Last weekend, I had the good fortune to stumble upon Marcy Campbell’s terrific essay “Laugh, and the Book Club Laughs With You.” She writes about the challenges of finding just the right book for her book club — a club made up of moms whose tastes have changed over the years, gradually eschewing the heavy books for the lighter ones. Campbell — a writer and mom herself — speculates on why these intelligent, curious women are less and less likely to want to read a book that ventures into serious, difficult territory. (Check the article out — it’s a great read).
And wow, I could relate.
Once upon a time, I read lots of intense, depressing novels. I didn’t read them because they were depressing; I read them because they were well-written, and because I figured that they would probably offer lots of keen insight into the human condition. And they did. But somewhere along the way, my tastes changed. And — as Campbell found in her own life — motherhood had a lot to do with it.
It’s not just that I have less time to read, although that is true. (Even when my life is at its craziest, I have to find time for books — it’s like breathing to me.) It’s rather that parenting – in my case, being a mom who also has a job outside the home — drains a lot out of me. To use a wonderfully British word, by the end of the day, I’m knackered. The kids are in bed, the schoolwork is prepped for tomorrow, and I do not want to read anything heavy or angst-y. I want a cozy mystery. I want a lovely memoir. I want Miss Read. I want something that will help me unwind, melt into the armchair, and — later — melt into sleep.
Campbell points out that the moms in her book club also want to avoid certain topics in their fiction– primarily, anything having to do with the death of a child. I get that, too. Gone are the days when I could read Beloved and marvel at Toni Morrison’s mastery of the language, with the story’s tragedy safely in the realm of the imaginary. Now, any story involving children being hurt is just too real to me, because there are two very sweet faces I can superimpose on the characters’. I simply don’t want to go there.
Yes, I feel a certain guilt about all this. I hate feeling that motherhood has made me less literarily daring than I used to be. My changing tastes seems to confirm some of the insidious stereotypes about how becoming a mom makes you less interesting, less intellectual.
But then I let myself off the hook. Because one could also say that motherhood has made me more aware of certain aspects of the human condition than I was before. I have more emotional nerve endings than I used to, and that is itself a kind of spiritual intelligence that has made my life much richer. In fact, spiritual books — memoirs, books on prayer, reflections on the intersection of life and religion — are also a larger part of my reading diet than they ever used to be. Books on spirituality seem to neutralize some of the angst and pain I find in fiction, and in life — or, at least, they give me a way to make sense of it all.
It’s not that I never read serious fiction or tough stuff, or that I never will again. (In my life as an English teacher, I routinely read tragic literature, books about small boys on an island trying to kill each other or migrant families losing everything in a flood. Admittedly, it helps when you’ve read the book fifteen times and know what’s coming up.) But I do have to acknowledge that, over time, my reading habits have changed in ways I could not have anticipated. And there is a certain power in understanding why.
What about you? Have your reading tastes changed over time? What do you read now that you never used to before?
Mary Cassatt, The Reader