Are you what you read?
Every semester on the first day of classes, I have a routine icebreaker for my English majors: "What is the one book you have read in class or otherwise that has left the biggest impact in you?" The answers are often charming, deep, silly, and even downright hilarious. For every The God of Small Things and Crime and Punishment, there are novels and comics and mangas that are wholly unfamiliar to me and then there's the dreaded "I don't really read". This January, for instance, student after student kept mentioning Colleen Hoover's latest as the most gripping book they have read. As the author's name kept popping up and I struggled hard to keep a straight face all the while insisting that I am not judging, soft giggles and eventually roaring laughter erupted in the classroom. They knew I was judging.
What I meant to say is this: don't just read Colleen Hoover, please and thank you. Reading habit is an intensely personal affair and it speaks to a person's taste, family and environmental background, class position, place specificity, education etc. Reading is also an escape and how one chooses to escape the general drudgery of life is no one's business but their own. And yet, few experiences in life can prepare us to be more sensitive, more inclusive, and generally kinder human beings than reading. Particularly reading stories about people, places, and experiences that are different from ours.
Growing up in 90s' Dhaka, before smart phones and Instagram reels, before Netflix and YouTube, reading was the form of entertainment I preferred and frankly, easily had at my disposal. As a young girl, I devoured every Teen Goyenda and Sheba Prokashoni book available and learned all about love and loss from Humayun Ahmed. Zafar Iqbal taught me about friendships, and I would like to think my brief interest in post-apocalyptic literature was inspired by both authors' science fiction work. My teenage sensibilities were also shaped by the classics—I was consumed by Rabindranath's short stories and novels, rereading certain lines and sections, and imagining what it must have been like to know the poet. I learned to love Jogajog's Kumu but resented Sharatchandra's heroines' single-minded obsession with feeding their loved ones. I went on adventures with Kakababu and Feluda, and Shirshendu's epic family sagas and Shomoresh's complex women had me gripped. At 17, I already knew I was going to study literature at university because nothing else made better sense to me than getting lost in the world of words, feelings, unrequited love, unparalleled passion, pathos, humour, and tears. Standing underneath the massive trees in our school yard, hiding behind the staircase leaning against the dirty walls, my friends and I would spend hours debating scenes, dialogues, characters.
It was only in my teen years that I started reading fiction in English. My equally bookish friends and I would pool our Eidi and buy secondhand books from Nilkhet. Those were the years when we read tons of Mills and Boons and Sweet Valley High. And here is where the literature professor in me bristles against my Colleen Hoover loving students. I am against policing entertainment; I refuse to use the term guilty pleasure for anything (yes, even Emily in Paris) because if something is entertaining, guilt has no place in it. I am also never going to malign the reading of romance books or think of them in demeaning terms such as 'chick lit' or 'women's fiction'. Aside from the obvious profit made by these books written by women for women, disrespecting women's reading choices is a form of minimising women's experiences and labelling them as invalid and one should have no time for that.
And yet, popular fiction can promote certain destructive, reductive ideals for relationships. I know because I have read them. One book that has been trending on Bookstagram and is indeed a BookTok sensation is the Twisted Series by Ana Huang. The male protagonist is the "grumpy" to the female protagonist's "sunshine" but that's not the issue. There's lying, violence, revenge, and utter devastation in the wake of their love story and if fan reactions are to be believed, fans are enthralled regardless. The frenzy reminded me of a viral video by a Bangladeshi influencer from a year or so ago where she is seen making fun of women who want to "fix the damaged guy". My point being, reading hyper-fictionalised accounts of dreamy-unhealthy romantic heroes is great as long as we're aware of the limitations of that portrayal. Such portrayals can propagate violence and reduce love to a mere act of possession.
As for the readers among us, perhaps occasionally we can pick up something other than viral TikTok sensations? To my students I eventually analogized that just as it's not healthy to only consume junk food, one should challenge one's palette by trying something healthier and dare I say, more refined. Sure, Alex Volkov sounds dreamy, but you know who else was dreamy? Velutha. Please, go look him up.
Dr. Nazia Manzoor is an assistant professor at the Department of English and Modern Languages, North South University.