What bothers me is, it constructs false binaries: pleasure or enrichment, entertainment or education, fun or value.
As an academic, I’ve seen how these binaries can taint the idea of pleasure, as if feeling happy or good is somehow unworthy or lacking in value. If we’re not suffering, we’re probably not being challenged enough, or working hard enough, or smart enough to understand that we don’t understand.
We can enjoy books and still be smart about them. We can enjoy books and still be rigorous with them. Now I think about it, don’t we enjoy books because we find value in them?
As to why I’m going on about this now, it’s because I stumbled on the phrase recently in a book I’m heartily enjoying, The World Between Two Covers: Reading the Globe by Ann Morgan. Heading into chapter four, I’m finding her book thought provoking and (dare I say?) a pleasure to read. Her larger inquiry in the section where the phrase appears is about world literature – what books “travel” and why. Her larger point is that most of what we read falls along a spectrum that includes “good books, indifferent books and even bad books.” And yes, this sounds about like my average annual reading list. Where I had a bone to pick is here:
“There might be guilty pleasures and indulgences that we have no intention of expanding our souls or advancing world harmony by reading but enjoy all the same. Indeed, Stanford University professor Franco Moretti goes so far as to assert that 99.5 per cent of all literature is non-canonical.”
(Well of course a university professor will assert such a thing. It’s called perceptual bias. The question is, whose canon? But I digress.)
Her larger point (which I agree with) is that not every book we read will be a transformative work of artistic genius, yet we still enjoy reading it. I want to add that we also can still find meaning and value in the experience of it.
Because: Who is to say that reading books we enjoy doesn’t expand and enrich our souls and promote world harmony, even when they’re not transformative works of artistic genius? (Hopefully this is obvious: I’m assuming we’re talking about books that do not promote hate and violence.) Have you ever been around people who don’t take care of their emotional needs and/or don’t know how? It’s a nightmare, is what it is.
Giving ourselves permission to enjoy the books we read and to read the books we enjoy is giving ourselves permission to nurture our souls. It’s a kind of self-care whose value I don’t believe we can afford to diminish. If you’ve been around happy, well-adjusted people who understand and can productively express their thoughts and emotions, you perhaps know what I mean.
Further, when we give ourselves permission to enjoy the books we read, we enable ourselves to get more out of the experience of reading them. We can delight in the beauty of a description or turn of phrase. We can find comfort in an unexpected moment of connection or discovery. All of the above can be found between the pages of books of all kinds, if we let them.
In the end, I suspect this is what Morgan means to say. I feel like a bit of a heel kicking up such a fuss (ha, geddit?), especially because I love her project and reading her book. Just … I wouldn’t mind it if we could retire from our lexicon the phrase guilty pleasure.