Reading pet peeve #2: The phrase guilty pleasure

I could live the rest of my life quite happily without ever, ever again hearing the phrase “guilty pleasure” applied to one’s reading choices. I could live the rest of my life quite happily without ever, ever again hearing the phrase guilty pleasure applied to one’s reading choices.

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?

The World Between Two Covers - a pleasure, but not a guilty pleasure
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.

2 Replies to “Reading pet peeve #2: The phrase guilty pleasure”

  1. A very intelligent and well-put argument!

    I often think of how stories started: We were just trying to entertain each other around the nighttime fire, or explain mysteries around us, not necessarily educate ourselves (in the academic sense) or plunge into the depths of the human condition. I agree with you that “guilty pleasure” doesn’t really work, especially, as you pointed out, since you have to ask who is defining “canonical” literature.

    On the other hand, I still have to confess I use the term. I don’t feel gulity about reading something light and frothy and probably really of no huge value or impact to my life from time to time, but I guess I do still sense a difference between something like that, and a compelling story that’s still well-written and full of meaning and things to ponder.

    But I love how you defend that light reading as self-care. You perfectly put my feelings into words! Thanks for making me think more about my relationship to “guilty pleasure” books (for lack of a better term), and how they do actually add value to my existence, beyond entertainment!

    1. You’re too kind, Alysa. 🙂
      I think we’ve all used the term, myself included. It’s hard to resist. I just don’t want us to internalize the idea that we should feel guilty for reading books that make us happy; when I put it like that, it actually sounds a little certifiable. Bringing joy into the world, in a way that doesn’t cause someone else suffering, has tremendous value!

Comments are closed.