Written by Kate Willsky, who currently works as a freelance writer and editor. She’s worked at Chronicle Books and San Francisco magazine, written for The Huffington Post and The Jakarta Globe, and chronicled her adventures through southeast Asia here. Having recently made the transcoastal leap from San Francisco to New York, she is currently a bit chilly.
Some weeks ago, an essay with the attention-grabbing title of “You Should Date an Illiterate Girl” began popping up in my social media feeds. It’s unclear why the piece, written back in 2011 by a chap named Charles Warnke, went viral again recently, but whatever the reason, his satirical love letter to the unlettered was showing up on Reddit, on blogs, and being posted by Facebook friends with comments like “Yes. Thank you,” and “Truly beautiful.”
The essay didn’t sit right with me. Rather than subverting some alleged societal assumption that girls who read aren’t dateable, it seems to anthropologize this subspecies of human—“girl”—as a kind of rare bird whose experience is wholly unlike that of other humans; it codifies and concretizes the differences between “reading girls” and “non-reading girls” by way of baroque and broad stereotypes.
Here I should note a couple things: first off, I’m a girl. And I read. I do crazy things like reading Ulysses by choice and participating in NaNoWriMo and working in the publishing industry. It should also be made clear that, notwithstanding a baffling few readers who didn’t see the irony in the piece, Warnke’s essay exalts girls who read. Well, thanks for the compliment, but no thanks.
Let me enumerate the implications in the piece: pretty, smiling girls from the Midwest don’t read; it’s okay to smugly laugh at pretty smiling girls from the Midwest, probably because they don’t read; real human connection can’t be forged over trivial things like “shared interests” or “common ground” (i.e. it can only be forged over books); girls who don’t read like to decorate and care about things like the shower curtain being closed (i.e. girls who read don’t care about that stuff, and caring about that stuff is reproachable.); pursuing a career, buying a house, and having kids with your life partner is also reproachable; all girls who read are as articulate as the writers whose words they consume (I actually wrote the next Pulitzer winner after finishing The Orphan Master’s Son last week.), and thus they possess “a vocabulary that can describe that amorphous discontent as a life unfulfilled – a vocabulary that parses the innate beauty of the world and makes it an accessible necessity instead of an alien wonder”*; a girl who reads has also, by default, “read up on her syntax”; girls who read possess the personality-parsing and future-telling skills of a psychic therapist; girls who don’t read do not expect that their life partner be a full, robust, and honest person; girls who read expect their lives to be perfect, and expect someone else to write about them.
Before I get to the issue with the larger argument of the piece, let’s address the unfair, tired stereotypes that split girls into two distinct camps. The characterizations are lazy, the stuff of sitcoms and movies like She’s All That: smart girls are serious, introverted, unconcerned with material things; dumb girls smile and laugh, enjoy attention, are superficial. Also, you’re smart if you read; you’re dumb if you don’t. These assumptions are shaky at best and very problematic at worst, but that’s an issue for a different piece.
The larger conclusion Warnke reaches after touching on the above seems to be this: girls who read expect their lives to mimic the plotlines of books. This expectation is inexplicably glorified, while the notion of a life that mimics movies—and let’s acknowledge here that there are beautiful and profound movies and really dumb books, not just the reverse—is categorically derided in the first paragraph.
Regardless of the medium, though, this notion that it’s admirable to seek a life that’s worthy of a novel or a memoir or a film is bullshit. It must be the cause of deep unhappiness in countless young people, people who have had more experience with fictionalized reality than reality itself and expect the latter to conform to the former, who don’t understand that the most beautiful and fulfilling and lasting of relationships are sometimes the opposite of story-worthy, they have subplots that never resolve, there are character traits that don’t get explained, there are shitty chapters that aren’t edited out, there are ones who got away and no epilogue to tell you where they ended up.
Stories, whether in books or elsewhere, are essential to dealing with the human condition. I believe in the intrinsic and substantial value of fiction to leading a happy life, for moving toward nebulous truths, and for coping with the unanswerable. But to expect a life that follows a narrative arc worthy of being immortalized in the pages of a book is to set yourself up for lasting discontent, to miss out on the imperfect but glorious experiences life provides.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion famously said. “We live entirely by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images.”
The fallacy of Warnke’s assertions is right there in Didion’s words: we look back on the lives that we’ve lived, and to make sense of them, to give them meaning, we create a narrative. Attempting to do the reverse seems a dangerous, and pretty stupid, proposition.
Perhaps strangest about this piece was the response to it. First, there was the oddly high proportion of people who didn’t discern the thickly laid irony, and lashed out at the notion that Warnke really hates girls who read. They responded, arguing essentially the same point as the original piece, except with more emotion and without the satirical framing device. They took the “girl who reads” character to even greater extremes, describing her as the type who is “up at 2 AM clutching a book to her chest and weeping,” who is some sort of intellectual fairy: flaky, carefree and ethereal.
There were also those people who understood the irony and came out in agreement with Warnke, declaring that yes, this is what all girls who read are like! And, yes, that is a good thing! I’m truly confused by all the avid female readers and smart males in my life who are posting this essay: have we all been so convinced by caricaturized versions of “the girl who reads” that we honestly believe they’re somehow deeply better humans than those who don’t? As I said earlier, I believe that reading fiction can expand our understanding of each other and the joy we take from life – but I’m concerned about the suggestion that reading alters one’s essential emotional makeup.
I’m also afraid that romanticizing these “girls who read” has created a new form of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl—the Melancholy Pixie Reading Girl, perhaps—an archetype that is just as annoying and harmful as its predecessor. With this archetype, the act of reading is appropriated from the girl, no longer something she does because it fulfills, educates, challenges, or inspires her, but because it is a character trait that belongs to a type of girl she believes she should be, a type of girl that is as much a work of fiction as the content of her books. Her reading no longer belongs to her; it’s performative, not immersive.
I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to explain to my non-reading friends why fiction is important, trying to argue against their declaration that they only read nonfiction because, as they say, “When I read I want to be learning something.” Fiction has incorrectly been cast off as something non-essential, something fluffy and sentimental, something belonging to the realm of the emotional, the so-called feminine. It’s not seen as being directly connected to the larger world, to day-to-day human relations, to the facts of existence, or even to men. For all of Warnke’s obvious love of literature, I fear that his love letter to books has merely cemented external reasons for why girls should read, and confirmed fiction’s disturbing new place in society.
But maybe I’m just taking it all too seriously. After all, I’m a girl who reads.
*NOTE: This piece is not meant, in any way, to call into question the writing skill of the author. His words are darn pretty. I just don’t think what they’re saying, as a collection, is fair, correct, or poignant.