The Guilty Read: What's so guilty about it?


Guilt. We all feel it in its many dark forms, only yesterday, having consumed two thirds of a packet of Jaffa Cakes, I had food guilt. Total eclipse indeed. Then there was the Monday guilt, that dreaded few hours on a Sunday evening as you clasp onto the last ten minutes of Poldark (or any other well timed end of weekend drama) you grow anxious with the " I haven't done any work this weekend ," guilt. And it doesn't end there: there's the "dear god what did I spend that on" bank balance guilt, the "I shouldn't have drunk that last glass... maybe I was spiked" guilt. I could go on. It sometimes feels like we live our lives battling in perpetual contrition. But, there is one type of guilt that I don't experience nearly as much, on principle: the " I shouldn't be reading this trash" guilt. But other people do, a lot.

Speaking of so called "trash", E L James, author of the "Fifty Shades of Grey" trilogy, is estimated to have sold 5.3 million copies of her so called "mummy porn." In  11 weeks James had sold 1,1,62,637 novels of mucky smut, making it the fastest selling novel EVER. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it! People, lots of all kinds of people, were actively buying books and reading them and with 1 in 6 adults struggling to read, and only 35% of us actually reading for pleasure, according to the national Reading Agency, this has to a good thing! Nevertheless, James' poorly written prose took a real beating and soon enough there was a guilty association with this modern phenomenon.  People "borrowed" copies from friends to read, you know "just to see what all the fuss was about." It seemed that rather than celebrating, we felt silly for dabbling in such vacuous literature, ashamed even. But why? Why can't we just say: "Yes, this is shite, I'm not learning anything (apart from a few revealing aspects of S and M that made my eyes water) and I am not remotely intellectually stimulated but I don't care. I'm enjoying it.

And we all do enjoy a bit of shallow, titillation in one way or another. Let me set the scene: you're in a waiting room (dentist, doctor, whoever) and staring at you from a table is a copy of Heat magazine and a copy of The Times. Heat or Times, Heat or Times? Come on, you know where you're going. And I'm here to tell you it's OK; pick up that superficial, salacious, scandalous weekly and embrace it for what it is : Torso of the week, celebrity gossip and distasteful images of people, highlighting knicker lines, nipples and spots . Then tut, appalled at such venomous attacks on the beauty that is the human form and then secretly breath a sigh of relief that the aesthetically elite among us also grow leg hair, develop wrinkles and have cellulite. We knew it!

Don't get me wrong, society's cumbersome obsession with this Z list so and so bickering with that one is unsettling at times, as is the aforementioned  "circle of shame" culture of tearing each other apart from the neck down, I'm just saying that as long as we take these publications for what they are, and accept that we all indulge in some mindless tripe from time to time we have nothing to feel "guilty" about. 

But we worry, we do procrastinate about what our reading material tells those around us about who we are: look at the Harry Potter novels; Bloomsbury recognised that an adult demographic enjoyed the novels and to make them feel at ease with engaging with Rowling's fantasy fairy tale they spent thousands designing and printing alternative cover art because of our guilt around reading what we perceive to be below us. I'm not saying I never feel it. I just don't think it's right.

Many of us would happily sit on a train and wave in the air a Donna Tart novel or Hilary Mantal's latest stroke of genius but would feel self conscious leafing through "chic lit" aware of assumptions and judgement some might make of our choice of book. According to the Huffington Post, the average Britton spends one year of their life watching soaps (and countless time discussing the goings on- I would have happily owned up to Lucy Beal's murder to put an end to that epic staff-room conversation) and that's OK? We feel comfortable with that. We know it's sensational and unrealistic and wooden and for many people that is fine, totally accepted and discussed. But put a pastel coloured hardback in someone's hands  and watch them scoff. Perhaps it's because we associate reading with academia, something serious, something character shaping, rather than something that just entertains us? Like half an hour of Corrie. Yes, novels can be serious, evocative, a cultural  comment on an epoch in time and yes they can be character shaping and enlightening. But they can just be fun and entertaining. And that's ok too.

So, let's try to treat reading the same way we treat an episode of Take Me Out, a guilt free activity with a pinch of  good humour and and open mind, rather than making it something awfully serious and important. You never know, a few more of us might read for pleasure that way.

Words: Gemma Thorpe 

Red-faced reading, we've all experienced it.