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“Everything we read should challenge us,” said a perky blond millennial behind me.
I was at Brit Bennett’s Ann Arbor book signing for The Mothers, and I was mentally disagreeing with the woman I had eavesdropped on. Had she said, “We should all read books that challenge us,” I would have been in full agreement, but to say all our reading material should be challenging was annoying to me. It was elitist and sad. A reader who doesn’t know the sheer pleasure of escapist reading doesn’t understand joy.
I’m a huge fan of escapist re-reading. When I have had a difficult day, I like to crack open a book I’ve read a dozen times over and it has to be something that doesn’t challenge me at all. It’s familiar and comforting, like going home or getting a pint of a favorite ice cream flavor. Plus it lacks the negative health effects of eating too much ice cream or drinking too much wine, making it a cheap and effective form of therapy.
Benjamin Franklin is famously (and incorrectly) credited with saying, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” I would argue that one can substitute “books are” for “beer is” in that statement, and it will be equally correct.
Reading can be many things. You can read to be challenged, to learn, to escape, or as an act of resistance. Human beings are faceted creatures. You can be smart, you can be sexy, you can be serious yet not take yourself too seriously, you can be extremely knowledgeable in certain areas and less educated in others, you can be thoughtful in some ways and a bit of a brat in others. You are many things, so your bookshelf should be too.
But, if I’m being totally honest, I’ve been the confident, annoying woman in the bookstore too. I edit my favorite book lists to make myself seem more intellectual, more well-read.
Sometimes, these little dishonesties pop up out of sheer panic over the possibility of being judged. In my senior year of college, I was in one of my lit classes when my professor asked us to go around the room and name our favorite book in childhood. I panicked. There was no way I was going to say, “Anything Sweet Valley Twins. May the Unicorn Club live long and prosper.” Eventually, I settled on a half-truth: Anne of Green Gables, which I loved as a girl and love still as an adult. But I read Anne first in 7th grade, not elementary school, making it more of an adolescent favorite than a childhood favorite.
But the honest answers sometimes get the best responses. Say Sweet Valley (any part of the franchise) or Baby-Sitters’ Club online, and you always get a response. These were literary Sweet Tarts, pastel, sweetly tart, and compellingly artificial.
Now as an adult, my reading tastes are varied. I like literary fiction and classics (as does any English major), but I also like mysteries, gothics, early 2000s chick lit, YA fiction, humorous memoirs, the Harry Potter series, and fluffy love stories. There are echoes of my childhood favorites in my current reading. Sweet Valley and Baby-Sitter’s Club gave me an interest in girl power stories. I enjoy a well-plotted mystery likely because I read so much Nancy Drew in elementary school and Agatha Christie in middle school. I gained a taste for the gothic from my high school preferences for VC Andrews, Anne Rice, and LJ Smith.
Literary choices can be like culinary choices. I’m a person who likes kale salads, and I will eat any vegetable except celeriac; I’m also a person likes cookies made with lots of butter, who doesn’t always heed a reasonable serving size. I don’t have to choose between being a kale person or a cookie person. I’m allowed to find joy in both. Likewise, I can read a book that challenges me and makes me think, and then throw a mystery novel in my weekend bag. Because sometimes you need to escape and sometimes you need uncomplicated joy. Guilty pleasures are a gift, just as enjoying a serious work of art is a gift.
Life is short. Read what you like. Comic books, prize-winning fiction, romance novels, series classics, cozy mysteries, YA, sci-fi, fantasies with intricate worlds, history, science, and current events. If it makes you happy and piques your imagination, it’s yours. I avoid sci-fi and true crime, but if that’s your thing, go for it, and don’t let anyone tell you what type of reader you ought to be. No one will steal your adult card or your feminist card or your library card if your bookshelves do not meet some arbitrary level of seriousness. Roxane Gay writes of her Sweet Valley love in Bad Feminist, and Brit Bennett has written about American Girls dolls and books for The Paris Review, and these are both serious and talented writers. If they can do it, so can you.