When I think of reading, I remember myself at age eight; curled up in my grandmother’s cane rocking chair in my attic bedroom, curtains drawn against the fresh air and California sunshine other kids basked in on long summer afternoons. There, I devoured book after book borrowed from the young adult section at the library half a block away. Idyllic as it sounds, books were my escape from a badly broken childhood.
I think of me at age 12, marooned on a bunk-bed fortress in a cramped one-bedroom house in the forest, now 20 miles away from the nearest library. There, I read books kidnapped from my parents’ bookshelves and the Grade 8 library at school, carried by the armload. I coveted steamy V.C. Andrews novels and blew through each new month’s issue of Seventeen, sowing the seeds of a future eating disorder among the red bluffs and Douglas Firs of rural Oregon.
I read now less voraciously but with more joy. I read in flannel pajamas with hot tea and Kleenex boxes really nearby. I read selectively, and I read closely. I read for different reasons: Out of boredom, sometimes; out of a need for edification, often (grad school’s made this a must); out of a need for a universally beautiful story. And every once in a while, I’ll read sexy. And when I say sexy, I mean Anaïs Nin, Story of O, sexy-on-purpose sexy.
The distinction between sexy-on-purpose reading and just-plain-sexy reading is crucial in that only the former is actually sexy.
The notion that reading is sexy has taken flight in recent years, with “Reading is Sexy” bumper stickers and buttons popping up on the backs of Subarus and on cross-body shoulder bags in trendy literary cities everywhere. Variations on the meme, in the form of voluptuously-drawn pinups surrounded by haphazard piles of books, decorate Facebook walls, Tumblr blogs and Twitter feeds.
Anyone who went through junior high before Nerd was The Word will find it easy to get behind messages like “Reading is sexy.” And after decades of American anti-intellectualism led by beer-drinking good ol’ boys and ditzy valley girls bred jock culture to a fever pitch, the revenge of the nerds has been a balm to wounded bookworms’ souls everywhere. Gaming, reading, and general brainery have all taken their rightful places atop the cultural Pedestal of Coolness.
But while the intent is good, the messages miss the mark. A casual sampling of “Reading is Sexy” style memes reveals that the vast majority are targeted at women in one way or another. They aim to reassure us -– “Don’t worry, ladies, you can read and still be sexy!” –- or elevate us above other women with more traditionally feminine pursuits -– “Some women love fashion, but I love books [and am therefore more desirable].”
What are we to learn from these "Reading is sexy" memes? One, that reading is a pursuit that is pleasurable only if it pleases others –- primarily, of course, if you’re female. "Reading is sexy" images featuring men can be found, but as of yet there are no mass-marketed bumper stickers or tote bags on the market.
Men, we’re left to believe, should feel free to enjoy a good book anytime, without bothering to pose seductively during the act. Women, on the other hand, should read because the male gaze enjoys it. The message is also that for women, being sexy is good. That we should want to be sexy at all is assumed.
Next, we can also learn that reading as a hobby is superior to and actually cannot exist in the same person as other, more traditionally female-gendered interests like fashion. (And here I thought reading was a gender-neutral activity. I guess I was wrong.) See above: re “Some girls dream of a walk-in closet. I dream of a walk-in library.”
Where’s the meme saying, “Some boys dream of never-ending video games. I dream of never-ending books.”? Nowhere -– because men are automatically assumed capable of having more than one hobby –- and traditionally male-gendered interests like gaming are not seen as inherently negative in the first place.
Women who play video games or watch American football are still subject to female exceptionalism -– they are portrayed as precious gems among a gender sullied by sub-par, frivolous interests. Reading has joined the ranks of something all men can do; but only the few, exceptional –- and exceptionally sexy –- females can do.
Further, owning books is sexy. Bibliophile and director John Waters is often taken out of context and quoted on various memetic images as saying, “If you go home with somebody, and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ’em!” Never mind the more than 16,000 public libraries nationwide -– book ownership is what counts here. A shelf heavy with books in your home really is the perfect way to display social status. With a well-chosen collection of first editions, you can in one bookshelf prove:
- Your highbrow intellectualism
- Your sufficient income to purchase books
- Square footage to spare: After all, a small dwelling may not have space for a bookshelf
The vote is in and reading is now a Patriarchy-Approved™ way to Ensnare a Man (and prove you’re rich and smart, too!).
Promoting reading and book ownership is all well and good, but we’re doing it all wrong. These images of cisgendered, scantily-clad females reclining salaciously with books with quotes touting ownership do very little to promote reading and much more to bolster sexism and classism.
Not everyone has the space or funding to maintain impressive bookshelves at home. And not everything a woman does has to be sexy.