Let the brows run wild: A defense of lowbrow literature

Graphic by Diamond Pham

Richard Steele, an 18th century Irish writer who always looks like he just ate something sour, wrote: “Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.”

Well, Richard, sometimes my body doesn’t want to wake up at 6 a.m. to go on a run before my 8 a.m. class. Surprisingly, my mind doesn’t always want to muscle through the mental weight-lifting it requires to read certain books, either.

The concept of reading-as-exercise often pops up among the literati in what has been termed “The Battle of the Brows.”

There is highbrow literature: the crème de la crème of books, written with artistic intentions so pure that the beating of the writer’s heart pulses on the page. Highbrow lit intends to make the reader reflect and question, stretch and stride. Some examples are “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace, “The Trial” by Franz Kafka, and “The Stranger” by Albert Camus.

And then, there is lowbrow lit — gross entertainment for the masses. A guilty pleasure. The literary equivalent of binge-watching “The Bachelorette” after running out of episodes from “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”

The term “lowbrow” is slung like an insult at genre fiction, such as science fiction, fantasy, and romance. Some beloved personal favorites include “Harry Potter” by J.K. Rowling, “Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline, and “The Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown.

At its heart, the Battle of the Brows calls for readers to throw down their bookmarks in support of either reading-as-exercise (highbrow) or reading-as-relaxation (lowbrow). And here I am, wondering why the only option is to be ‘unibrow.’

I have nothing against highbrow literature itself — in my last column, I wrote about how my long-distance boyfriend and I are reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” together. Exercise, both for the body and the brain, is an essential part of life. I am in college, after all; I’m here to learn.

No, what bothers me is not the existence of highbrow lit, but rather the inferiority assigned to its lowbrow cousin.

The prestige associated with highbrow books stems all the way back to the birth of the use of brows to describe pop culture. In phrenology — yes, that phrenology — a high brow was considered a sign of intelligence according to German physician Franz Joseph Gall. This was the same argument used to paint white people as genetically superior. While this lovely branch of science has supposedly died down, or at least gotten a lot quieter, the terms “highbrow” and “lowbrow” have stubbornly survived.

Even if I put aside the classism, racism, and let’s add in a whiff of pretentiousness associated with the origin of the terms, I still can’t prescribe to the philosophy that reading is only reading if I feel tired afterward.

Every brain needs a break — mine certainly does. I don’t always want my entire life philosophy shredded to shards when I read (I’m looking at you, Albert Camus). I don’t always want the author to reinvent the English language either (Anthony Burgess), or write poetry with their prose (Vladimir Nabokov).

Sometimes, I just want a story that’s juicy. A story that sucks me in, or lets me be lazy. I want to read simply because it is fun.

Full disclosure, I have a friend for whom “fun” means battling through the maddening thicket of a philosophy scroll, sword in hand.

And all the power to her. I’ll be in my room reading “Game of Thrones.”

Or, if I’m particularly tired that day, maybe even that new YA series about vampires who fall in love with werewolves who are also secretly vampires.

There is nothing wrong with lowbrow lit. There is also nothing wrong with highbrow lit. Lowbrow, highbrow, low-high-mid brow — the border is blurring, and authors, such as Jennifer Egan and Pomona College’s own Jonathan Lethem, are increasingly seen as softly swaying between the two. Readers need to stop shaming other readers for having a healthy appreciation for both. In my book, cries of literary crimes should only be reserved for burning written works.

Besides, I’ve always been a let-your-brows-run-wild kind of gal.

Samantha Resnick is a linguistics major at Pomona College. She likes reading words, and sometimes, she likes writing them, too.

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