Friday, March 26, 2010

“Reading skeletons”

I very much like Tim Davis’s notion of “reading skeletons.” These are not the same as guilty pleasures. They are the books and writers you will never confess to: those that cause, not merely embarrassment, but a deep moan of shame.

Guilty pleasures are the “popular” or even “trashy” books and writers that a “serious” reader must bar from entering his permanent collection, but that he reads on the sly—a thriller like The Day of the Jackal, say, or a sex-boiler like Forever Amber. These you can cough up, under prolonged interrogation, with a caught-in-a-lie grin.

Reading skeletons, though, are those books and writers that make you ashamed of yourself. Like Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, which I read one hot and beach-blanketed summer to impress a California girl. Or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the philosophical pretensions of which amazed me when I was a pretentious college senior.

All of us have skeletons in our reading closets. We do not confess to them, because we do not want to be arrested. We want to move on with our reading lives.

Update: Patrick Kurp assures me there is no shame in having read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: “It was mildly readable at the time . . . but even then I knew it was, in effect, a one-night stand. There’s no shame in that. We must read junk to recognize it and flush it from our systems, like a toxin that carries its own enema.” But here’s the difference, Patrick. You immediately recognized “Robert Pirsig’s pretentious little bestseller” as a “one-night stand.” I didn’t. I was prepared to forsake all others and be faithful to Pirsig as long as I lived. And for that I am unspeakably ashamed.


Levi Stahl said...

I think the closest thing to skeletons that quickly come to mind are the 60+ Star Trek novels I read in high school. Man, did I love those books.

R/T said...

You've nailed me on another sin: guilty pleasures. Numerous "popular" and "trashy" books are included in my reading (but not on my shelves), but I take solace by rationalizing the good company I keep: W. H. Auden was a huge fan of mystery novels; many mystery novelists were (are) academic scholars with impressive reputations; even Texas A&M professors/critics (if interrogated) would cough up some guilty pleasures.

Steven said...

Dear RT,

Ah, but then you're admitting them and true skeletons must remain in the closet for the later visit of the bibliotherapist. Those secret visits with Jackie Collins and Judith Krantz or Richard Brautigan, should remain secret and hidden, festering beneath the surface and giving rise to who knows what rants and tirades. :-D



scott g.f.bailey said...

I think that perhaps part of the definition of a "reading skeleton" ought to be that we wish we'd never read the book. This is an essential difference between "skeleton" and "guilty pleasure" reading. If I could but eliminate the impressions of "Fear of Flying," "Looking for Mr. Goodbar" and "Still Life With Woodpecker" from my brain, I would. The fifty "Doc Savage" novels I read at 15 can remain, though.

D. G. Myers said...

Yes, Scott—excellent. Shame and remorse in reading!

panavia999 said...

Ah, a skeleton book is one we won't admit reading and also wish we hadn't. This is the closest I can come:
My mother said with trembling lip that she hoped I'd never read "The Story of O" because she didn't want to me think there were women like that. Of course I read it immediately. It did not bother me as much as her, but I found it both intriguing and very creepy and it's the first book that came to mind as something I wish I hadn't read.
Doc Savage novels - that sounds like fun! I recently picked up a couple old ones and looking forward to them.

Anonymous said...

The only book I'd consider a skeleton was this novel that was so horrible that I tossed it in a trash can while walking down the street in NYC because I couldn't bear to have it near me another second (or the idea of anyone else being subjected to reading it). I went so far as to block out the title and author - though I remember the title containing "boy" and "girl" in some configuration. The only way to describe how repulsive it was is to call it the literary equivalent to a perv-ey uncle who likes to tell dirty jokes.

PMH said...

Alas, most of Vonnegut!