Epiphany of a Bibliophile
I felt sad that my friend was uncomfortable sharing their book selection with me, for fear of being judged for it, but I was also recognising a familiarity with that feeling. … Is book shame really a thing?
By Kirsty Smith
I feel as though I came to somewhat of an epiphany recently after two book related conversations.
In a group, I referred to a book that I had really loved, but was pretty quickly shot down by someone saying that they hated that book due to its terrible writing with poor world-building and made fun of some of the lines from it. As a result of those comments, others in the group said they no longer wanted to read it.
I backed myself in the conversation, because I liked the book, but the comments lingered afterwards and I started to doubt my ability to discern a good book from a bad one…
I recently asked a friend what they were currently reading and, with a blush and not looking me in the eye, they responded that it was nothing particularly poignant, “just a trashy romance”.
I immediately said that there’s nothing wrong with reading romance and asked if they were enjoying it. Turns out, it had been the high point of their week to read a few chapters each night after long difficult work days, but they seemed embarrassed by the ‘confession’.
Is book shame really a thing?!
I felt sad that my friend was uncomfortable sharing their book selection with me, for fear of being judged for it, but I was also recognising a familiarity with that feeling.
I realised that I’d often done the same thing - been really dismissive of something I was reading if it wasn't sufficiently highbrow. I recall that the few times I’ve been asked what the first memorable piece of LGBTQIA+ literature I read was, I downplayed it – passing the LesFic off as somehow basic and not worth discussion.
But it was in those stories that I saw myself reflected in the pages of a book for the first time. That lesbian representation meant so much to me.
It got me thinking – is book shame really a thing? Have I experienced it in any other ways? Sadly, I have.
I love Young Adult and New Adult fiction. Sure, I like lots of other things too, but this is my go-to happy place in the world of books. But in the workplace, or with new acquaintances, do I say that so confidently? Erm, nope – because I feel like people will think less of me for appreciating something written for younger people.
When I mentioned writing this blog to my friend, Emily (Founder and Chair of the Leeds LGBT+ Lit Fest and Book Club), she said that a real frustration for them was that many graphic novels are not accepted by Goodreads as contributing towards a reading goal – which somehow feels like being told that a graphic novel isn’t a real book…
Audiobooks are often criticised as somehow being a form of ‘cheating’ and not really counting as reading. I disagree, but it can be a source of shame for some to admit that they read audiobooks and not physical books.
I’ve also heard people saying that they could never DNF* a book, as though reading a book from cover to cover – even if they’re not enjoying it – is somehow a badge of honour. I recently read Afterlove by Tanya Byrne and a section of that book really resonated with me (pages 356 and 357, paperback version), but the following line feels particularly fitting in this context:
"It’s OK not to finish the book if it feels like a closed door, not a window."
During one of my recent book swap meet-ups with Emily, I passed on my copy of Here Be Monsters, written by Jay Hulme and illustrated by Sahar Haghgoo, which I adored. (Also not accepted by Goodreads as contributing to Emily’s book goal.) I don’t tell many people that I sometimes read books for children, because again, it feels like something I might be criticised for.
I’m sure there are lots of other examples of feeling shame about a book choice, but these were some of the ones which stuck out the most to me.
I’m setting myself free
Of course we aren’t all going to like the same books, and the stories, themes, genres, characters and representation within the pages of a book will resonate with each of us differently – or maybe not at all. And that’s OK.
People are allowed to have differing opinions on what they’ve read – we just have to remind ourselves that (setting aside books that are genuinely problematic), that book we hated might have had something which meant the world to someone else. So feel free to say you don’t like it, but perhaps don’t close the door on hearing others’ perspectives on it.
From hereon out, I’m setting myself free by pledging that I will no longer let anyone book-shame me – including myself! And I'm going to enjoy being a proud bibliophile for all kinds of books because, BOOKS!
One of the things that I appreciate about being friends with Emily, is that I feel totally unjudged by my book choices. It gives me a safe space to talk about my favourite characters, storylines etc, and I realise that it’s important to have that.
We’ve tried to create another space for sharing the joy of books, via our Instagram account. If you want to join us on our book-shame free journey, check us out at @LGBTLitFest.
* Did Not Finish
Kirsty is the Secretary for and one of the organisers of the Leeds LGBT+ Literature Festival and Book Club. When she isn't out walking with her wife and pooches, you'll usually find her baking or reading queer lit.