Here's how to decide what to read when you want a fun, light book to enjoy.
I recently finished reading five science fiction novels in a row. I know, I’m a huge nerd. One was about ball lightning, another about what would happen if a supernova exploded and left a planet on which only children survived, the other three were about how the universe is a dark and dangerous place in which, if there truly is other life out there, we should be hiding and keeping very, very quiet. These particular books are well-written and have some interesting philosophical points to consider. I’m a sci-fi junkie, though, and will happily read novels that have pretty much no redeeming value at all if they have a cool, futuristic premise.
There are a lot of books out there competing for our attention. There are the classic novels, the dense literary works of staggering genius that are difficult to read but typically worth the effort. There’s non-fiction on a variety of fascinating topics, biographies of heroic and tragic historical figures, and then there are the “guilty pleasures.”
Some books really aren’t about anything at all. They have no lesson, no moral, no historical importance, no great artistic ambitions. But they’re still such fun to read. For me, the sci-fi genre is one of these guilty pleasures. So is Jeeves and Wooster, which is basically a series of 80 novels that all share the exact same plot about a dim aristocrat and his brilliant butler. Don’t even get me started on the Discworld books, which take place in a fantasy universe and are basically one long string of absurd jokes with no point.
These books might be classified as guilty pleasures, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t worth reading. There’s value in simply firing up the imagination and enjoying a story, laughing at a joke in a book, or taking delight in the craftsmanship and skill of the author.
Take Jeeves and Wooster, for instance, written by P.G. Wodehouse. Wodehouse did his writing in England during the twentieth century, with Jeeves first appearing in print in 1915. During the first great war, he wrote about Jeeves. Leading up to and during the second great war, he wrote about Jeeves. While the world descended into violence and chaos, he continued to produce brilliant little comic novels that sparkled with joy and a whimsical humor that has never been reduplicated. Wodehouse was an artistic genius who refused to write a serious novel. Joseph Bottom writes, “But in those dark days of the twentieth century, in the middle of the apparent collapse of it all, there was at least one man who had the courage, the intelligence, and the sheer persevering goofiness simply to ignore the whole mess, frittering away his days by writing books like Leave It to Psmith, Young Men in Spats, and My Man Jeeves.” He goes on to joke, “it’s hard to imagine a more pointless waste.”
The point is, it wasn’t a waste at all. Books like My Man Jeeves are more important than we think. I love serious novels, but I don’t want to wallow in the psychological morass of Crime and Punishment all the time. Occasionally, I just want to laugh at a fictional butler trying to help his hapless boss out of a pickle he’s gotten into with his domineering aunt for the millionth time. It takes a certain boldness and courage to write that type of book, a work of art that has no serious point but only exists to delight. We need that kind of whimsicality in our lives. Or what about the imaginative fantasy and science fiction books that take us to another world? Books that make us laugh? A book of poetic writing simply for the sake of being beautiful? These books exist for their own sake. They might not be considered great art, but they fill a spot in our heart.
These are the guilty pleasures I’m happy exist. There are other kinds of books, though, that I’m more conflicted about, and I don’t think I can escape this article without addressing the more nefarious guilty pleasures.
Some books are so poorly written and so pointless that they’re nothing more than literary candy. These are the books that might cause regret later, not because they were necessarily morally harmful or shameful, but because our time could have been used in a better way. We only have so much time to dedicate to reading; we don’t want to fritter it away on pulp novels.
Other types of guilty pleasures truly are shameful. They appeal to us because they’re tabloidish, gossipy, or demeaning. They wallow in vice and describe actions that are damaging to our souls. If they’re art at all, they’re bad art. For these, I find no argument in favor of continuing to read. The reason we end up reading them is because we all need a break sometimes from the seriousness of other novels, the stress of life, and are looking for a relaxing way to use our leisure time. These books don’t help, though, because they won’t fill us up with anything positive. They won’t energize us and leave us truly refreshed. In the end, they only leave regret and a chastised conscience.
When I’m looking for escape, I turn to the type of books I’ve already described — the guilty pleasures that none of us should really feel guilty about reading. They sparkle with whimsicality and innocence, with humor and delight. Because they aren’t considered great works of literary genius, they’re labeled as lesser books, but the joy they bring is evidence of the fact that, underneath the unimpressive veneer, these books are important to a good life.