You know, even bad books are good for you—there’s proof of this. In light of this fact, secret reading habits are nothing to be ashamed of, whether they’re Miss Marple mysteries or a good old-fashioned pulp romance with an embarrassing cover. Here are a few secretly well-worn genres along with favorites off the guilty-pleasure bookshelf.
I am a proud genre consumer, able to digest mystery and crime novels by the goat horn. Preferably the protagonist wears a trench coat, such as in the new le Carré, A Most Wanted Man, the story of a young Muslim in Germany who only wants to study medicine, but is hunted by governmental baddies from the Axis of Righteousness. Gripping! And who can match Mr. le Carré for diction or description? The man is 77, but maybe he’ll pull a Roth and pump out a dozen more books this good. Somebody introduce him to Claire Bloom. —Rosecrans Baldwin
My current favorite genre, Pulitzer and Booker prizewinners and shortlists, seems to work pretty well. I don’t read nearly as much as I should, but when I’m itching for some good fiction, I generally find books in this category to be a good investment of my time and money. I might start adding Governor General’s awards, but I’ve come to resent the “Did Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, or Michael Ondaatje put out a book this year?” tendency they have. I find Nobels a bit hit or miss, as they sticker that on every book cover, and then you have to research which is considered the best book by that author, which is a bit hard standing around the bookstore.
Also good: the “judge a book by its cover” stand in the literature section, from which I’ve recently picked up The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (just simply awesome), the new edition of 1984, and a more recent edition of Love in the Time of Cholera. —TMN Reader Phil MV
My dirty little reading secret? I, the inveterate minimalist, who recently fit all my earthly belongings into a minivan, adore catalogs. I cannot stand clutter and I do not worship at the altar of shopping, but for some reason I embrace these unsolicited missives of commerce with the same joy a novelty-starved prairie wife must have embraced the latest Sears and Roebuck catalog in the 1890s. I love them equally—Neiman Marcus, Hammacher Schlemmer, even the schlocky Lillian Vernon. One of my favorite specimens is the Vermont Country Store, which is sort of like a handheld Cracker Barrel, full of practical and unfashionable classics like flannel nightgowns and snow shovels and horehound candy. The pictures are hand-drawn and the paper is thin and crackly, like Bible pages. It seems like the sort of catalog Laura Ingalls Wilder would have read, and for 15 minutes, I can ignore the ding of my email and the buzz of my cell phone, and retreat into a simpler time where, every once in a while, it was quiet. —Liz Entman
I adore children’s books. Tons of art, in-jokes for the parents, an overabundance of whimsy—what’s not to love? Some favorite new discoveries while reading to the offspring of friends and loved ones (or just browsing in what is clearly the best part of any bookstore): Llama Llama Red Pajama, Bad Kitty, and Knuffle Bunny. I’m still trying to track down an old favorite from my own childhood: It had no text, only gorgeous panel illustrations depicting a toy soldier on a trek across the house. On one page, he’s shown shimmying down the phone cord—I can’t remember the title or illustrator, but I remember that little stroke of genius. Email me if your memory serves you better—my new little cousin will thank you. —Bridget Fitzgerald
My favorite genre lately: manga. As close to TV as books will ever get. The best manga for grownups:
- Monster by Naoki Urasawa: A surgeon ruins his career by giving priority to a small boy rather than a political bigwig. Years later he learns that the boy he saved is actually a monstrous serial killer who frames the surgeon up for his crimes. The surgeon goes fugitive and chases down the man whose life he once saved.
- Real by Takehiko Inoue: Wheelchair basketball drama. Insights into the competitive nature and human resilience.
- Mushishi by Yuki Urushibara. Mushi are elemental particles of the primordial stew that cause trouble when they come in direct contact with humans. A mysterious master of Mushi (a Mushishi) investigates and resolves the human disfigurements and maladies that Mushi create.
—TMN Reader Daniel Gillepsie
My UFO-themed pulp paperback collection still provides plenty of illicit thrills. Dating from the era before digital cameras, the internet, and good old common sense dashed my teenage dreams of extraterrestrial contact, these books provide a potent set of modern myths and legends. Genuinely spooky stories told a myriad of ways by earnest researchers, quasi-psychic charlatans, and the odd utterly crazed loon. With starry photorealist covers feeding the imagination—spectacular spaceships and fearfully shaped visitors from other galaxies, images that were hopelessly mismatched to the grainy film stills and snatched Polaroids poorly reproduced within—and breathless prose rich with speculation, UFO “nonfiction” provides the occasional afternoon of browsing pleasure. The genre still has the ability to imbue a distant flickering light or strange domestic rattle with the genuine frisson of the unknown. —Jonathan Bell
True stories of human triumph over adversity are my favorites. Give me a flood in a small town, the challenges facing the Pilgrims, or an explorer far away from home, and I’m a contented reader. So it was the subtitle of Simon Winchester’s Krakatoa that caught my eye: “The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883.” Winchester tells a gripping tale of the explosion of the infamous Indonesian volcano, weaving science and history into eyewitness accounts and minute-by-minute tales of the blast and the resulting tsunami, which together killed some 40,000 people. Meticulously researched and colorfully written, it’s great Sunday afternoon reading. —Katherine Schlegel
My favorite genre for a long time has been “the end of the world as we know it” stories. Whether it be plague or zombies or other means of man’s destruction, I have always loved a good apocalypse. I think I love the story of survival more than the part about the destruction. Man trying to live in changed world is fascinating to me. It’s the ultimate “what would you do” story. —TMN Reader Guy
I would actually go so far as to say that any novel without a single element of cheap, tawdry, exploitative, or other guilty pleasures is incomplete. Even some of the classics, from Lolita on down to Ulysses, dabbled in puerile erotica from time to time to maintain the reader’s interest betwixt the philosophical dialectic and stream of consciousness. The only difference between them and a 50 Cent G-Unit crime-erotica publication is the humbling of opinion that comes with the passage of time. Wait 50 years and 50 Cent may be considered the next Iceberg Slim, albeit a semi-coherent imitation. Until then we can look back to the 50 Cents of yesteryear, through the glory of manybooks.net, and its fine selection of salacious Victorian smut, cheap sci-fi and crime pulp, and children’s adventure stories, all in various free e-book formats they’ve filtered down from Project Gutenberg. They have a wide array of books that appeal to a lowest common denominator, yet are quaint enough to read in public. —Llewellyn Hinkes
When you’re reading Frederic Dannen’s Hit Men, or William Knoedelseder’s Stiffed, you can pretty easily convince yourself that you like music industry tell-alls because they expose the real-world interplay of art and commerce, or some other such high-minded justification. But once you’re inhaling Fred Goodman’s The Mansion on the Hill (featuring Dylan! David Geffen! The Boss!) or Danny Goldberg’s Bumping Into Geniuses (Nirvana! Led Zeppelin! Stevie Nicks!), you have to admit that the primary difference between you and the people reading People in the beach chairs next to you on your holiday vacation is that your celebrity gossip is available in hardbound form. And that’s OK. —TMN Reader Dan Booth
I am not embarrassed to love modern political history (what? yes). The only “weird” part is that my fellow appreciators are everyone’s dads. And I don’t even go in for real Father’s Day favorites like battle-specific Civil War accounts; Barbara Tuchman is more my style. My father introduced me to A Distant Mirror, anyway. At the beginning of this month I started reading The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys by Doris Kearns Goodwin (no, I haven’t read Team of Rivals); so far, it is exactly as fascinating as I hoped it would be. Robert Timberg’s The Nightingale’s Song really broadened my understanding of the effects of Vietnam on U.S. foreign policy, though it did not change my opinion of Ronald Reagan one bit. Recommendations welcome! —Meave Gallagher
For me, romance novels aren’t just a guilty pleasure; they’re a torrid, forbidden love. No clinch covers on the subway for me, but my second bookshelf—the one shoved in the far back corner of my bedroom—holds romantic suspenses, regencies, Harlequins, paranormals, and the odd contemporary double-stacked and crammed into every corner. So how did a good literary girl become a promiscuous reader of smut? It’s simple, really: They’re addictive. At their best, romances seduce you into suspending your disbelief, relaxing your usual literary standards, and temporarily abandoning any cynical tendencies. A well-written romance is as tightly plotted as an Agatha Christie mystery and as suspenseful as a spy thriller: Will they or won’t they? The answer is obvious, but you keep reading to find out how the writer pulls off their happily-ever-after. And despite the popular image of chastely depicted, disturbingly unequal boss-secretary and barbarian-princess pairings, we’ve come a long way, baby. If old-fashioned power plays are your thing, there’s my guiltiest of pleasures, grand dame Diana Palmer and her Jacobsville series. But for the adventurous, there’s also Diana Whiteside’s The Irish Devil. Sex toys in a romance! Whatever would Georgette Heyer say? —TMN Reader Kelly Faircloth