Judging a Book by Its Lover

“Considering yourself a serious reader doesn’t mean you can’t read light books. Loving to read means you sometimes like to turn your head off. Reading is not about being able to recite passage of Camus by memory. Loving young adult novels well past adolescence isn’t a sign of stunted maturity or intelligence. The most important thing about reading is not the level of sophistication of the books on your shelf. There is no prerequisite reading regimen for being a bookworm.” 
– Lauren Leto, author of Judging a Book by Its Lover: A Field Guide to the Hearts and Minds of Readers Everywhere

At first glance, judging this book simply by this quotation that the kind folks over at Book Riot chose to printout and use in their Quarterly Subscription Box, I thought I was going to love Lauren Leto and her book. I received it in the middle of the week, but eagerly planned to read it for my next week’s book project. I couldn’t wait to crack open the spine. After all, what book lover wouldn’t want to read a book that bills itself on exploring the “hearts and minds of readers everywhere?”

But then I started reading.

Right off the bat I found Leto hard to relate to – she begins with stories from her childhood, of growing up with parents who didn’t understand, or particularly encourage, her loves of books. Now, I have always been an avid reader. I was the little girl who got punished by having her books taken away, who was forced in the fourth grade to put her books down during recess and actually play with the other kids. I would bring a stack of ten to twelve books, all carefully selected from the local Paperbacks Plus, with me to class each day and devour them all before four o’clock. It was so bad that one of my teachers gave me a “book tote” to help me manage them. But I just cannot for the life of me fathom having parents who discouraged this habit, because my parents were always awesome – they fed the fire frequently and with enthusiasm. My mom read to me and my brother every single night, well past our toddler years, my dad took us to the secondhand bookstores almost weekly. Summers were filled with library reading programs, Harry Potter midnight releases, and road trips with stacks of books piled between Travis and I.

So, from the start, I felt sorry for Leto. This must be why she doesn’t like fantasy, I thought to myself, She didn’t have a free range imagination as a kid. That explains things. Indeed some explanation is necessary to explain why an author as “well-versed” in literature as Leto fails to mention some of the most well-known books of our time. Within the first chapter, just sentences after she claims that “there is no prerequisite reading regimen” for booklovers, she begins insulting the popular fiction genres, including Young Adult and Fantasy, saying, “We have to acknowledge that there is a problem with an exclusive diet of the latest hot commercial fiction and nonfiction.” I have a thousand problems with this sentiment, the first being that many of the classic works of literature she goes on to exclaim about were once “hot commercial” literature. For instance, Charles Dickens, a classic romantic author, and the father of the modern novel, was an extremely popular serialist. Being new and popular doesn’t immediately make your work trivial.

Leto seems unable to decide which side of the coin she falls on – either all literature has its merits or it doesn’t, but she can’t seem to stop herself from flip-flopping between the two. Along those lines, I found myself unable to decide if I loved or hated this book. There were moments were Leto’s descriptions hit spot on, and I couldn’t help but smile.

She hits the feel of a bookstore perfectly:
“Walking into a great bookstore elicits a powerful emotion. You’re flanked floor-to-ceiling by the spines of books, surrounded by tables decked out with new releases; everywhere your eye lands you’re suddenly aware of the pages and pages of histories, stories – sheer information – and the impossibility of ever getting to read it all.” 

And sums up every readers fear of technology (even a Kindle lover like myself): “As book covers slip from hands and are replaced by plastic tablets, reader lose the wonderful, clandestine opportunity to quickly create a mutual understanding with strangers. Then what will we be left with? And what about other print traditions? If bookstores vanish, where will an author’s book readings occur? And book signings? What will authors sign?” 

But she undermines children novels, saying at one point: “Some might argue that the Harry Potter series is not for children, but it is. Death and destruction aided by simple language and a lack of sex is child’s play.” Excuse me, “What?!?” Is she really suggesting that to be an “adult” book there must be complex language and sex? That’s ridiculous. Harry Potter was written for children, but it is not exclusively for anyone. That’s the beauty of books, they’re out there for everyone, anyone who will bother to pick them up and read them. To suggest otherwise is total BS. Plenty of adult books are written simply enough that a child could read and understand them, and having sex makes a book explicit more than mature.

In the next breath she makes a compelling argument for the “Term Change from ‘Bookworm’ to ‘Bookcat,'” writing, “Who decided that the equivalent of a person who reads often is a filthy, writhing grub? What bully exalted the reader’s isolationist nature by making them the type of creature no one else wants to be around? Which jock determined that we’re ugly and dull instead of something sexier, flashier, like a peacock or a kitten?” She goes on to list that cats are known loners who develop quirky habits, have a stubborn disposition, and love to curl up with things. I don’t know about the peacock thing, but I’m game to be a bookcat.

Her lists are where Leto really fails – they’re boring, long, and overwrought. To add insult to injury, when discussing popular authors with huge followings Leto fails to mention Tolkien. Not once in the entire book, a book about “books” mind you, does she bring up the Father of Fantasy, an author with one of the largest cult fan bases in the history of literature. In a chapter on “favorite authors” where she mentions everyone of note from Rowling ot Larsson to Lewis, leaving out Tolkien is a huge slap in the face to his work and his millions of fans.

I was not impressed.

In the end, I marked the heck out of this very-short read. I had tons of comments, both positive and negative, but I’m glad I picked it up. There were certainly some gems worth keeping. She ends her musings with this, and I’ll leave you the same way because it talks about why readers talk about books with each other. It’s fitting for a blog post on literature.

“We talk about this event we went through alone because it connects us together. You’re never more human than when you realize a sentence has the power to push and pull the emotions of millions.” 

Rating: 7/10

Overall Reactions: Jumping constantly between, “Yes. YES. YES!! That’s such a perfect way to put that, this is such a good book,” to, “NO NO NO! You pretentious B-Witch! None of that is true. I hate you and your stupid book!”

Up Next Week: Divergent by Veronica Roth, because I had to read it eventually.


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