You've heard of, and in all likelihood experienced, all kinds of shaming in your lifetime, from body-shaming to slut-shaming to food-shaming, but if you've ever been on the wrong side of book-shaming, you know how terrible it can feel to be unfairly criticized for doing something you love. When you stray away from mainstream literature and dive into the world of romance, young adult, chick lit, fantasy, or any other unique genre, it's common for people to turn their nose up at your book and make you feel bad about your choices, but the truth is, you should *never* feel guilty about what you read or why you read it.
I was an English major in college, and I hate to admit that the stereotype is true, but I'd be lying if I said I was pretentious about my TBR list in those days. I can remember proudly strolling through campus carrying Proust and Melville under my arm, or sitting at the local coffee shop pompously reading Joyce and Tolstoy. I even brought Dostoyevsky and Kafka on spring break with me instead of a juicy beach read because, yes, I thought that was what was expected from an English major.
But I wasn't always that way, and it took me years to recognize what happened to me: I was shamed into reading what I "should" read instead of enjoying what I wanted to read. It's OK if you love to read Kafka by the beach, but I didn't, and I wish I'd spent my time reading what I love instead.
I grew up loving fantasy and science fiction, and it was my mom's used copies of cozy mysteries that helped me fall in love with reading in the first place, but when I stepped foot onto my college campus, all of that changed. Suddenly, I found myself surrounded by professional literary lovers who scoffed at the idea of genre reading or anything outside of Literature with a capital L. Already out of place as the first person in my family to go to college, at a school I struggled to afford no less, I was worried I would be found out as the phony I was. What right did I, a Mary Higgins Clark-loving, Twilight-reading, sci-fi loving nerd, have to learn next to these smart, wealthy, educated students who already seemed miles ahead of me.
Years and plenty of genre reading later, it seems foolish to think I put so much time and effort into putting up a front around something I love as much as reading, but that's exactly what I did. And why? Because I felt ashamed of my book choices, embarrassed by my interested, and ostracized by my implied stupidity. And that's exactly what book-shaming does: makes a person feel less-than, lower-than, the shamer and their elite reading preferences.
The truth is, like the clothes we chose to put on, the makeup we chose to wear (or not wear), the music we chose to listen to, the books we chose to read are another expression of our personalities, and no one should ever be ashamed of being who they are, no matter what the haters say.
Shaming of any kind doesn't feel good, and it's hard not to take it personally when it's done to you, but I'm here to make one thing clear: you should never feel guilty about what you read.
1Reading is cool, period.
Whether you're reading the latest Paula Hawkins novel, an old classic, or the newest feminist critique, reading is a bad-ass activity, period. An awesome hobby that improves your memory, increases your empathy, and makes you live longer, reading's benefits are not dependent on what you read. Just the fact that you like to read at all is pretty cool, and any true book-lover would agree.
2You have the right to read for whatever reason you want.
When people book-shame, it's usually because they think that the reader is somehow less intelligent for reading supposed fluff, but I ask, what's wrong with fluff? Everyone reads for a different reason, and whatever yours is is completely valid. Do you like to read fantasy for the adventure? Prefer literary fiction for the challenge? Rather get lost in romance than deal with online dating? Whatever your motivations for reading, and for choosing the books you chose, are yours and yours alone. No one should make you feel bad about how you spend your down time, because reading can be done for something other than educational purposes. In fact, that's when it's usually the best.
3Variety is the spice of life — and a good TBR list.
There are so many different kinds of books out there, why should you just stick to one kind? People who book-shame make assumptions about what kinds of books should and shouldn't be read, but the truth is, every genre of book deserves a chance. It's okay if you dabble in a little bit of everything, because the more diverse your reading list is, the more empathetic, intelligent, and accepting you become. Not to mention, you get to enjoy every kind of story, from action to romance to historical and beyond, and isn't that so much better than sticking to the "right" kind of novel?
4You are far from the only one reading it.
Think you are the only person who prefers Harry Potter fanfiction to Jane Austen? Think again, because the market for alternative books outside of literature and fiction proper is massive. According to the Neilsen BookScan, 28,031,000 romance books and 20,111,000 were sold in 2015, compared to 7,578,000 classics. So the next time you debate reading the new Star Wars book because you want to or War and Peace because "everyone has read it," remember that there are plenty of people who would pick the former. Maybe you should let yourself, too.
5Alternative genres celebrate non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual stories.
When you look at the fiction best-seller list, what do you see? Chances are, it's filled with white, straight dudes who have written books about and for other white, straight dudes. When you look outside of the Literature umbrella, you're more likely to find diverse stories that celebrate every kind of identity and every kind of life: sci-fi about an independent woman on an incredible adventure, romance about a breathtaking queer love story, young adult about mental health issues that matter. I'm not saying there is no diversity in the mainstream literary world, but if you want to know where the stories about real people, real relationships, and real experiences are, turn to your genre books and don't feel bad about it for a second.
6Reading is making you smarter, no matter what it is.
When people are book-shamed, it is often because it's assumed that whatever they're reading is somehow less than, and in turn, they are somehow less than. The truth is, whether you're reading Shakespeare or the newest YA series, you are making yourself smarter while you do it. Not only does it teach you new things and increase your vocabulary, it can also help you retain information you already know, improve problem-solving skills, and increase your emotional intelligence. Which brings me to my next point...
7What you read is an expression of who you are, and you are awesome.
Like your personal style, your food preferences, and your music choices, what you read is an expression of who you are, and you should never be ashamed of being yourself. It's easier said than done, especially when people are telling you to change, conform, and fit in, but being true to yourself and your passions is the most important kind of self-care and self-love you can practice.
The bottom line: you, your interests, and your reading list are awesome, so tell the haters to back off and enjoy cracking open your new YA fantasy obsession on the train without feeling ashamed. When it comes to reading, there's no reading to feel guilty.