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Books of Shame and Guilt

April 8, 2009

Do you read books you are slightly embarrassed about? Would not dare open in public or let others know you indulge in that genre?

I am not saying that these books might be bad, or poorly written, but for some reason, on any normal circumstance would never get past your front door, much less have a place in your reading pile.

comfort cake.. you get the meaning

My guilty pleasures run a mile high – from epic fantasy tomes ( Terry Brooks, Sara Douglass) to circumspective high brow romance Georgette Heyer novellas. They represent comfort reading – like a large slice of warm chocolate cake and a mug of cocoa and marshmallows, served in the snuggly warmth of a fluffy blanket on the couch…. in the middle of the week when everyone else is at work.

At its best these guilty pleasures whisk you away, suspending any belief or brain cells you may have had, relaxing your usual literary standards, and quashing your normal cynical authors voice into a contented squeak; whilst your intelligent brain quietly melts out of your ears.

I own all but the latest Wilbur Smith books – devouring them incessantly when I first discovered them. In truth, I was totally in love with one of my friends older brothers – who collected and read these novels. The family had recently emigrated from South Africa and in my deluded state believed that if I knew more about where they had come from (as obviously Wilbur Smith was an undisputed historical expert on the matter) then perhaps I might have had a chance to be ‘seen’ as more than a daydreaming 15 year old school girl.

I understand that there are both readers and authors who would consider “genre” fiction potentially lower in ‘quality’ than literary fiction. This has been a topic of discussion amongst our own Write Anything writers in the past. But I think that depends more on the author than the genre. If its poorly written fiction or poorly executed literature – it still has the same outcome – readers who struggle to grasp the meaning and message.

For parents and educators of the young, finding age appropriate material can bring the worst literary snob out. Many will lean towards ‘literary’ texts to encourage an expanding vocabulary or a broadening of the mind. Most readers are then likely to either be bored by inappropriate material because they don’t understand it, or they simply skip it. I remember as an 11 year old feeling left out as I was the only one who hadn’t read Lord of the Rings. I think I got through the first chapter and was so bored with it, I didn’t pick it up again till I went to Uni – and totally loved it then. I wonder now if those other 11 year olds had been told that they aught to read certain books as a mark of intelligence and if they had actually enjoyed or even understood most of it?

English classes at school is usually populated with dreary and out of touch texts like Jane Eyre; where as something perhaps more upbeat and culturally appropriate might serve the outcome of literature being accessible for teenagers. I say – bring in guilty pleasures for kids – Harry Potter, Sweet Valley High, dare I say it….Twilight?

I also wonder if there really is such thing as a guilty reading pleasures. The literacy rates in most countries are dropping substantially. Our society is bombarded with dribble passed off as entertainment on the television, internet, and video-games. I would suspect in the near future that if you were able to read a book without pictures, you may be hailed as a near genius.

Image courtesy of Flicka

Annie Evett has shown you hers… now its your turn to fess up and show us all yours….. She dreams of a time she is allowed to sit on the couch and read dribble.. alone… with her hot chocolate and fluffy blanky.  You can catch her growing amount of websites and blogs here
  1. April 7, 2009 10:43 am

    I always think that reading anything at all….a classic, a sub-classic, a new book, a comic, a magazine….is good reading. Any kind of reading can inspire and broaden your mind. We should be proud of any kind of reading.

  2. April 8, 2009 10:10 am

    So you think Jane Eyre is dreary – if passion, madness, dark secrets, telepathy, despair and joy are not exciting enough for you maybe you should stick to video games.

  3. April 8, 2009 10:53 am

    I’m all for indulging in fictional texts that stretch my imagination, whether they tweak the emotions or just pander to some heroic self-image of myself.
    The most entertaining may be the least real life is
    mundane for MOST, and would make poor reading I think!
    On the other hand, non-fiction( of whatever type ) will often
    have an air of the amazing for me…if I can be convinced it is true.

  4. April 8, 2009 1:46 pm

    I can see your point, Annie. If we want to get kids excited about reading, perhaps we should introduce literature that’s a little more current and geared toward teenagers. How many(typical) teenagers can relate to Jane Eyre?

    Better yet, offer a curriculum where the kids get to choose their reading material. What’s more important at this stage – that they learn to love to read, or that they analyze semantic aspects and social implications of a complex, and yes, dreary, story? Chances are, if they enjoy what they’re reading, they will walk away from the experience excited and hungry for more as opposed to viewing reading as a chore.

    I have two teenage sons – and that’s precisely how they view reading at this point in their lives because the books the teachers / programs pick out for them are, well, tedious and boring.

    Perhaps the more serious readers could elect to take more advanced classes that showcase books like Eyre, but to begin with, it might behoove our desire to see more kids reading if we introduce, or require, them to read something a bit more age appropriate.

    Snobbish attitudes about reading material does nothing but turn our young people off reading from the starting gate.

  5. April 8, 2009 6:15 pm

    How many(typical) teenagers can relate to Jane Eyre?

    A teenager didn’t call Jane Eyre “dreary” on this blog – a grown woman did.

    It was something of a scandal when it was discovered that “Jane Eyre” was written by a woman, and young ladies of the time were discouraged from reading it because it was too passionate and exciting.

  6. April 8, 2009 10:14 pm

    Actually, I’ve known teenagers who have, and who do, call Eyre dreary. But that was their opinion. And the author of this post is entitled to her opinion.

    I’ve also read Eyre, several times. And it IS a bit dreary. It’s also romantic, brilliant, compelling, dark and, yes, liberating. Those are my opinions, and I’m a grown woman.

    But this post isn’t about Eyre, it’s about introducing literature that our young people will find interesting in this day and age. If that’s Eyre, great! If it’s not, then great! The point is to open the door to many possibilities as opposed to being stuck in a traditional doorway.

  7. April 8, 2009 11:46 pm

    In Australia in the 80’s there was a push to incorporate more age appropriate literature into the the English syllabus in an effort to engage teenage readers. There was a huge back lash against the introduction of one book “Puberty Blues” about the rites of social passage of two 13 year old girls as they try to ingratiate themselves into a gang of “cool” surfers. Written by Kathy Lette and Gabrille Carey when they were 18 it spoke to teenagers. Parents were horrified that it contained sex, swearing and other elements of teenage life they deemed undesireable. This was despite teenagers clamouring to read it. When I was at high school a battered copy of “Forever” by Judy Blume did the rounds, when in English we were wading through the Rats of NIHM and October’s Child … and other less than engaging material. I know as a fifteen year old girl I had the capacity to engage and wonder about novels such as ‘Forever’ and ‘Flowers in the Attic’ … and I know that something like Jane Eyre would have been totally inaccessible.

    I wonder when we separate teenagers from the fiction they love to read and the fiction we want them to read – we create this need to squirrel away books in which we feel shameful or guilty about reading later on in life.

    To answer your original question Annie: my shameful reading is the Twilight serires – shameful because the writing is so atrocious (and i should like something better as a serious writer) not to mention that I’m a middle aged woman. I wonder if we feel guilty about it because it is reading that we enjoy purely for the sake of reading and being lots in another world? And that was teenagers we’re taught that we’re “meant to get something out of a book” – deconstruct, consider theme, plot, character development etc.

    Love to see some contention here 🙂

  8. April 9, 2009 7:31 am

    I have always loved to read. Since the time that I could start reading, you’d never see me not doing it, whether it was a book or the newspaper or the side of a cereal box.

    Then middle school and high school hit… and reading stopped being about reading and started being about analyzing symbolism. Books became something I dreaded beyond explanation because even if the stories were good, I couldn’t enjoy the “stories” because I was busy looking for (or making up) symbolism. Books like “Lord of the Flies”, “Silas Marner”, and “The Great Gatsby” stopped being literature and started being Literature with a capital L, meaning that they were no longer meant for enjoyment. We were forced to read “The Scarlet Letter” or “The Red Badge of Courage” or “Great Expectations” or “Wuthering Heights” instead of the things that I wanted to read like Asimov’s “Foundation” series (well, anything by Asimov, really) or Arthur C. Clarke or Frank Herbert. I was the valedictorian of my class… and my senior English teacher in my AP English class told me that I didn’t deserve the grades or honors I received because the books I wanted to read were “not apporpriate for an honors student.”

    Every year we had to read Shakespeare. “Oh, Shakespeare,” they said… “The best ever!” they said. And sure, I love Shakespeare *now*… even took a course in college. But what they had us read in high school was “Hamlet”, “Julius Ceaser”, “Macbeth”, and one of the King’s plays. Why not “Much Ado about Nothing”? Or “The Tempest” or “Twelfth Night”? The ones we were forced to read were the least accessible to teenagers of his works, essentially turning many of us off to this great author.

    Anyway, my point is that while there is value to the way that we teach “Literature” in that it helps to enlighten kids to the fact that good writing *can* have many layers and many ways in which ideas, morals, etc. are expressed, it also neglects the fact that for some people (myself included), literature is simply a means to escape the real world and get lost in a great story. For me, it meant that I just stopped reading outside of the required stuff and even now I am hardpressed to expand into reading something by a ‘classic’ author or in an unfamiliar genre.

    My ‘guilty pleasures’ are really rather tame. I am a huge fan of Harry Potter. Huge. I am and always have been a huge fan of Douglass Adams and, personally, think his work should be required reading in high school. I quite enjoyed the “Series of Unfortunate Events” books by Lemony Snicket. But despite my high school English teacher’s scoldings, I hold no guilt about my love of Asimov or Dr. Seuss, both of whom are on my quick-draw shelf to read whenever the mood strikes me.

  9. April 10, 2009 8:56 pm

    Thank you Rob and Jodi for answering the main thrust of my post – that of guilty pleasures in reading. Thanks too to Karen, David and Anna for contributing their thoughts on my musings on the literary availability of certain texts in our modernistic world.

    As a (now retired) teacher of literature in the teenage arena within schools, I have had the undeniable pleasure of introducing beautiful texts to disinterested and often hostile youthful minds. Despite my personal beliefs in appropriate reading matter for teenagers, I was forced to thrust Shakespeare and other great authors works onto the desks and rush through them, covering only the briefest analysis whilst attempting to convey the deeper messages and themes to my class.

    Like Robs memories of his educational experiences, many books were ruined for me too (Animal Farm, 1984) the education system in its wisdom chooses way out of touch unreachable texts ( for example Julius Ceaser) instead of introducing young minds to more accessible stories such as Romeo and Juliette – with its universal themes of teenage angst and gang rivalry. I was forced to read Jane Eyre as a 14 year old, missed the point completely and parroted the words our teacher gave us in the exams to get through. Like Karen – have since re-read it and have a greater understanding and appreciation of it – especially as a ground breaking text of its time.

    My musings surrounded the question of why we feel guilt for reading certain genres or texts – what truly makes one better or worse than the other. Despite Twilight being a runaway success, I am not the only person who believes that the writing style and delivery gets in the way of an excellent story. However, this does not get in the way of the fact that most teenagers will have read it and be able to discuss its themes, characters and be prepared to argue viewpoints with a certain amount of authority. These skills would be an English Teachers dream – to have their class engaged and excited about a novel in such a passionate way. Most teenagers I have spoken with have read this text within days of it landing in their hands. I remember Animal Farm ( of less than 30 000 words) taking our class nearly 6 weeks to read.

    Compare this with the reaction you get when a Bronte or a Austen novel lands on a teenagers desk. There is no denying these women were fore runners to the freedom in literature I now enjoy writing. Women like them paved the way for formulaic romance and adventure stories with the heroine being the main character ( the scandal!!) But lets look at literature in its place and its ability to engage with its audience…. lets get back to the original question I was even asking….. what is your guilty pleasures in reading….. why is it so guilt ridden to read them??

  10. April 13, 2009 6:55 am

    “Why is it so guilt-ridden to read them…?”

    Hmmm. In my case, I think the problem comes down to ‘perceptions’. There is a perceived notion that “Harry Potter” is a children’s book. It is not, clearly, but the perception is there. As a grown man who feels older than dirt on most days, shouldn’t I be reading more universally-considered “classic” works?

    There’s a similar concept of ‘value’ at play with the love I have for the works of Douglass Adams — I can’t even tell you a genre for his works, since they’re all over the place (despite being shelved in science fiction). Is there intrinsic ‘value’ in his books? Is there some kind of ‘deeper meaning’ or ‘moral lesson’ in these books? I don’t know and frankly, I don’t want to know.

    To me, it boils down to an issue which I do believe stems from the way the education system teaches literature — I was taught to feel guilty for reading just because I enjoyed the story… that reading something should ALWAYS force me to change the way I think about the world or that I should learn some kind of moral or value lesson from whatever I read.

    But you know what? Sometimes I just want to read because I like it. I feel guilty about it, I think, because of what other people think and in the end I guess that’s my own problem (which is true with most sources of guilt, isn’t it?).

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