Here is a lie we’ve all been told: books will make you smart.
This week, the Internet churns once more over the latest article denouncing adults who read young adult fiction. The argument is always the same: young adult/ thrillers/ romance/ sci-fi/ chicklit/ picture books/ subway maps are not as good for you as adult literary/ nonfiction/ dead Russians/ the calorie lists on Chipotle menus. Lovers of the former are always ready with a defense — either that the former really are as quality as the latter, or that not everything you put in your brain has to be good for you.
Rather than contemplating a new defense — surely, I could, as I write young adult fiction —I wondered instead why we keep seeing the same scuffle in different hats.
And I think it’s because of this untruth: books will make you smart.
I believe the book industry may be one of the few industries that promises you will actually become more clever if you buy their product. Car companies might swear you’ll look cooler in an Audi than a Kia, but they don’t tell you that you’ll actually become a better person behind the wheel of one. Computer companies might shout that their equipment is smarter, but they stop short of promising that your entire life philosophy will improve if you buy their products. When I bought my office chair, no one told me, “Well done. People who sit in leather chairs turn out to be stronger women.”
But we have this prevailing theory that books will make you smart, and it’s this theory that allows us to judge a book’s quality by how far it stretches your mind. According to this idea, if it doesn’t make you smarter, it’s a lesser book. It becomes a guilty pleasure, like food that doesn’t contribute to your daily vitamin requirement. Cue up the articles on the tragedy of the populace reading young adult, or turning to magazines, or — horrors, shall I whisper it — watching television in lieu of reading.
Don’t they know that reading makes you clever? Don’t they know that television and movies are for non-intellectuals? Hoi polloi turn the TV on. If you’re someone who’s going to be someone, you open a book.
But books aren’t smart: stories are.
Not all stories, of course. There are wise stories and flippant stories, stories that stretch your mind and stories that only make you laugh. Stories that are true and stories that won’t ever be true.
A book is merely a medium for carrying a story. So is a television series. So is a movie. So is a play, or a or a puppet show, a video game, a note from a stranger. The medium itself carries absolutely no promise of intellectual content. There are shallow books and world-changing movies. There are ridiculous non-fiction texts and complex young adult novels.
A book is just words. A movie is just images. These things can’t change you.
Only the story can.
So if we can accept that books can — and are meant to — fulfill all kinds of purposes, we can stop pretending that a good book only means a book that demands probing analysis. If we can further accept that genre is merely a jacket for the story, we can possibly also stop arguing that this shelf or that shelf in the bookstore has the corner on intellectual greatness. Someone who writes smart stories can put them into any form, any medium, any length — and they do. Look at the artists who work across several different forms. Do they grow more or less clever when their stories are filmed or shelved, packaged for grown-ups or packaged for teens? If you long for a mind-bending story, you can find them anywhere, if you look for them. If you’re looking for a stupid story, I promise you that you can find them anywhere, too. If you’re looking for grotesque generalizations, you’ll also find that confirmation bias is a powerful thing.
Books don’t make you smart. Stories do. And that is a truth I’ll defend to anyone.