Critics have a bad name. They’re often described as too elite or too picky, out of touch with the average consumer, over-educated and underexperienced.

Critics have a bad name. They’re often described as too elite or too picky, out of touch with the average consumer, over-educated and underexperienced.

And these are the polite criticisms.

I keep this stuff in mind when I write a column that functions as a book review, but it’s not always easy to tell what the average consumer of my column, and the things I write about in it, will be. I’d be skeptical of anyone who called me over-educated or elite with regard to literature, but I do critique and examine things I read, and it’s a process that I’d like to talk about today.

Here’s why: I think you should be doing it too.

Before you throw your hands up in disgust, I’m not advocating the end of all “fun” reading. You don’t have to light your collection of genre paperbacks on fire and start an exclusive curriculum of fine art “literature” to be a responsible, critical reader.

I read pulp science fiction and comic books and Jane Austen novels re-written to include sea monsters. These are all things that are ripe for criticism at a number of levels, from social responsibility to scientific accuracy, to simple plausibility of characterization and plot. I’m not saying that no one should read ridiculous things or that we shouldn’t derive enjoyment from things that leave a little to be desired in the areas of appropriateness or accuracy.

But I am saying that readers should be as aware of what they’re consuming as possible, and that they should try to expand this awareness at every opportunity. Think of it like looking at nutrition labels. Sure, everybody needs candy bars and fast food every now and then, but that kind of diet will poison you slowly if it’s what you live on, and the first step in getting away from it is being aware of it.

And this is where responsible reading is actually way easier than healthy eating: the potential side effects of reading subpar content can be alleviated by the simple process of awareness. Criticism and analysis aren’t bad words, and they don’t require any sort of elite education. They’re ways of engaging your entertainment at a meaningful level.

Fiction doesn’t have to be completely politically correct or socially aware or be researched as thoroughly as a scientific journal article in order to be entertaining. But it is important for readers to be capable of recognizing the level of accuracy and responsibility that’s present in what they’re reading. Asking yourself tough questions about the books you consume doesn’t stop reading from being fun. But it will make you a smarter literary consumer, and it will make you aware of entirely new ways to enjoy books.