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Guilty Pleasures

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Harper's June, Digital ID 1131260, New York Public LibraryIn previous posts chronicling my reading habits and tastes, I’ve invoked the names of authors like Dickens, Proust, Flaubert, Austen, and Shakespeare, perhaps giving the impression that I invariably spend my time with only the best that literature has to offer. Before you brand me an elitist (and ruin my chances at a future presidential bid), let me state for the record that I also have my guilty reading pleasures, and they often run right alongside my more literary pursuits. A difficult question is what makes certain fiction “popular” and other fiction “literary.”

Although the best popular or genre fiction can have psychological depth, moral purpose, social insight, stylistic competence or sometimes even finesse. . .somehow you know you’re not reading Proust. One handy measure is narrative speed. With any of the authors named above, I slow down, savor passages, sometimes even do a bit of subvocalizing while I’m reading. Hearing the words play out in my head takes more time than absorbing great chunks of prose all at once, but when it comes to reading what does time matter except as a big, warm sea to splash around in? Books on a popular level are more compulsively gobbled, making them dicey choices for reading at night. On more than one occasion I’ve set down my breakneck-paced mystery just before going to bed with a sense of having stepped off a train after a long trip and still feeling the speeding motion. Inner speeding does not make for a good night’s sleep.

I’m sure we can agree that having access to popular fiction in the circulating library system is a wonderful service. But what is the point at the research library, where books have to be used in the main reading room, and nothing can leave the building to be read during your trip, accompany your lie-down on the sofa, or amuse you during an extended soak in the tub? The point is that these books will never be superseded on the shelf by more fashionable new titles, but will always remain where they are, even as the years turn into decades, and generation follows generation. For a big chunk of my library career, I’ve been responsible for selecting fiction in the General Research Division. While we don’t collect every single title that is published, we do maintain an enormous, representative selection, including works in every popular genre. But figuring out which titles to collect can be a tricky business.

A few years ago, I discovered to my surprise that we lacked a first edition of Stephen King’s Carrie, that horror novel you might have heard of concerning a teenage girl who can move things with her mind. Even long after its original printing, it still seemed important that a major fiction collection contain the first work of a writer who was not only to become a publishing phenomenon, but also to win a National Book Award for his distinguished contribution to American letters. Fortunately, it only took a little hunting among antiquarian book dealers to find a copy, even if it cost considerably more than the original purchase price. How important would it have been, however, to find a copy of Love’s Vapid Fury, the first romance novel of Scarlett Flambée (you know the paperback: girl with tattered bodice, shirtless guy pumped up on steroids)? The answer is--you never know. Our catalog currently lists 37 monographs on the subject of Stephen King. Who’s to say my imaginary romance novel won’t some day end up a dissertation topic?

So what kind of popular fiction am I personally addicted to? After a brief teenage flirtation with science fiction, my adult self has no use for it. In some ancient time and place, I enjoyed the James Bond novels; but having recently reread one of them, I found absolutely no reason to go back to the others. Historical fiction (with the long-ago exception of the Poldark novels, by Winston Graham) usually leaves me cold. Fantasy involving witches, sorcerers, dragons, wizards (sorry, even you, Harry Potter) I will gladly leave for someone else’s idle hours. And, of course, that deplorably-named genre “chick-lit” is not written with middle-aged male librarians in mind. My particular weakness is for a handful of mystery and suspense series which I have cultivated over the years. I have my favorites, and I’m faithful to them, impatiently waiting new additions to each series and generally buying them the instant they appear (although if I’m in one of my occasionally frugal moods, I will put them on reserve at the Mid-Manhattan library). To my way of thinking, these novels hover fairly close to the standard of literature, as they are well-written, contain characters who grow from book to book, and have fascinating things to say about our contemporary social reality.

I was excited to learn there was finally a new P. D. James novel, The Private Patient, to be released in November. When it comes to James, I try not to be too greedy for new work, since she is now 88 years old, an extraordinary age to be producing such fine novels. Peter Robinson and Reginald Hill both have excellent detective series set in Yorkshire. My favorite Robinson is the first I ever read, In a Dry Season, in which a local reservoir is emptied to reveal the flooded village below, as well as the bones of a brutally murdered woman. Hill’s detectives, Dalziel and Pascoe, are featured in two interconnected novels about a serial killer, Dialogues of the Dead and Good Morning, Midnight, which together total about a thousand pages, all of which speed by, have absorbing characters and a fascinating puzzle, and only incidentally are thick with literary allusions.

Henning Mankell’s crime novels featuring Inspector Kurt Wallander are rich in plot and characterization, and give their setting, the Swedish city Ystad, a palpable reality. I’m also a great fan of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels by Alexander McCall Smith, which are set in Botswana. Notable for their humanity and gentle humor, they focus more on the interactions of their deeply-engaging principal characters than their mysteries. There is one American on my list, but that’s Elizabeth George, whose Thomas Lynley novels are set in Great Britain and detail locales, classes, and other aspects of British life with, to these non-Brit ears, seemingly perfect pitch.

All of my titles are widely and wildly popular and probably not that unusual. I certainly wasn’t about to confess to comic books, pornography, or Nancy Drew. Do you, however, have any more surprising guilty reading pleasures you’d be prepared to confess to?

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Every one of the superb

Every one of the superb mystery writers you discuss occupies a prominent place on my bookshelves, too. (It's amazing how similar our taste is.) My lifelong love of mystery fiction began in childhood with the Trixie Belden series, the first six of which were written by a real (as opposed to syndication) author, Julie Campbell. In addition to intriguing mystery plots, these books presented fascinating characters who actually developed over the course of the books and real-life Westchester County settings which broadened the horizons of this Brooklyn girl. They were full of wordplay and literary allusions. They helped me develop the standards by which I judge mystery fiction today. My guilty pleasure? I actually reread this series from time to time, reliving the joys of childhood reading.

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