What to read for fun (Part 1 of 2): Guilty pleasures.

reading

Reader, I am a book snob.

This isn't really a revelation - I've been a book snob for years. But it stings to realize it right now, because for some reason, these days, (this has to do with writing my novel, I'm sure) literary fiction is not compelling to me. I can't read the novels I used to love reading.

I feel uncomfortable to say it out loud, but there it is. I read book reviews in The New York Times and they make me cringe. I have a stack of new novels on my shelf that I know I should want to read — including The Bone Clocks and Adult Onset — and I can't do it. Even my favourites, my talismans, the books I read over and over, like Bel Canto and Two Girls, Fat and Thin — when I look at them, it feels like a sack of wet concrete has been dumped on my shoulders.

Can't I read books for fun anymore?

I find myself going to the shelves of guilty pleasures. You know the ones. Books that have the author's name in big, metallic font on the cover — even bigger than the title of the book. The ones that come in trilogies. The ones that you can buy at library book sales for 50 cents apiece. The ones that are made into movies, and then re-released with pictures of the actors on the cover!

You know what's funny about these "guilty pleasure" novels?

They all have BESTSELLER written in block letters at the top. Which means that they sell in extraordinary numbers. Which means that lots and lots of people buy these books. Doesn't that mean that most people who read are reading the guilty pleasure novels?

Why is that? Thinking about that prompted these questions:

Why do we feel so guilty about pleasure? Should we really feel sheepish about reading for fun? Don't these books also have an important role in our lives?

Why do people read, anyway?

I read to learn how to write. For me, this has always been the case - books are my teachers. I love to be challenged and impressed by sentences, stories and characters. When I read, I imagine how it would feel to be writing what I'm reading. Writers do this kind of double-reading: we read to understand the story, and we read to understand the writing of the story, at the same time.

But what about people who aren't writers? Why do they read?

Because they want to be entertained. They want to stretch their imagination and be delighted by magic. They want to laugh, to cry, to be scared, intrigued, turned on. People read because they want to feel something!

We want to see how people find themselves in dark places, and we want to learn how they get out of trouble. We want to watch how people transform themselves in this process.

We want to make our thoughts stop spinning, to let go of our worries after a too-full day, before we go to sleep. We read to feel safe, secure and calm. We want to feel like we have a friend who understands us.

Sound familiar?

Yes, these are all of the exact reasons I first fell in love with reading, too!

When I was a kid, I loved the public library. It was one of the only places I felt seen and understood. If I was reading Zilpha Keatley Snyder, Carolyn Keene, Judy Blume, and Enid Blyton, I was not alone. If I was reading Sue Townsend, Steven King, Terry Pratchett, Mary Higgins Clarke, or Rosamunde Pilcher, I was safe.

This year, I promised myself I wouldn't grind through any tasks that feel more like obligation than joy. I didn't know that would include grind-through reading, too. These days, I only want to read books that feel fun and exciting to read.

In my search for reading for fun and excitement, I've been brought back to the kind of reading I used to do before I became a "writer." Back when I dreamed of becoming a writer.

When did I become so judgmental? Why so snobbish? What am I afraid of? I'm afraid of not looking smart enough. I'm afraid people won't take me seriously.

But you know what? I don't care anymore! From now on, I'm going to read whatever I want. Maybe even something with a unicorn on the cover.

xo,

Sarah Selecky

     


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Writing Retreat at The Lemon Tree House.

36 comments

Lindsay Edmunds

I like old Perry Mason mysteries myself. Books that deliver comfort and pleasure -- these are gifts.
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Hey, Sarah! Here's a little fluff for you. The Flying Falcones, A Novella by Susan Payetta. That's me. Guilty as charged.
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Amanda Niehaus-Hard

Sarah, I had to smile when you mentioned Zilpha Keatley Snyder. She was such a HUGE influence in my childhood, and I’m sad that I never got to meet her and share my love for her work. (She just passed away in October.) I have a full set of her novels waiting for my toddler when he’s old enough. I also have The Bone Clocks sitting on my nightstand with a bookmark about 1/3 of the way in and it’s a great read – BUT it’s the kind of book that requires your undivided attention for a decently long period of time. You can’t read a few pages here and there and expect to follow it or appreciate it properly. (Being a toddler mom, those large chunks of time come to me very rarely.) This, I think, is the draw of the “best seller.” It’s written to be consumed in bites, like popcorn: a kernel here, a kernel there. In high school I had English teachers who condemned my love of Stephen King and my best friend’s love of romances. They called our books “trash novels” and they did their very best to make us feel bad for reading them, often asking when we would “outgrow” those kinds of stories. Well, I’m 44 now and I’m a published horror author. My friend is 45 and she’s a successful romance and fantasy author. I guess we never “outgrew” anything, other than guilt over reading what we loved. I refuse to call any book a “guilty” pleasure. Some books I expect to challenge my intellect, others to challenge what I know about humanity, still others to challenge what I believe about love. Sometimes I have the time to sit down for a complicated meal and sometimes I only have a few minutes for a snack. I make no excuses for my own life. Good for you for standing up to yourself regarding your own “snobbery.” Ha!
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Yes, read whatever you want, I agree! I'm even thinking about purchasing a comic book or two. I miss reading "Archie" and "Dennis the Menace" comic books, from my childhood. A few years ago my child and I had an outright blast reading "Captain Underpants" books together. I love children's books and literary books and all sorts of books.
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Elle Flythe

I think much of "book snobbery" is really about snobbery toward audiences. If children are dumb and science fiction fans are social rejects and only unambitious, uneducated housewives read romance, then those books could never be the ones I'd want to read or write! It's a shame because there's gorgeous, highly skilled writing going on all over the place.
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A friend recently defended reading a popular YA trilogy (after I showed my distaste): It's for entertainment. Whenever I read, I'm no longer in my own head but in someone else's. For someone who's tired of worrying about the same things and running through the same schedules and reminders, I find that comforting.
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I completely understand this post! How come, as we get further into our art, we tend to become more snobbish / pretentious? It takes so much effort to let go of this mentality. How long would you say it took you to get over your snobbery and have fun again?
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Mark Johnson

Ah, the old Masters and Johnson conundrum! It is possible to love something so much that you squeeze it to death, like Lenny in "Of Mice and Men". After I read Blake Snyder's "Save the Cat", and was able to predict down to the minute when a dramatic turn would occur in 99.5% of the movies I watched, I lost my love for movies (and any chance for a movie date). One of the best things a writer can do, in my opinion, is to join a reading group without letting on that one is a writer, and without indulging in 'writerly' comments; this will definitely restore one's faith both in the craft of writing and in the integrity and thoughtfulness of the 'average' reader. It is important, however, to remember what Ezra Pound says in "The ABC of Reading": "Literature in news that STAYS news. The INTEREST in a statement can be more or less durable. It is very difficult to read the same detective story twice. Or let us say, only a very good 'tec' will stand re-reading, after a very long interval, and because one has paid so little attention to it that one has almost completely forgotten it." How many times have I read a 'guilty pleasure' book more than once? I can count the number on the toes on a horse's hoof. How many times have I re-read the same story by Borges? I have lost count. One good antidote to the loss of pleasure from over-exposure is a little volume by D.T. Sazuki entitled "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind". I am happy to say that I love movies again, but with a deeper love that comes with deeper understanding.
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Thanks for the reminder of why I'm 'grinding out a word count'. Sound soul-crunching and lifeless? Yup! Just like how I feel about reading all the 'literature' accumulating at my bedside table. I may just take your advice and find a book with a unicorn on the cover, kick back, and get under the covers for a guilty read! Thanks for your soul-searching words!
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Susan Cruickshank

I so enjoyed this post. Thank you for sharing your insides with us Sarah, for putting into words what many of us may feel but haven't been brave enough to say.
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I get this post so much. And just reading about reading for pleasure made me simultaneously excited and feel my shoulders drop away from my ears. Ahhhh. I don't feel guilty at all about what I read. Only that I allow myself to do it. Unless it's for influence. I HAVE to get away from that and give myself permission to read, or do anything, just for the pure pleasure of it. I've been suffering for a long time now from the niggling feeling that I should be doing something (blogging, for example). It's been tortuous, really. And then I just read this part: "This year, I promised myself I wouldn’t grind through any tasks that feel more like obligation than joy. I didn’t know that would include grind-through reading, too" and it thunked into place in me. I know what I have to do. Thank you, Sarah. And oh, I wish you so much reading fun!! I somehow decided to do this, finally, on Sunday. I'm reading Pinocchio. An utterly ridiculous, at times impossible, gorgeously creative story. Collodi didn't give a rip about much while writing, it seems. He just let his imagination free. I'm trying not to let this reading become about writing, and the difference is that I get a cozy, desirous feeling when I think of or see the book. I want to read.
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Jennifer Louden

I am so with you. Maybe it's age but now I only read what I want. I find it comes in waves - difficult reading, learning reading, fun reading. I follow my desire!
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Jennifer Louden

also can't wait to hear what your fun reads are!
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Agnes Gillis

Yes, Sarah, thre are fun novels. You've sent me down memory lane., a snowy lane boxed in byspy npvels written during The Cold War Year. I loved anything that had a winter setting and I remember looking out my front window seeing the evidence of a burgeoning snow storm and setting off on foot for the library to find just the right book for that snow storm. I's come home and pull on a pair of home made wool socks ,don my heavy flannels, and stick my feet in the oven of our coal stove resting my feet on the drying kindling for the star of the morrow's fire. Then I 'd wrap a blanket about my shoulders and start reading Alistair MacLean "Where Eagles Dare" all nice and cozy while the hero battled enemies ane elements. aah! I'm still reading novels for fun. Elizabeth George and PD James are two of my favorites...thanks for the memries..
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I hope you'll share with us what your guilty pleasures are. I go through phases, when life is hard I want my reading easy. After 9/11 I re-read all the Harry Potter books. When my dad got sick the first time I went back to my comforting favorites, Anne of Green Gables, Pride and Prejudice and Harry Potter again. Life is in a challenging place again. My dad is sick (again) and on his way out of this world. Each time I go home I stop at the bookstore and linger in the teen fiction section. I've worked my through all of the John Green books and my latest obsession is the Divergent series. I need these books now and if I'm honest, I don't feel guilty in the least. Love, Cecilia ox
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Reading and writing is such lonely work, but your posts always makes me feel less alone. And the same goes for your Story Is a State of Mind. So thank you!
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Hi Sarah, so you are a book snob but sometimes we have to say: Enough! I'm not reading this anymore and you put it away or return the book to the library or donate it or whatever. Just sometimes, we do lose track of what brought us to this writing phenomena because we get so tied up in the details. Yes, the public at large want to be entertained and read a really good story and you're right in that that's what most likely brought us to this wonderful world in the first place. Some of us may lose sight of that in all the architecture of learning how to write, even learning how to be free and rock and roll with it. That too is a skill. We must not lose sight of 'being' with the writings and readings. The public don't get caught up in the jargon or systems that us writers use to wield our craft. Why would they? I wonder if our reading/writing senses have become so honed and fine-tuned that the broader levels get overwhelmed and blocked. Like a musician who knows everything about that artform, he/she may eventually fail to hear the pureness of an amateur band or fail to be moved by a child having the ability to sound the notes or play simple tunes. He/she may only hear what's wrong and not listen for the roundness of the performance and they are no longer moved by it. Like a wine connoisseur who only drinks the best and may lose the ability to be satisfied or thrilled by plonk ever again. Let's not lose the skill to be at one with all aspects of writings and readings, we can critique and also be at one with it. Let's keep a completely open mind to all that is on offer. If you don't like what you're reading, you just don't. No judgement. You'll come back to it, or you won't. It's just a phase and perhaps sometimes we just need to put our things away and pick up a children's book, a bestseller, a romance novel or go to the library and walk up and down the aisles and just pick out whatever catches your eye. Let's be playful in our readings and writings and rediscover the fun.
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frances Bauer

Thanks, Sarah - perfect! I love reading for pleasure but still find (in the middle of Louse Penney or Michael Connolly) the writer in me pops up like a gopher, noting the recurrence of the emblematic licorice pipe, or the references to Vietnam. But hey, it's a happy gopher!
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Sarah Selecky

Yes! Mysteries! Adding Perry Mason to my list.
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Sarah Selecky

Thank you, Susan! "Fluff" accepted. Pleasure.
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Sarah Selecky

Oh Amanda, I didn't know that ZKS passed away - just last month? Oh, how I adored her books. I don't know where my old copies are anymore - I might have to indulge in a whole new set. The Egypt Game was my favourite. Thank you for sharing your experience in high school. I don't remember anyone overtly telling me what I shouldn't read, but I must have also absorbed it from the culture, like so many of us. I do think it's important to read widely. The food analogy is perfect. I mean, sometimes I have popcorn and salad for dinner!
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Sarah Selecky

Oh my goodness, yes! Archie! I also loved The Sandman comics. And graphic novels are the BEST.
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Sarah Selecky

Yes - and sometimes, it's not where you'd expect it.
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Sarah Selecky

Exactly. Me too. A book that can get me out of my head is a gift.
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Sarah Selecky

Well, I've been secretly having fun with comfort reads for a couple of years now. Early this year, I came out and said that I wanted to write something that's fun to read (gasp). And this post was another layer of that same onion. Yikes - I've been working on this for years, Kelly!
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Sarah Selecky

Oh, so true, Mark. I have re-read short stories I adore so many times I've lost count. Go Back by Karen Joy Fowler - Hills Like White Elephants by Hemingway - People Like That Are the Only People Here by Lorrie Moore. But this requires a different state of mind. And the guilty pleasure books - I love them, in part, because I feel so easy about giving them away after I read them.
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Sarah Selecky

Yes, Bridgit! Write what you want to read. Write what you want to read.
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Sarah Selecky

Thanks, Susan. Honestly - I was nervous about this post.
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Sarah Selecky

Thank you, Steph! I'm writing something that occasionally feels ridiculous, so I truly take heart in your description of Pinocchio. I want to feel that cozy, desirous feeling when I sit down to write, too. I'm glad that the obligation vs. joy thing helped thunk something into place for you - more joy. More joy!
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Sarah Selecky

Thank you Jen! Stay tuned for the next post. I share a few. :)
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Sarah Selecky

Agnes! Tremendous. You transformed reading for pleasure into an entire lifestyle that winter! This sounds like HEAVEN.
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Sarah Selecky

John Green is on my list, too. :) I love the permission you give yourself to read for pleasure and comfort, Cecilia, and how honest you are about it. Truly, if I can write a book that would give someone some comfort during hard times, that would mean so much more to me than any award or prize.
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Sarah Selecky

Thank you, Carol! You are not alone! :) xo
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Sarah Selecky

Thank you, Dawn! Your comment reminded me to beware the "Anders" syndrome (from Bullet In the Brain). No judgment. Too much criticism can dissolve playfulness and joy. I'm with you on rediscovering FUN.
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Sarah Selecky

I have that same gopher, Frances. And I guess we can be grateful for it - it's awareness, after all. I love and respect a reader with a sharp eye. As long as it doesn't get in the way of fun, right?
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Krista Lee Asselstine

I feel happier after reading this. I feel freed up! :) Thank you.
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