When I first walked into the Grolier Poetry Bookshop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, several years ago, the clerk was friendly enough, but it was clear that she didn’t really accept me as a serious customer until she realized I wasn’t just another tourist stopping in so I could say I’d been to the oldest continuously operating bookshop in the United States. When I asked whether she carried a former professor’s book of poetry, she initially brushed off the request and pointed me toward Mary Oliver’s then-newly released Dog Songs instead.
I got the sense that, because she didn’t take me seriously, she was recommending books she didn’t take seriously, either. I didn’t buy Dog Songs that day even though I was curious, partially because I don’t do well with sad animal stories, but partially because I didn’t want the shopkeeper to look down on me for being excited about “popular” poetry instead of “the real stuff.” (Though how Mary Oliver came to be known for anything but “the real stuff” is a mystery to me.)
I held out on Dog Songs for more than three years, even though I knew I’d like it and even though I was dying for an accessible collection to reignite my interest in poetry. I just felt like someone who’d majored in poetry in college ought to be above the popular stuff.
I continued operating under this delusion until, last fall, my beloved eleven-year-old lab passed away. I hadn’t seen it coming, and I was devastated. Weeks passed, and then months, and even after a well-meaning uncle gifted us with a new puppy to fill the void, I couldn’t move past Hank.
Finally, when I was at BookPeople one evening, I spotted Dog Songs on the bargain table upfront. Finally, I bought the thing, and I read it cover to cover that night. Twice. And it was exactly what I needed to celebrate Hank in a way that allowed me to move forward at the same time.
All this is to say that, while there will always be snobs and sticklers out there waiting to criticize us for reading and writing “the wrong things,” I think what’s important is that we’re reading and writing whatever we feel compelled to read and write.
I’ve written about it before (here and here, for example), but I think we have a big problem in our society when we complain that people in general—and kids especially—don’t read enough, but then we judge them when they read something we don’t believe is the “right” thing.
If Dog Songs is most popular among people who haven’t read a lot of poetry, shouldn’t we be happy that it’s introducing a whole new crowd to a genre with a fairly stuffy reputation? If a kid picks up Captain Underpants at the library, should we really take it away from him because of its potty humor, or should we revel in the fact that, for the first time, he’s excited about reading? And if a mother of three snags the latest teen romance trilogy from the young adult shelf, should we laugh at her ignorance or celebrate the fact that she’s found herself a lighthearted book to dip in and out of in quiet moments?
The truth is, it’s none of our business.
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