot of this stems from the fact that I have a weird rebellious stubborn streak that makes me want to do the exact opposite of what people suggest to me, and perhaps also it’s because being an assignment automatically makes something less interesting, but the thing is that just as I learned to eat and like vegetables, I came to appreciate (and in many cases, like) the books I’d previously been forced to read when I was free to pick them up on my own. (Except for Robinson Crusoe, because I just hate that book).
I do think that in many ways, it’s unfortunate that so much of the canonical literature that gets assigned in classes really is quite a chore. When it comes to Important Books, there’s just so much… fiber. Or so it would seem. But just as I discovered that hey, Paradise Lost is pretty good when I don’t have to rush through it so I can talk about it in class, there sure are a lot of great books out there that I would never have been taught in a class, be they too dark or violent or sexy, and thank goodness for them. I have some more thoughts about this, but I have a cold and I can feel the Sudafed kicking in, so I’m going to leave it here. I guess the main point is that just as I would die if I tried to live on nothing but broccoli (I would die), I wouldn’t like reading too much if everything I read was Important and Good For Me.
Stuff that’s good for me is necessary, but it sure does get boring after awhile.