Dec 19, 2006

On Used Bookstores, Popular Literature, and Curmudgeons Like Me

(Toledo, OH) With a few minutes to kill today I made a trip to A Novel Idea, an excellent used bookstore in Sylvania, OH. For a little more than $18 I walked out with an armload of classic literature, ranging from Mark Twain's Letters from the Earth, Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, to W.E.B. Dubois's The Souls of Black Folk.

Yet the classic literature, even in this setting, comprised but a small section of the store's contents. By far the largest component of this store was the area taken up by romance novels.

There were countless rows of this literary fluff, and the Harlequin series received its own subsection. I briefly glanced at a random book in this genre to see if anything had changed since I tried to read one of my grandmother's romance novels in the 1970s.

Nope. Still as formulaic and forgettable as ever.

And yet, as I watched people browsing through the romance section, I began to feel guilty for mentally berating what must be a considerable audience for these books.

And, frankly, who am I to turn up my nose? Danielle Steele certainly outsells the likes of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and at least these folks are reading. What is the harm in reading sappy, predictable novels that get churned out by the millions?

None, that I can see - except that these books provide little in the way of intellectual stimulation - but if they bring some escape and pleasure to someone's life, then I ought to mind my own damned business and quit being an intellectual snob.

Still, if only they would pick up a copy of Crime and Punishment, or maybe Moby Dick...


microdot said...

Here in France, the summer sport is an event called a Vide Grenier (literally, empty your attic). A small village has a junk sale and you find yourself looking at boxes of thousands of paperbacks all for prices like 4 for a Euro. My passion in popular literature has been for years, the author Georges Simenon and I have been able to build a collection of almost every novel that this most productive author has ever written...I even buy older and better versions of the same book then resell the copies I don't like. It's a form of addictive madness to be sure. I love being able to read the Maigret stories in French and learning all the underworld 1950's French slang, which I pepper my vocabulary with to the amusement of my French friends.
IIf you are ever looking for Danielle Steele entire works translated into French, I can get them for you for next to nothing!

David said...

What harm in reading pap?

Oh, just the same harm as watching pap or listening to crap (instead of music): the negative aesthetic values imprinted on the brain of self-lobotomizing readers/watchers/listeners is no less harmful than daily, incremental lead poisoning, just less obvious.

The Screaming Nutcase said...

I wish more people would read, even if it is crap. It might help them be able to form a sentence when they write. At the ambulance service I used to work at, I read the run reports for quality control purposes...and it's disappointing, to say the least, what crap comes out of the fingers of someone who managed to finish high school.

Stephanie said...

I never liked romance novels, at least not of the type and flavor you're refering to, but there are some novels where a romance is integral to the plot that do carry me away.

That being said, I can't stand Moby Dick. I've never gotten more than fifty pages into it.

Maggie Thurber said...

While I enjoy the classics, my reading is for escape...too much 'serious' reading in my daily life that light, easy, even predictable, is what I seek when I want to relax. Of course, my interest was never romance - rather science fiction and spy novels...

But I understand the attraction and the need for the escape.

Stephanie said...


My favorites are the fantasy novels with well-plotted romance stories at their core. The Sevenwaters Trilogy is great for that.

So are the many of the Pern novels, though they're not fantasy.

Joy said...

Interesting post!

Before I ever wrote a book I also scoffed at the Romance stuff. Then, after meeting many Romance writers and their readers, I came to have an appreciation for the genre and to understand that many men and women who read Romance (and yes, there is a sizable contingent of men who read it) also read other genres as well, including the Classics, SciFi, etc.

BTW, I don't write in Romance and probably never will. I still don't even read it! But many of the Romance writers are very intelligent, interesting people who just have a gift for that genre.

Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

Hooda Thunkit said...

Science, mechanics and electronics are my downfall ;-)