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In praise of trashy novels

More than 130 million Mills & Boon books are sold around the world every year, equating to four books every second.  These books are not just popular, they are a phenomenon. But I had never understood the appeal of a romance novel, particularly one with covers so corny and outdated.

And then I read one. As part of my gender studies class at university, we were required to select a Mills & Boon book. I opened mine with no small amount of skepticism.

I read it in one sitting. As expected, it was sexist, it was clumsy and it was clichéd. But I couldn’t put it down. Suddenly I understood the reason behind the extraordinary and enduring success of these books. They are fun to read.

Although I haven’t read another Mills & Boon since, whenever I’m verging on literary snobbery, dismissing the latest popular romance, true crime or fantasy novel, I check myself. Because sometimes, the very ‘worst’ books can be the most enjoyable.

I remember the time I was backpacking around Europe and was again surprised by the entertainment to be gained from an unlikely book. Usually preferring Milan Kundera and Louis de Bernières, I was disappointed to find just a selection of John Grisham, Ruth Rendell and chick lit novels on the hostel’s shelves. In desperation, I opted for One Fifth Avenue by Candice Bushnell.

All I can recall of my time on the beach near Dubrovnik was the brilliant blue of the ocean, and that book. It grabbed me instantly and proved impossible to put down. I loved every minute of it. It didn’t move me. It didn’t educate me. It didn’t enrich me. But it sure did entertain me. I was engrossed in the frivolous lives of the New York socialites it was filled with. I loved the gossip, the scandal and the secrets.

In contrast, some of history’s most celebrated books are excruciating to read. Wading through their thick and heavy sentences can seem like a sentence of its own. It can be particularly difficult to read a book written long ago, in language often feels like a completely foreign one. The lists of characters alone can be overwhelming, let alone their intricate and complex relationships.

A particular example, James Joyce, continues to baffle me, as much as I hear about the brilliance of his work. Perhaps I will come back to his writing when I have the time and mental energy to extract his meanings.

In tackling these ‘worthy’ novels, it can sometimes feel as if you are only reading these books for reasons PJ O’Brien joked about when he said:

“Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.”

However, reading high fiction can reap rewards in ways other than impressing your fellow commuters and more long-lasting ways than by purely offering entertainment; it is often in the most dense and difficult books that the deepest truths can be found.

One book that took me multiple chapters to begin to appreciate was A Tale of Two Cities, but by the end, I was smitten. In addition to providing entertainment, it had exposed the human spirit, immersed me in a different world and time and given me an understanding of the French Revolution that would be impossible to glean from a history book.

Similarly, the character list alone in Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now was intimidating, let alone the footnotes explaining the many colloquialisms used in the book that are now well and truly outdated. However, once I had struggled through the first few chapters, I became familiar with the language and the effort paid back handsomely. I moved into a new world, with fascinating characters and offering profound insights into human nature and the social mores of the time. The world of the 1870s became my world, if just for the length of the book.

Other books can be difficult because of the degree to which they move us. In reading Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks, there were many times when I had to put the book down, I was so saddened by the plight of two brothers who were sent to a concentration camp. It was so sad as to almost be unreadable, yet when I finished the book, I felt enlightened, if drained and saddened.

Similarly, the experiences of many of the characters in A Fine Balance are tragic and heartbreaking, but that heartbreak is itself enough to make reading the book so worthwhile.

Franz Kafka believed that it was useless to read a book that didn’t touch you, or change you.

“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? … But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.”

While in ways I agree with Kafka, I do not wish to continuously be hit by that axe; I’m not sure that my nerves are up to it.

I agree more closely with CS Lewis, who said:

“It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.”

While Lewis was talking about the value of old books, he does not dismiss ‘modern’ ones, although his notion of modern presumably did not encompass chick lit. And the skill in writing books that are simple to read can be just as great as that needed to write more complex novels.

And so, I will continue to waver between the popular and the literary. I don’t want to battle through Proust or Faulkner beside an infinity pool, but neither can I read too consecutive feather light novels, for fear I won’t be able to return to more weighty tomes.

Perhaps, one day I will even bring myself to read the notoriously light Fifty Shades of Grey; I haven’t yet picked it up, not because I fear that I won’t like it, but because I fear that I really, really will.

Some books I found impossible to put down:

  • One Fifth Avenue, Candice Bushnell
  • Big Little Lies, Liane Moriarty
  • Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan
  • Circle of Friends, Maeve Binchy
  • The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough
  • Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur GoldenLight reads that I love:
  • The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, by Alexander McCall Smith

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