Books, Reading, & Libraries

The Omnivorous Reader: A Species in Danger of Extinction?

Omnivorous Reader

When people ask me for a reading recommendation, which is pretty often, I’ve learned to begin with the question, “What do you want to read?” I used to just start reeling titles off the top of my head. Books I’d recently finished and enjoyed, classics, and things I thought might match the person’s hobbies or interests. I’m an omnivorous reader who will read just about anything regardless of genre or format, so I used to assume that others were that way, too.

But I quickly learned to stop doing that.

Why?

Because too many people, midway through my listing of books, say, “No, no. I don’t want to read [Insert whatever here.] I only read [insert whatever here.]”

This amazes me. It floors me when someone says they only read fiction and never non-fiction, or vice versa. When someone says they only read regency romance and never contemporary romance, literary fiction, or mystery, I realize that this is a person I don’t understand. At the worst end of the spectrum is the person who only reads one author. Ever. And if that author dies or quits, their reading ceases, too. Those people scare me. The idea of subsisting on a diet of only one genre, sub-genre, topic or author is utterly alien to me. Unless I’m stuck on a desert island with no choices, I’m always going to roam the shelves, choosing whatever sounds interesting or looks good on a given day.

Sure, we all have our preferences and there’s nothing wrong with that. Books are a lot like food. There are things you love, things you hate, and things you enjoy from time to time. I prefer fantasy, YA, and non-fiction about creativity, the brain, or nature. But that doesn’t mean I will never, ever refuse to read anything else. In fact, I’ll read anything except the goriest horror. But I’ve learned that omnivores like me are not as common as I once believed.

Worse, I fear they may be becoming extinct. Or at least endangered.

There are apparently plenty of people who go through life content to only read one thing. Maybe they find it comforting. Perhaps there’s comfort and security in knowing what you’re going to get when you start a new book. In a world that seems to be going to hell in new ways every day, I can sort of understand the desire to stick with what you trust.

At the same time, though, my behavior during such times is to read everything I can get my hands on that offers any kind of chance of escape from the world for a while. I want to be amazed and wowed in times like these and that’s tough to find within a narrow field of choices. I have more success when I let my curiosity roam.

Perhaps there are financial considerations at play for those who limit themselves to only one type of book. Maybe they don’t have the money to buy a variety of books, so they want to stick with what they know they will enjoy. To those people I say, get thee to the library! A library makes being an omnivore incredibly easy and cheap. Even if you can’t get out, there are reading apps for your phone or device and most libraries have ebooks. And many communities offer some form of book mobile that serves shut-ins and those without adequate transportation.

Most unnervingly, today’s political climate encourages people to stay in their boxes. Many people only want to read things that confirm their worldview. Whether that’s fiction or non-fiction, too many people are reading only the things they know will not challenge their assumptions and biases. They find it comforting and somehow powerful to prove that their worldview is the “correct” one.

But it’s a false and dangerous comfort. When we stop reading about how others live and the diverse perspectives/solutions to the problems we all face as humans, we lose touch with our empathy. We become people that cannot embrace our common humanity. Instead we’re too busy setting ourselves up in opposition to one another. Us vs. them. Good vs. bad. With us or against us. Well read people know that the world isn’t so black and white.

We’ve seen that there are hundreds of other points of view, all of them just as valid as ours. That doesn’t mean we’re eager to adhere to them, simply that we know they’re out there and we can respect the right of others to hold their opinions. We can accept that we might not have cornered the market on “what’s right” and maybe there are others who are right, too. In fact, it can be liberating to understand that multiple points of view can be “right.”

Further, we appreciate the diversity. We appreciate that not everything is so easily categorized into neat boxes. It’s what makes life interesting. If we only ever seek to confirm our biases, we miss out on a lot of interesting perspectives and useful information. And that’s true whether you classify yourself as liberal or conservative, religious or agnostic, as a single race or mixed race, as gay or straight, or as none of the above. There’s no pride to be taken in consciously choosing to remain ignorant of the world and people around you.

The omnivorous reader is curious about the world and the people in it. She seeks to challenge her assumptions, to learn the things she doesn’t know. (She’s also very aware that there is much she does not know. Believe it or not, some people never realize that.) Omnivorous readers are the people who dream up the creative solutions to our problems because they draw from and combine different perspectives and sources of information. They are the people you go to when you need to know something.

We need more people like that in the world today. In a world where there are those who seek to restrict our access to information, or to provide information so slanted and biased as to be outright untrue, we need people who can call bullshit when they see it. How do they know it’s bullshit? Because they’ve seen the other side. They know that there is more out there than what’s being presented and they can guide others to the truth. Or at least to a version of the facts that’s not so wildly skewed to one side or the other. (And if you think information isn’t being restricted, I encourage you to read about book banning, funding cuts for libraries, and other forms of censorship. A  good start is the intellectual freedom blog written by the American Library Association.)

I’m not saying that omnivores are smarter or “better” than those who stick to one thing. Simply that there is value in reading widely. Those who choose to “stay in their lane” miss out on many interesting things. They choose to know less, be less curious, and embrace the limitations those lacks enforce. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that and if it works for you, great.

But I will always praise the omnivorous reader. Even if they read things I think are terrible, I applaud them for doing so. As a writer, this is even more important to my heart. Yes, I rely on readers of fantasy to buy my books. But I also hope that the omnivores will give them a chance, as well. I hope that a mystery or romance reader will pass my book in the bookstore or library one day and say, “Hey, cool,” and give my work a read. We writers rely on omnivorous readers. We love you!

I believe that the more people hunger for information and different forms or storytelling, the more we get. Look at the diversity movement in fiction right now. That happened because people said, “I want to read about X, Y, and Z.” They weren’t happy sticking with the status quo and always reading the same things that just confirmed the experiences they already had. People hungered for more and they’re getting it.

So hooray for the omnivores. Hooray for the people who are always learning, always looking for the next thing. Hooray for those who demand more things to read in all genres. I celebrate your willingness to resist a world that tries to force you into a box.  I applaud you for expanding your horizons and giving unknown authors a try.

Feel free to ask me for reading recommendations any time. I think we’ll get along fine.

(Photo courtesy of Papafox)

Talk to me!