Last winter, I was on NPR along with a couple of other people talking about books — the best books of 2014, the big titles coming up in 2015. Toward the end of the hour, the host threw us for a loop. She asked, “What was your favorite guilty pleasure this year?”
I was glad the others answered first, so that I could collect my thoughts. Guilty? What did I feel guilty about reading? I lamely offered up a Tana French murder mystery, even though I hadn’t felt guilty while reading it. Actually, I had loved reading it.
But it seemed like the thing to say. You know, we should feel good (and maybe a wee bit superior) about reading the latest Francine Prose or William Gass, but we should feel guilty about reading … what? What should we feel guilty about reading? Genre fiction? Young adult books? Harry Potter?
In a recent interview with People magazine, novelist Judy Blume scoffed at the concept. “Why should I feel guilty about anything I read?” she said. “That’s ridiculous. When you read, it should be a celebration.”
She’s right! And yet — is she completely right? Aren’t there books I don’t want people to know I liked? Don’t some people use e-readers to hide the fact that they are reading Westerns, or soft porn?
I asked the question of some of the Star Tribune’s book critics — people who pass judgment on all kinds of books. Surely they have some secret embarrassing tastes.
But most of them agreed with Blume.
“Reading shouldn’t ever be associated with shame or guilt,” said Kevin Canfield, “even if you’ve just given several hours of your life to a frothy, poorly written and cynically marketed piece of dreck.”
Which does not mean, he went on to say, that all books are equal.
Carole E. Barrowman tells her students at Alverno College in Milwaukee that books are on a spectrum, like food. Nothing wrong with a Big Mac now and then, but you wouldn’t want to live on them.
Phoenix critic Mark Athitakis doesn’t feel guilt about any reading — “Even bad books, in any genre, teach me something.”
When she has time for pleasure reading, which isn’t often, Carol Memmott goes for mysteries — and feels no guilt. “The only guilty parties are the murderers and crooks I like to think I’m helping put away.”
Meganne Fabrega sees guilt as something that is self-imposed.
“My primary guilty pleasure would be a giant stack of fashion magazines, even though I have huge issues with the cost of fashion, the body shaming and the industry as a whole,” she said. “I love them and could read them for hours.”
I think we’ll take a page out of Judy Blume’s interview and instead of calling these books “guilty pleasures,” we can call them “celebration reading.” So I’ll ask you: What do you read when you feel like celebrating?
I’ll go first: Irish chick lit. Maeve Binchy. Scenes of Dublin, strong women, happy endings. There. I said it. I am not ashamed. (Much.)
Now, what about you? Send me an e-mail. Bare your soul.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune senior editor for books. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @StribBooks.