Confessions of a Former Book Shamer

Book ShamingMy name is Greg, and I was a book shamer.

Thankfully, I reformed. This is my story.

Not too long ago, I happened on this blog post from YA author Tara Fuller entitled “Book Shaming: Why Do We Do It?” To break it down, book shaming is essentially book snobbery. It’s the idea that people should only read serious, literary books. Everything else is a waste of time. On the edge of your seat waiting for the next John Grisham? Have you read every book in the Shopaholic series? Do you enjoy (gasp!) YA books? You might as well not read at all. If you
aren’t rereading a Gabriel García Márquez book for the third time (this time to explore the role of women deeper)*, well, you just aren’t doing it right.

Obviously, it doesn’t matter what someone reads. The truly important thing is the reading itself. The engagement is what matters. The feeling that you can’t wait to get back out there and get lost in another book. It doesn’t matter what genre it is. It doesn’t even matter what age range either, anymore.

The last summer reading season I worked at Borders, I was helping a woman go over her son’s reading list for school. The son kept disappearing over to the sci-fi section to skim through Robert Jordan’s books and his mother sighed. “I keep trying to get him to read serious books, but he only wants to read those,” she said. I shrugged. “You’re ahead of the curve, actually,” I told her. “He’s a reader. And he’ll always have plenty of books to keep him busy.”


I don’t blame the mother, mind you. Book shaming has become ingrained in us over time, and certain genres have gotten a bum rap. It’s hard to remember now that Game of Thrones is a certified thing, but sci-fi/fantasy historically has a hard go of it. Truth be told, sci-fi books often have a lot of deep things to say about life, society, philosophy, and religion. Damn smart things. Things I would be proud to have my son pondering, if I had one.

Romance readers get a lot of flack, too, but let me tell you something: they are among the most voracious readers in existence. They are dedicated and they are loyal, qualities that I celebrate in people.

Traditionally, there’s also a stigma about reading YA books once you’ve graduated from high school. In order to make it permissible, there has even been a movement to create a “New Adult” genre. If it makes people more comfortable, then so be it. It’s just that there’s nothing wrong with enjoying anything from the YA section, and there never has been. The Chronicles of Narnia, anyone? Today, there’s a lot of exciting stuff going on in literature and a lot of it is happening in YA. LGBT books are losing the stigma that keeps them isolated from the adult sections, for one thing. And just like in any section, there’s an immense amount of quality reading to be done. You don’t think YA books can be well written? That they can affect you emotionally? I challenge you to read The Book Thief, and I will accept your apology on Markus Zusak’s behalf.

Not-So-Guilty Pleasures

While I was working at Borders I noticed something: customers frequently lied to me about what they liked to read when they asked for a recommendation. When they told me the authors and books they liked they omitted anything by Jodi Picoult, Michael Connelly, Jude Devereaux. The problem is that more often than not those were the kinds of books they wanted to go home with! There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s a sense that popularity means commercial, and commercial should be avoided. But there are plenty of writers who can balance “commercial” writing without sacrificing quality. Stephen King has done it for decades, churning out bestsellers and critical successes for decades. Here’s the thing: bestselling authors earned that title because they write books that people enjoy reading. Isn’t that the point?

Then there are the genres that dare not speak their name. Paranormal romance is an excellent example. I’ll be honest: it’s not a genre that I see myself ever dabbling in, but I fully support your right to eat it up. Hell, I get excited whenever I find a novel with footnotes,** and most people would say that’s pretty weird.

But there was a time in my life when I didn’t really think like this.

The roots of my book snobbery could be found in insecurity. I’m not saying all book shamers are insecure, but it was true for me. When I graduated from high school I didn’t go to college right away. I retreated to Borders instead–a place that appealed to me as someone who genuinely loved reading. This led me to worry about how people would think of me. I was afraid people would judge me for not being in college. Or think I wasn’t smart. All of this thinking was subconscious, but its effect was real: my coworkers were gobbling up the newest book by Zane; I was devouring most of the books by Kurt Vonnegut. People started going crazy for The Da Vinci Code; I decided Philip Roth is overrated. You get the point. I wouldn’t say I wasted my time in all this–Kurt Vonnegut remains my favorite author. I still frequently recommend a specific translation of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita over the others.

But when customers came in looking for a light read for a vacation, I silently turned up my nose at the word “light.” When I was ringing up a customer buying the latest James Patterson and they asked if I’d heard anything about it yet, I couldn’t help but crinkle my nose and say “Oh, I don’t read Patterson. Not my thing.” I got a cheap thrill of triumph when I could tell someone that the book I was reading had just gotten an excellent write-up in the New York Times Book Review.

Mostly, though, my book shaming was directed at myself. I worked my way from A-G in Sue Grafton’s alphabet series in secret so no one would know that I had “stooped” to such lows. This was before e-readers, too, so in order to be sneaky I had to wait until we had a new cashier who probably wasn’t going to last long so I could purchase my guilty pleasures without any questions (luckily, there was never any shortage of new hires who went out almost as quickly as they came in). Large portions of my reading were carried out with the stealth of a teenager trying to hide illicit pornography from his parents.

All this began to fade away the day I decided to go back to school and enrolled in community college. Suddenly, reading stopped being something I did to show off and went back to being something I enjoy. Now, I can tell you with pride that I’ve made it all the way to P in Sue Grafton’s series, and I intend to finish the series up someday. I have three YA books in my reading queue, and I’ve never read War and Peace. I read what I enjoy reading and it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks about it.

Isn’t that the way it should be?

* I really know someone who did this with Memoirs of My Melancholy Whores.
** I got almost pornographic pleasure out of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel. Just trust me. And you should have seen the looks I got when I breathlessly noted that The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was a tremendous novel–“and it has footnotes!”

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