Legume Literature

On my August 7 blog, reader Genevieve wrote a comment: “I would like to say thank you for re-igniting my passion for reading which I had lost for several years. I have not read so much in my life as I have in these last few months!!!”

It’s not the first time I’ve heard such a comment.  And I think it’s time to show you a little piece that I wrote awhile back, about just that topic:


I’m often asked to give library talks about my experiences as a writer.  These events draw an audience that is generally well-educated, well-read, and intensely curious about the world of books.  So I was taken aback after one of these events when, as the room emptied out, a woman of about sixty, nattily dressed in brown tweed, sidled up to me and confessed, on a mournful note: “I don’t read books anymore.”

This statement was as startling to me as if she’d said, “I don’t eat food anymore.”  I live and breathe books, and could not imagine life without them.  And here was this woman — meticulously groomed, with thoughtful eyes, a woman I would have guessed was a discriminating reader — telling me she did not read books at all.

“I liked what you said in your talk about how you grew up loving Nancy Drew,” she said.  “You reminded me of how much I used to love books.”

“But you don’t anymore?”


“When was the last time you really enjoyed a book?” I asked.

She thought this over for a moment.  And finally said, with a look of self-revelation: “When I was a child.  When I could read what I wanted to.”

She did not need to explain this; we both understood that, along with the self-consciousness of adulthood, comes the compulsion to read books we don’t really want to read, books that are designed to challenge our minds and leave us feeling all the more accomplished for having read them.  Books that are “worthy” of our precious time.  Books we don’t necessarily want to read.

I recall the misery of having slogged through just such a book.  It was an early Oprah Book Club selection, a novel that came highly praised by literary critics and book group mavens.  I wanted to like that book.  I was filled with the anticipation of discovery as I climbed into bed and turned to the first page.  Reading in bed has always been my reward at the end of a day’s work, a quiet hour of pleasure just before I turn off the lights.

That book became my nightly torture session.

The writing was indeed elegant, but the woes — ah, the woes of the heroine!  They left me paralyzed by depression.  I began to dread my bedtime hour.  I would flip ahead, trying to gauge how many more chapters, how many more nights, I would have to endure.  But endure I did, all the way to the end, because the book was good for me!  It was nourishing!  It would feed my soul!

What it did was leave me a desolate wreck for days afterwards.

This is not to say that such books should be avoided.  Only that such books should probably be avoided by me.  Yet there I was, night after night, dutifully making myself miserable because some higher power (Oprah, the New York Times, my local independent bookseller — take your pick) had said this book would be good for me.  It was the literary equivalent of Brussels sprouts.

I finally managed to shake off the after-effects of the Miserable But Worthy Book by diving into the latest Patsy Cornwell thriller.  But I felt furtive and sheepish about reading Cornwell — like the dinner guest who’s hiding out in the kitchen, digging in the ice cream, while everyone else is dining responsibly on legumes.

Even if they don’t want to.

This weird craze for “responsible reading” has driven old-fashioned reading for sheer enjoyment into the closet.  It makes women hide their romance novels.  It’s turned Stephen King and Mary Higgins Clark into guilty pleasures.  While “rediscovering your inner child” is generally thought to be a good thing, it doesn’t seem to apply to rediscovering our childish joy in books.  You remember it, don’t you?  What it was like to be so hungry to finish reading a story that you hid out under the sheets with a flashlight?  That you never even heard your mother’s voice calling you to dinner because Nancy Drew and her pals were trapped in some dark cellar, and you had only one more chapter to go?  You remember, don’t you, what it was like to read a book because you wanted to, not because it was good for you?  Perhaps this explains the huge popularity of Harry Potter books among adults.  It’s the only pleasurable reading we’ve been given official permission to enjoy, but only because we are obligated  — as responsible adults, you know! — to find out what our children are up to.   

It’s this childhood pleasure of reading that the lady in tweed suddenly remembered as she spoke to me that afternoon in the library.  She remembered the joy of books before she began listening to literary critics tell her what was good for her.  Before she let the tyranny of her book group dictate what she should read.  Before her well-heeled friends laughed at her collection of Danielle Steel.  she remembered the days when books were ice cream, not Brussels sprouts.  She has since been worn down, her love of books battered by the arbiters of literary taste.  But instead of merely driving her into the closet to read her romance novels in secret, it has done something far, far worse.

It has made her stop reading entirely.

This is the greatest cruelty of all.  It’s one committed every day, by every parent who frowns at the child who’s got his nose deep in a Dean Koontz novel.  By every bookseller who laughs at the pasty-faced men who linger near the science fiction shelves.  By every highbrow twit who says to a friend, “I’d never read that trash.”  Every single one of them is killing the soul of a reader.

So here’s a new and revolutionary proposal: let people read what they want to read.  Let them eat ice cream for breakfast, lunch, and dinner if they want to.  Some of them will eat the occasional Brussels sprout and like it.  But don’t make them think they’re any less virtuous for shunning it.

And for all those who read, my advice is this: never apologize for your books.  They are your friends.  And like friends, some of them are complex and demanding, while others are easy to spend time with.  Listen to the critics if you choose to, but remember that critics tend to praise the books that make them look intelligent.

That afternoon in the library, the lady in tweed had come up to me for a reason.  It was only after we’d talked for a few moments that I understood what that reason was.  She was troubled by the absence of books in her life.  she remembered the joy they had once given her, and she wanted to rediscover it.

“When you were a child,” I said, “what kind of books did you read?”

“Nancy Drew.  Mysteries.  Whatever I wanted to.”

“Then that’s what you should do again.  You don’t have to listen to anyone.  Just read what you want to.”

An obvious answer?  Perhaps.  But I think it was what she needed — permission to make her own choices.

I suspect she’ll be choosing ice cream.

37 replies
  1. bob k
    bob k says:

    Couldn’t agree more – and can’t help but wonder if more kids would enjoy reading if parents gave them more freedom to read what they enjoy. Comic books not great reading material? Better than TV, though. Sci fi or fantasy a waste of time? Not if it is stimulating the person’s imagination – opening their minds to new ideas or new ways of thinking about things…or just causing enjoyment as a diversion.

    I can not imagine life without books…but I am not sure it would be worth living.

  2. GerritsenFever10
    GerritsenFever10 says:

    It’s incredible that you posted this. When I was in grade school or so during the summers we would have our obligatory “summer reading list” that everyone just despised. Not only did I absolutely hate all of the titles we could choose from because they were “classics,” I just hate having to read and be tested on it. I know I can read, I shouldn’t have to prove to anyone else that I can read. This summer alone I’ve read over 15 novels–anything from the Prey novels (Sandford) to At First Sight (Sparks). I think kids (and adults in general) would like to read much more if schools would implement a program that catered to what the individual wanted to read, not what the school wanted them to read. “Classics” to me, as a 20 year old in the new millenium, involve anything that can stimulate my imagination and make me pick up a book and go back to it over and over again until it’s finished. But your post Dr. G is very true in the sense that people should follow their own minds and read what they want. Who’s to say that one type of book is any less or anymore worthy or stimulating than the next?

  3. Genevieve
    Genevieve says:

    This is so true. I do think that schools coud do so much more to encourage reading for pleasure. For me, nothing stimulates the imagination more.

    I think its great that we all read your novels (or any novels for that matter), but every single one of us will see the characters, places etc in a different way. I much prefer books to film precisely for this reason. Once the characters are committed to disc, the imagination spell is broken and we are forced into seeing everything in the same way. Of course, this continues when you then read another book with the same characters. Never again will you be able to use the magic of imagination in quite the same way.

    My advice – stay away from films!!!

    Rant over…


  4. Charissa
    Charissa says:

    Wow. I loved your entry. I felt very nostalgic though – what you said about reading Nancy Drew under the covers with a flashlight… Very me! I even learnt to recognise when my mom got up from the couch in the lounge, and I would lie on my book, shove my flashlight inside my pillow case and make my breathing slow and even, so she would think I was sleeping. I wasn’t going to wait until the next day to find out what happened to Nancy, no way!!

    This isn’t really to do with your post, but I found that I missed out on great books such as the Harry Potter series because of my parents *religious* ideas. Luckily they have given in. They understand that I’m a rational person, and I’m not going to jump off the roof with a broomstick anytime soon. 🙂

    – Chrissy

    Ps: Thanks for posting this Tess!

  5. Liz
    Liz says:

    Oh, yes! The hours spent under the sheets desperate to get to the end of the latest Enid Blyton. Feed the imagination and it will grow…

  6. Jenny Haddon
    Jenny Haddon says:

    I so agree. For years, schools in the UK have been making unfortunate children read “Lord of the Flies”, a brilliant book about vile adolescents marooned on a desert island. The point of the novel is how quickly ‘civilised’, educated people go feral. I just bet it gave more kids nightmares and a permanent aversion to reading than it ever led on to higher things. And I speak as one who loves Golding.

  7. Barbie Roberts
    Barbie Roberts says:

    “It was the literary equivalent of Brussels sprouts.” I love that statement! That was what reading was for me when I was growing up. My sister was the one with Nancy Drew, and both my parents were avid readers as well. I remember spending many Friday nights sitting in the car with my family in downtown Dallas while my dad browsed the bookstores. (I’m sure that statement dates me because it hasn’t been safe to sit in a car at night in downtown anywhere for a long time.) But in my late teens and early twenties I was introduced to the world of romance novels and I’ve been hooked ever since. As I’ve gotten older my tastes have expanded and, while I still enjoy it, romance has taken a back seat to suspense.

    I have come across books that were torture to get through but, like Tess, I felt an obligation (to whom or what I don’t know) to finish them. Because I’m an adult and I don’t eat Brussels sprouts if I don’t want to, I realized at some point that I didn’t have to waste my time reading “good” books if I didn’t like them. There are too many great books that I will enjoy just waiting to be discovered; why spend another minute reading even a page of a book that just doesn’t suck me right in?! Now its all about the ice cream!

  8. tambo
    tambo says:

    Thanks, Tess.

    I used to be a voracious reader but, other than Body Double, I’ve read only one other novel this year that I’ve actually enjoyed. Getting published did it to me. I read because I’m supposed to, because I’ve been asked to, because it’s research, or because writers are supposed to read, not because I love it.

    As an example, I used to love Patterson’s Alex Cross mysteries, but now his structure makes me flinch. Other books want me to get out my red pen and fix things. Mostly, if I’m not grabbed right off I set it aside and never pick it up again or I force myself to buckle down and endure.

    But I do love books, love reading, so I keep trying to find something I can fall into and enjoy again. I read tons of non-fiction, but I really miss novels. Do you have any tips for helping a writer enjoy reading again?

  9. Peggy
    Peggy says:

    Funny you should bring this up. Yesterday, I was reading my newest mystery book (another new suspense writer, Kay Hooper, who was also recommended to me) and I couldn’t put this book down. A “problem” I’ve been having ever since rediscovering the genre I loved as a child (yes, I was a ND fan as well).

    My sixteen year old comes up to me and baulks at my “reading again”. She’s bored and wants us to do something. I tell her to grab a book. “I hate reading,” she tells me. This isn’t the child I remembered. She use to love to read. Nightly. Now? Hardly ever. When I asked her why, she was quick in replying because the most recent books she’s had time to read were the books her English class “forced” down her throat in the past few years.

    I had to agree. She works part-time, goes to school full-time, has a social life, and what little time she has to reading it is with a book she would never had chosen. I understand the school system wants to educate and expand children’s literature exposure, but she’s proof it can backfire and destroy a child’s love of reading.

  10. Lorra Laven
    Lorra Laven says:

    It is unfortunate that junior high and high school students aren’t allowed to read for pleasure. The required reading lists probably turn a great many of them into television watchers instead of readers.

    I believe the elitism reflected by many literary reviewers is a reflection of society at large: one-upsmanship, competitiveness and a refusal to listen to another point of view.

    I read across a broad spectrum of literature. Like you Tess, my hour of reading under the covers is sacred. And I decide for myself if I like a book. If I don’t, I set it aside and pick up a different one. And oddly enough,I may eventually adore a book that I once set aside.

  11. Lynette
    Lynette says:

    I know just what you mean.

    As a child I loved Enid Blyton books and devoured them every chance I could get. Nowadays, I find that some of the ‘chosen books’ that we really ‘should’ read leave me cold.

    I used to feel guilty for abandoning them part the way through, but now I realise that life is too short to read something I’m not enjoying.

    I love my late night reading as well, I also love to read early on a Saturday morning if I’m able.

    Sheer bliss!

  12. Gabriele
    Gabriele says:

    The only time I read some books I didn’t like was during my university time, and I deserved it – why did I decide to major in Literature (among other subjects). 🙂

    Fortunately, I’ve always had very varied reading tastes and even like some of the books I’m ‘supposed’ to read. My parents never restricted my reading in any way (and my range went all the way from Dostojevsky to Star Trek) though they did point out what was considered Literature and what Entertainment. I even read erotic poetry at the age of 13; I remember it made me giggle a lot, lol. At school, Reclam Commentaries were my friend if I didn’t like a book. They had summaries, author’s notes and lots of fun things – I twice got an A for essays about a book I’ve never read.

    Reading your post makes me aware how very fortunate I am, indeed.

  13. Linda Adams
    Linda Adams says:

    I was always very fortunate that my parents let me read pretty much anything (my mother, in fact, used to steal my books because she liked them better than hers!). However, because I’m a writer, people have declared that I should be reading classics. I’d say I didn’t like them in school, to which the response is “You’ll like them now.” I relented once or twice, but it was always a struggle just to pick up the book again. Where, with a good thriller, I’d be done in three days, I spent months trying to get to page fifty in a classic.

  14. Jaye Patrick
    Jaye Patrick says:

    Actualy, I like Brussel Sprouts… and I loathe literary works.

    When I read, I want to be entertained, not depressed. I want triumph over tragedy, I want an appropriate ending, not doom and gloom – there’s enough of that in the world.

    The Famous Five, Trixie Belden and William books were my fair as a child; I quickly moved on to JT Edson and my mother’s old romance novels.

    I was also fortunate, that when time came to study Shakespeare, I was already reading and enjoying it. Hah! For everything else, there were study guides.

    No one should be forced to read anything they don’t want to. Ever. Even comics (of which I have a sizeable X-Men collection) serves a purpose.

  15. Lesley Cookman
    Lesley Cookman says:

    This is currently a hot topic among British writers, particularly since our very own Oprah style book club was launched on television. I think maybe a lot of us suffer from the fall out, and brave is the reader who will tell us how much they loved our “ice cream”.

    I still read whatever I like, and that includes many of the books I read as a child. I discovered Tess while keeping a vigil in hospital last year, and very grateful I was, too!

  16. patry
    patry says:

    The heart and soul of every book is a GREAT STORY. It was true in Shakespeare’s time and it’s true now. When writers forget that or think they’re “above” it, readers turn away–and the book business suffers.

    Great post, Tess.

  17. vividexpression
    vividexpression says:

    I completely agree with you. I’m an aspiring writer and I read anything and everything. Mostly I read what I want when I have free time, but I try and read YA fiction the most bcause that’s the genre I want to write for. I know I need work with expanding my vocabulary and I should be reading higher reading levels but I’ve found it difficult to find adult fiction because I’ve been reading YA for so long.

    When I have writer’s block or I’m down about my writing, I will pick up one of the books I loved as a child to remind myself of my goals.

    A few months ago I was feeling down and questioning whether this was what I wanted to pursue. I picked up the very first book that made me know I wanted to write novels and it inspired me all over again. I think doing this keeps me grounded and focused.

  18. Craig
    Craig says:

    I was lucky. We didn’t have a summer reading list but we did have a mother who insisted we go to the library on a weekly basis. We could check out anything. We could check out the same book 10 times and Mom didn’t care as long as we checked something out.

    I hope this isn’t inappropriate but those original Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys texts are back–republished by a tiny publishing house–Applewood. They come with dust jackets and the first 10 Nancys include an introduction by a prominent mystery author.

  19. Peach
    Peach says:

    This just reminded me of those times when my ultimate goal was to own the whole Nancy Drew series (which I never did). Then came the teen novels, swapping books with friends. And then there were book reports… I remember having to read a book at the last minute just so that I could write a report about a book that I know for sure would not enjoy reading. I’m sure those books were great classics but it’s just not the kind of book that I would try to finish in one night just because I have to know what happens next.
    Thanks, Tess, for this post. Now, I don’t feel so bad about not reading any of the books in Oprah’s book club. I don’t feel bad about reading The Da Vinci Code because I was told I shouldn’t read it. And now I don’t feel so embarrassed to admit that I like the Harry Potter series (at my age) and I don’t pick the adult version of the books. I can’t wait for Mephisto Club to be released and I look forward to seeing you in one of your book tours.

  20. Tess
    Tess says:

    certainly you shouldn’t feel bad about reading Da Vinci Code! I read it and thought it was a lot of fun.

    And I LOVE the Harry Potter books.

  21. RobGB
    RobGB says:

    I’ve never felt a moment’s guilt about the books I read. People who call them trash are idiots. Idiots who are missing out as far as I’m concerned. Certainly, not all of it is good, but I’ve discovered some really wonderful writers. And had some really wonderful nights because of it.

    I’ve never felt the need to raise my standards.

  22. mr_hex
    mr_hex says:

    Hello Tess 🙂 What a lovely post. I regularly get hassle from my friends and workmates when they spot whatever I’m reading, but I’ve never stopped reading exactly what I want to. That’ll explain the shelves of well thumbed Asimov and Heinlein, my beloved Colin Dexter collection, the countless others, and now my rapidly growing collection of your work.

    Maybe I’ve grown some defences to it though. Selling comic books and toys for a living probably did this!

    Being ‘forced’ to read what is ‘acceptable’ is, well, unacceptable for me. If my interest is piqued by a book, whatever it is I will happily devour it. Writing, as Stephen King said in ‘On Writing’, is essentially a form of telepathy. I love that. I love being taken on a journey into a writer’s mind via their characters. I love getting lost in a story, and other peoples’ perceptions be damned, if I want to read it, I’ll read it.

    I do feel a bit sorry for those who limit their spectrum. Its like being surrounded by fine delicacies and settling for fries as thats what is familiar.

    There’s always something more intersting on the menu 🙂

  23. Jude Hardin
    Jude Hardin says:

    Hi Tess. Great post. Yesterday, I gave my 14 year-old son, who says he hates to read (just made a 60 on a test for the book he was supposed to read over Summer break), a copy of Robert B. Parker’s *Back Story*. Today, he said he read seven chapters on his free time at school. And he liked it! I was very pleased, to say the least. With so many other forms of entertainment competing for our children’s minds, it’s great to know that “ice cream” still has a chance. I have many more Parker books to give him when he finishes that one. Just call me the ice cream man. 🙂

  24. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    writers we enjoy reading take us on trips through their minds distilled through ours-they give us the words and we make the pictures-this doesn’t work if you don’t like what you’re reading-it doesn’t necessarily mean a book has to be fast reading either-i recently read two books by the same author-one i finished in about a day(phenomenal for me as i read slowly)-the other took time and trips to the dictionary,but it was worth the effort for me because the imagery was so intense-getting stuck reading a book you don’t like is as much fun as root canal-i will never forget having to slog through “of human bondage”and pride&prejudice” in school-i would’ve rather read some s/f any day-one s/f author’s invented lingo has made it into my usual vocabulary and only my family knows what i mean when i use certain words -just think of how many words we got from swift that are in regular use-people who sneer at what any of us reads probably think jerry springer is quality entertainment

  25. ptaichert
    ptaichert says:

    I run into this all the time, Tess. It’s frustrating.

    When did entertainment — pleasure — become such a bad aspiration?

    I never liked reading until, at 15, I was in France and so desperate for English, I actually started reading Ulysses and a book by Kirkegaard. Both were heaven.

    Discovering science fiction, fantasy and mystery made my world and life so much richer.

  26. Allison Brennan
    Allison Brennan says:

    Great post. I went through a phase of reading all the great critically-acclaimed literary books–I call that phase “college.” Seriously, I pick up one “have to, it’s good for you” book a year. Sometimes they don’t kill me 😉

  27. Diane Chamberlain
    Diane Chamberlain says:

    Fantastic post, Tess. I’m going to link to it from my own blog. I hope that woman bought one of your books and is now happily reading, even if she’s hiding beneath the covers, holding a flashlight. Maybe the rise of book clubs has contributed to the look-down-your-nose attitude of reading for entertainment. When I visit book clubs and ask them what they’ve read, they always apologize for reading any books that might be perceived as light and pleasurable. I just slogged through GILEAD. I know it’s a good book, beautifully written, full of meaning. But who wants to slog?

  28. Nicolette Rivers
    Nicolette Rivers says:

    Count me in with the other NancyDrewsters. I was always encouraged to read as a child, and never told I couldn’t read adult books. Most of it was ice cream.

    Like any kid, I wanted my treats to go everywhere with me, so I took my ice cream to school. Teachers were fond of telling me I would rot my brain. Of course, my test scores in English were off the charts.

    Here’s what they missed: I was working my reading muscles, so when I had to read brussel sprouts, I was ready. There were unfamiliar concepts, and perhaps I had to think harder, but I was way ahead of the non-reader who was pretty much drowning in a pool of what-the-hell-does-that-word-mean?

    People who read sound more intelligent without even trying, they tend to have a better vocabulary without even realizing it. There are clear advantages.

    I never went to college, and this surprises people. If I hadn’t grown up reading, I don’t think it would surprise them nearly as much because I would sound like a different, less educated person.

  29. elegy
    elegy says:

    I can’t think of anything more reprehensible than schools issuing a required summer reading list. They already own the kid’s brain all year, and then they want jurisdiction over it during the summer too? Outrageous. What is the point of leisure time if you have to spend it doing work?

    If absolutely necessary, they could require that the student simply read one book of their own choosing. It is okay for the school to provide a suggestion list for kids who can’t find a good book.

    But summertime, more than any other, MUST be reserved for reading for the sheer pleasure of it. How else to account for the phrase “summer reading?”

  30. nursdurkin
    nursdurkin says:

    If I couldn’t read, I would just go insane! I am so glad I had a mother who was an avid reader and passed that love on to me. I am like you, Tess, I take my book to bed with me for my reward of 2 hours reading time before bedtime…

  31. mlparker
    mlparker says:

    I am definitely one of those people who has to keep reading ‘one more chapter’. I find myself awake really late because I need to keep finding out what will happen next – especially when I’m reading one of your books! They’re great!!

    I cannot wait for the new one to come out. Keep up the great work!!

  32. huisi
    huisi says:

    hey! my mom forbade me to read Nancy Drew mysteries when i was young as she insists on reading as learning the language n grammar and more vocabulary, and i hated the classics she brought me! Now i read your thrillers and forced my mom to read a chapter of vanish; which she thought was an absorbing read. ((:!

  33. LdyLopes
    LdyLopes says:

    I can relate to this posting. My abusive ex husband used to make fun of me and my supposed lack of intelligence because I read first of FICTION, but second off, the worst, romance. He would even make fun of my reading Stephen King. I would hang my head but still read them of course. Then the librarian at our branch, a small, tweed wearing classy broad, told me when I was talking to her about it, ” read what you want, don’t be influenced by literary snobs,read for your soul, no one elses”.I never looked back in shame nor would I to this day.

  34. rmlillian
    rmlillian says:

    Well, you all won’t see this because this blog entry is so old, but for those who might have just found this like me, I have just two words: book covers! Amazingly, people are less interested in what you’re reading when there’s a cover on it. Maybe they assume you’re reading porno, I don’t know, but usually they won’t ask. Stretchable covers, which you can buy most of the time at office supply stores and in late summer at general supply stores (e.g., Target, etc.) cost about $2 and work best on hardbacks and trade paperbacks. Paperback covers are available, too, but are harder to find. Ask around. (I’m not suggesting anyone feel ashamed of what they’re reading, which is the point of Tess’s post. But if you want to spend more time on your morning train or bus commute reading than defending your choice of reading materials, then this idea might be helpful.)

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