Reading Bad Books

by Addie Boswell
Published on: February 27, 2015
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Best-selling bad book threatens the very foundation of feminism or provides a titillating escape, depending on who you ask.

Should you or shouldn’t you? Or maybe the better question is: Do you or don’t you? Read bad books, by which I mean formulaic, cliched, stiff, tawdry, populist, immature, or otherwise embarrassing books. There is a belief that “real” authors don’t and shouldn’t read trash. That reading a bad book is the equivalent of feeding your brain junk food, and even worse, that the junk food might start clogging your arterial thoughts and make your writing stupider. Bad writing is catching.

I’ve never quite bought it.

Like most writers, I suspect, I want to write a literary masterpiece, the book that could win me a Printz, a National Book Award, even a Pulitzer. Huzzah! While I’ve read many prize-worthy books, I’ve put plenty of them back on the shelf too. On a given night, I reach for books more pedestrian. Books I might meet at a vacation beach house or an outdated doctor’s office. Young adult thrillers. Old school romance novels. I rarely stop reading them, even when the stilted prose makes me cringe.

Stephen King says, “Almost everyone can remember losing his or her virginity, and most writers can remember the first book he/she put down thinking: I can do better than this. Hell, I am doing better than this! What could be more encouraging to the struggling writer than to realize his/her work is unquestionably better than that of someone who actually got paid for his/her stuff?” (from his excellent On Writing)

So true! Though I don’t read bad books for that reason either. Not to make myself a better writer or feel a little righteous snobbery. I read bad books for the same reason I read good books: to escape reality. I am willing to extend almost any courtesty to a book that will pull me into another place and time. I can hate the character, scorn the dialogue, disdain the whole premise, and still I will read on. If the plot fails, I will read on in the eternal hope that it will improve. That might make me easy as a reader; some might even say sloppy. But I am an adult now, and I haven’t met a bad book I couldn’t read.

“One learns most clearly what not to do by reading bad prose,” from the Master King again. I would add that you sometimes learn what to do right as well. But you don’t have to read to save the world. You can read just to read. And you can eat Cheetos while you do it.

Post Revisions:

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