A decade ago, I worked for a now out-of-business bookseller. My local store allowed employees to check out books, one at a time, for a two-week period. I prefer to own books, really, because my memory is terrible and re-reading becomes necessary after a few years, but it was great to have the opportunity to read a book first to determine whether or not I wanted to add it to my growing collection. Most of the employees took advantage of the program, and most of us recognized that we would be judged intellectually by the caliber of book we chose to read. I checked out a lot of Joyce, some of which I read (all of which I bought), and Thomas Mann (the German novelist, not the political scientist), and, to break up all that twentieth century thought, a lot of Greek philosophy. There was one girl there who boldly and bravely checked out a new romance novel every few days. The rest of us tittered behind our hands and thought grand thoughts of our own superiority, but I think she had the right idea.
I have been a reader of romance novels since I was about twelve years old. I read constantly, and, at that early age, I tended to read whatever I could find in my mother’s book collection that looked halfway interesting. In addition to some forgettable historical romance novels (Lion’s Lady is one of the best of that group, just for its bizarre notions of “history” and astonishingly bad dialogue), some odd suspense/thriller novels that I did not understand, some Stephen King novels (that I also did not understand), I read nonfiction current-events books discussing such events as the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Nabisco/R.J. Reynolds Tobacco merger. The pattern, here, is that I read anything I could find, regardless of whether or not it seemed to fit into any particular genre. I was twelve; I didn’t have a favorite genre.
When I was fifteen, I discovered that I enjoyed classics written by European authors, and I’ve spent most of my life reading books that fit in that genre. I soon discovered, though, that I couldn’t read these good, thought-provoking books constantly, because I did not allow myself enough time to think about them, to reflect, as Mrs. Thomas’ classroom quote exhorted. Rather, I went from one to another, and all of that grand thought and all those new (to me) ideas became a bit of white noise crackling in the background of my mind. Those ideas were there, but I was not assimilating them into the context of my life. I was a fifteen year old girl reading Les Miserables. What did I know about Waterloo or the subsequent revolutions in France? What did I know about poverty, or religion, or criminal justice, or love, or redemption? If I did not take the time to figure out what all of those concepts meant to me, I would have, pretty much, wasted the time it took me to read that sixteen-hundred page tome (nearly two weeks of almost constant reading).
But reading is a compulsion to me. I honestly can’t stop–certainly couldn’t in my youth–and if I wasn’t to pick up another great book until I had fully digested the last one, what was I to do? The answer: romance novels. They allow one to pass the time, but they don’t require any real thought on the part of the reader. They are feel-good fluff, often humorous (often unintentionally so), nearly always satisfying. When you read a romance novel, you don’t have to worry about the threat of a Tess of the D’urbervilles-style ending. Romance novelists don’t kill off their main characters after subjecting them–and the reader–to several hundred pages of torment. I think romance novels can be fabulous (also horrifying).
So when I think back to that girl at Borders (I can’t remember her name) who read so many romance novels, I understand why. Sometimes you just want a story that will sweep you up and take you away to another life, perhaps to another time, that is more ideal than your life will ever be. There’s no real harm in romance novels, provided the reader doesn’t get so swept up in the fantasy that she expects Fabio to walk in the door at any time.