The Literature Question Guilt Trip

One of the consistent aspects of the interviews we have conducted is the way in which people answer the question about how literature impacts their lives today. Almost every interviewee said that they did not have time to read literature. Many people are so overwhelmed by work that they simply say they are unable to spend any time reading, though all interviewees express a desire to read more. Work becomes the center of many of our interviewee’s lives so that all other activities, especially non-productive, leisure activities like reading are pushed to the side.

For example, Nancy Chorpenning, a small business advisor says, “I hate to say that my reading habits now are really business focused.” While she says that she thinks of F. Scott Fitzgerald when she thinks of literature and leisure reading, she mostly reads books that relate to her work.

The interesting part about this seemingly obvious fact is that so many people express guilt over their inability to read more or embarrassment over the content of their so-called non-literature reading. Nancy “hates to say” she isn’t reading what she thinks of as literature. One interviewee, who chooses to remain anonymous, said that while she does have time to read with her kids, she “only” reads mystery novels in her free time. She does not consider her reading academic or rigorous enough to be worthy of her degree in English. Another interviewee, Lauren Saks, a grad student and violin player says, “It’s like the one thing I regret is that I feel like I don’t have any time to. Um, yeah. [Laughs]. Cause if I’m, like if I have spare time and I’m—I always feel guilty if I’m not practicing music or writing music or something like that, which is bad. [Laughs].”

The only participant who claims to frequently read what she calls literature (by her own definition), is Anne Weinberg, who belongs to a book club, and who seems to be the only participant so far, whom I would not consider a white-collar worker. Every single other interviewee is either a student/part time worker, or a white-collar professional and all of them regret their inability to read the amount and “quality” of literature they desire.

It is as if the interviewees feel guilt over having less leisure time than they perceive they should. I believe this is the case because the little leisure time they have is spent attending to other life issues and mentally relaxing. Reading requires a great amount of leisure time simply because it takes longer to read a novel than it does to watch a movie. While a novel may be mentally stimulating, it can be frustrating leaving an unresolved plot until more time is available to finish it. Movies and television shows are more appealing for those with little leisure time because they require less of a time commitment for almost the same amount of pay off when the story resolves. So while interviewees may believe they feel guilty because they spend their time watching television rather than reading literature, in reality, they simply do not have time to read large amounts of text, especially after spending such a large amount of time working. I believe most people do not have the mental stamina to read a novel before bed as so many interviewees mention that they wish they could.

So what can we take from this pattern of guilt being expressed for lack of leisure time? I think that a lot of workers, not just our interviewees believe that they should hold themselves to the standards of the old middle/upper classes who had a large amount of leisure time at their disposal, time that was often spent reading and educating oneself. The mastery of and ability to discuss subjects like literature has been upheld by our society as the marker of a successful, well-rounded person. Although the workload and pay have been drastically changed from prior to the era of the white-collar worker up until now, the standard for success has hardly changed at all, save to become possibly more rigorous. Now, everyone expects themselves to read like a wealthy aristocrat while simultaneously working at jobs that require more and more of one’s time. Thus, our interviewees express guilt over the fact that they are unable to read as much as they believe they “should.”

I will be interested to see if this pattern continues with our upcoming interviews.