How To Break a Reader’s Heart (And Stop Them from Reading)

To the surprise of no-one, I’m sure, I go around with a book in my hand quite often. I love it when a stranger’s eyes light up and they ask me what I’m reading. I love meeting fellow readers and discussing their latest romance with a book.

But there is one thing that breaks my reader’s heart, and it’s this: when I ask them what they enjoy, and they look down at the ground in shame and tell me they mainly read trash. Or when someone looks at my book and sniffs, and I can see the thought flash across their face.

Trash.

Trash. It’s such an ugly, awful word. It’s such a demeaning, degrading word. The first group of people always look at me guiltily, as if I’ve caught them with one hand shoved in an empty cookie jar, scraping out the last crumbs. Or maybe they’ve just cleaned their local McDonalds out of fries and are driving to the next suburb to keep feeding that craving. No wait, even worse. Like they’ve just eaten every last crumb of their grandma’s birthday cake before the party.

I look in their eyes and see shame, and it hurts me because I love books. I love them all – the fun implausible romps through teenage spy-land, the swords and sorcery, the unabashedly cheesy romances, the spine-tingling horrors. And yes, even though I’m not a fan, I’m even grateful for books like Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey. Not only do they encourage more and more people to read (like a gateway book of sorts), I suspect the main reason their poor writing draws such ire (there are plenty of other poorly written successful books) is that they are women’s fantasies.  Which makes them the long-awaited and critically-successful equivalent of a James Bond series, but I digress.

Reading these days is a treat. In a world where so many other forms of entertainment shout loudly – think Netflix and podcasts and music streaming and YouTube – there is still something special and indulgent about dedicating hours of your time wrapped up with just you and some words telling a story. And I find it unforgivable that that joy is turned to shame simply because of people judging the type of story you’re getting lost in. After all, if a story is able to cast its spell over you and keep you turning the page until the end, that’s good enough for me.

So personally, I think the shame should be borne by another group entirely. To the second group of people. To certain members of the book industry and English academia. To the hypocrites who adulate Shakespeare but hold their nose if somebody mentions the words ‘fantasy’ or ‘science fiction’ or ‘romance’.

Where do you get off on telling us that books we love are trash? And why exactly do you enjoy making people who love to read ashamed of themselves, to the point where they stop reading?

According to you, “Anything with a plot” is trash. “Escapism” is trash. From your lofty vantage point, apparently the only time you’re reading a good book is when it’s a bloody struggle. When you have to grit your teeth and force yourself through every page like you’re pushing a leaden ball of literature and detestable characters up a mountain.

And of course, this doesn’t mean there isn’t room for those types of reads. Again, if you’re able to keep turning the page until the end, then that book has done its job. But you can’t eat fine dining all the time. You’ll get sick and possibly even starve. I think a true food lover and book lover has to appreciate them all. The delicately cooked lobster poached in butter and the oily deliciousness of a good french fry. The nuanced, complex novel and the delightful comfort read. The problem is that when we judge one as literature and the other one as pure trash, then we risk breaking readers’ hearts and stopping them from reading altogether.

So if you’re guilty of judging what other people read, I implore you to shift perspective and be glad they’re reading at all. Be glad that in a world where so many things are spoon-fed to us and we have so many options that they are still choosing to still be entertained by their own imagination, spurred from some lines of text on a page or screen.

And if you’re guilty of feeling guilty about what you read, stop. I know that’s easier said than done. But own it. Own that you’re reading something for comfort, for exhilaration, for escapism. Because those are all perfectly valid reasons to read.

And if you’re still feeling guilty, well, just remember that Shakespeare was the popular playwright of his time that the critics sneered at, and Shakespeare – with his sly comedic digs and his romantic stories and his worlds of magic – would definitely approve.

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