A recent post on The Guardian’s book blog discusses the merits of reading bad books, which has led writers and readers of The Morning News to reveal some of their guilty pleasure reads. Let’s tackle each of these in turn, shall we?
The Guardian post makes the case that reading bad books helps improve one’s literary palate in two ways. First, by reading terrible drivel, you can better appreciate a good book in part for not being terrible drivel (it’s that good old ‘drive your baseline for comparison down’, so that true gems really get the chance to shine). Second, though not entirely separate from this first idea, bad books can give you insight into what happens when writing goes awry. Should you ever choose to write a book of your own, you can use these bad books as examples of what NOT to do.
Of course, the Guardian article lumps bad books into two categories of bad – those that serve a particular function that may not be particularly highbrow, but achieve that means serviceably (e.g., your typical genre fiction: romance, sci-fi, mystery, etc.,), and those that have literary ambitions but don’t realize they are dreadful. The focus of the Guardian article is the latter category, though I think I much prefer the former. I would rather spend time with a mediocre read than one that is a painful abuse of the English language. Even if I feel a book is uninspired in its prose, characterization, or plotting, I can normally stick with it to the end. I fully believe that different books serve different purposes, and I know full well that my motivations for reading are not fixed. Sometimes I wish to challenge myself and expand my mind, whereas other times, I just want a book that provides some comfort or a romping good tale that let’s me escape from my day-to-day life. In my mind, both reasons for reading are equally valid.
But I’ve never been good at reading bad books that are bad because they are badly written. I really do tend to view these as a waste of my time, perhaps because they provide me with neither pleasure, nor enjoyment, nor a sense of satisfaction for having read them (unless it is entwined with a masochistic sense of achievement of not having let a bad book beat me). Mostly, I feel like this type of bad book is a waste of my time, because I could be spending that time reading something that I did find fulfilling in some way or another. In general, I think that if the writing stinks, it’s going to continue to do so throughout the entire book, and I’m going to be able to pick up on this pretty quickly, can recognize what about the writing I do not like, and move on. Perhaps there is some sick amusement to be gained in trying to find increasingly terrible lines and phrases if you’ve happened upon a book written by an author with a tin ear, but I’m afraid I just don’t find this rewarding. I like to think of myself as a reader who does not give up on books, but I’ve held up the white flag of surrender with enough books to know this isn’t so. I guess it’s kind of like dating – not every book will be your soulmate, but if you know one is gonna stay a frog no matter how many times you kiss it, why bother? Plenty of other of fish (or frogs, or books!) in the sea.
Now, guilty pleasures on the other hand, I fully embrace. Of course, I think it’s important that we acknowledge these books as being a guilty pleasure and not high literature, but surely they have a place in my reading diet. After all, a burger and fries may not be great for me, and I certainly wouldn’t want to eat them every day, but enjoying that every once in a while isn’t the end of the world either (and they can be damn satisfying!). Just so long as I don’t think my burger is of the same quality as prime rib or filet mignon and can recognize the difference, then I see no harm in that. This is why I have no problem with people saying they read and enjoyed The Da Vinci Code, since hey, I’ve been there and see where they’re coming from. I read that book in like, two days, even reading it surreptitiously in seminars and such because I was so drawn into the story. But if you say that’s the best book you’ve ever read? Then I can only assume you’ve never read any other books ever. Because as entertaining as the book is as a totally implausible escapist read, it’s atrociously written and should not be held up as an example as a great book (nor should it be used as the basis for denouncing or condemning religion, but that’s a subject for another post). But you know, we all have our poisons, and one man’s trash is another man’s treasure and all that good stuff. I love me some Agatha Christie novels, and in general feverishly enjoy books set in England around the 1930s that feature female detectives (how’s that for a specific preference?). I have routinely read each of the Harry Potter books multiple times over, and love the Bridget Jones books (I’ve read the Shopaholic series too, but it’s not nearly as charming). I maybe even went through a phase during which I read trashy regency era romance novels (and maybe still kind of love the early books in Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series). Tony reads books about Templars (fiction, mind you), and has read every James Bond book ever penned by Ian Fleming. But then, we also love John Steinbeck, Robert Penn Warren, Jane Austen, Jonathan Franzen, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and tons of other “proper” authors too.
So it’s all about keeping a balance, but also about finding your vice. Because lord knows that tons of people loved the Twilight series, but when I read those books, I felt a whole lot of guilt but not really any pleasure. For me, Stephenie Meyer’s offerings will go squarely in the Guardian’s category of bad books for reasons that go beyond, but are largely due to the writing. Also, I hated the memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi and could not get past the awkwardly florid sentences and desultory narrative; when she referred to one of her acquaintances as her Magician (or something equally twee), I literally put the book down in embarrassment for her and could not pick it up again. More recently, The Accidental by Ali Smith infused me with a burning hot rage (see here) and has potentially set me against the stream-of-consciousness style forever.
Of course, your most loathed and treasured “bad books” might be entirely different. Care to share? You know that I’m in no position to judge. Plus, it might be cathartic!