Reading through today’s popular fiction is a rollercoaster ride best attempted with friends. These books fill up the window displays of your favorite bookshop beckoning you in with their brightly colored cover art. You get them as recommendations on Goodreads and see people reading them on the train to work. Yet the question persists, how much of these New York Times best sellers are worth your time and money?
After completing my M.A. degree in English this past winter, I was ready for a change of pace. I had spent the previous two years exclusively reading texts by authors such as Foucault and Adorno or Shakespeare and Milton. All were rewarding, even awe inspiring. None were easy. In English departments, there seems to be a bias against easy reading. Partially, because there is less to unpack in these texts, but there is also a pervasive notion that in order to study the written word, you must relinquish its power over you. Rather than escape into a text, the academic must investigate how the text functions, disavowing the pleasurable experience of reading in order to dismantle it. Popular fiction texts offer little to investigate on a formal level, instead they present themselves as a vehicle for escapism. They ask you to disengage your critical mind and just enjoy. I think this is good practice for the academic – it reminds us of why we were drawn to literature in the first place. We came because we love it; we loved reading.
After a hectic last finals season of grad school, my brain (and my eyes) needed a break from reading. Instead, I listened. I listened to Michelle Obama’s Becoming and enjoyed it thoroughly. I listened to a novel by Liane Moriarty (the Australian author behind Big Little Lies) and laughed my ass off. I also threw in a Jane Austen audiobook for fun and also laughed my ass off. Then, as I began working through the stack of books I had randomly picked up off the “Must Read” tables at bookshops, things began to get rocky. Many of these popular fiction books had interesting premises but were either distractingly poorly written or didn’t deliver on what they promised. The one shinning exception to this was Jessie Burton’s The Muse, which was wonderful.
After having generally poor luck on my own, I began reading through books that my lovely friends from high school recommended. I blasted through The Boys in the Boat (suggested by my dear friend Emily) and was enthralled by Where’d You Go Bernadette (trying to be complimented rather than worried by the fact that my friend Suzanne said this nutty book reminded her of me). In the wide sea of popular fiction, my friends pulled out the best written and most personally relatable books. They reminded me of the potential of popular fiction.
If you have a friend who likes to read and want a partner to help you wade through the murky waters of the bestsellers list, start a book exchange! Either send each other books in the mail or go to a bookstore together and select books for each other that you’ve recently read and enjoyed. If you’re a risk taker who likes to go it alone, take the plunge! Sure, it’s unlikely that you’ll find the next Virginia Woolf in the new releases section, but you will likely find something you like (eventually). If you’re of an academic turn of mind, reading popular books purely for enjoyment can remind you to step back and enjoy the books you read for work. It helps us to remember that Woolf and Austen and Shakespeare are hilarious and captivating writers in addition to their formal accomplishments. Whatever you chose to do, happy reading!