Are you ashamed of what your past self read? #BookishPost

When I was in second grade, I made a dinosaur in art class. This one art teacher would travel from class to class, meaning we only got to see her about once every two weeks. I don’t remember forming my dinosaur from the clay — a brontosaurus, which scientists can’t even agree is a real dinosaur — with teeny arms and a long thick neck and tail.

But, then came the day to paint the dinosaur. I was told that we only have dinosaur bones… meaning we have no idea what their skin would look like! I immediately painted my brontosaurus all white, added a big black stripe down the back, colored the belly dark purple, and covered the thing in polka dots. I was so pleased with myself.

Until…. until I looked around the room and saw everyone else’s projects. Dinosaurs in brown and green, maybe a touch of dusty blue. But that was it. And in a panic, I started painting over my work with thick green paint. I only got the head covered. Now it looks like my dinosaur is wearing some sort of dinosaur executioner mask for Halloween.

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The most depressing thing I own. #Poser

This same nervous “don’t judge me!” mentality has carried on into my reading. I distinctly remember in elementary school the day the Scholastic book catalog would come to class. I would circle all the books I wanted (too many, really) and convince my mom of which ones I would perish without. The young adult novel Don’t Die, My Love comes to mind. I read and re-read that book. A high school couple, Julie and Luke, with a bright future are sent into the unknown when Luke discovers he has cancer. I don’t even need to Google the characters’ names. Read and re-read indeed. Young me loved romance and drama.

But some time in my early 20s, I looked at that book and was ashamed of myself for having read something so trite, so lacking in educational content. Perhaps it was the reason I was not as smart as my peers when I was in college. I was at the University of Notre Dame in the fiction writing program at the time and feared my fellow grad students, each brilliant, would find out I was a trash-reading phony. In a moment of shame, I got rid of Don’t Die, My Love.

Which leads me to today. This summer, I want to listen to a series of audio books by Katie MacAlister in the “Dark Ones” series.

They’re all sexy, funny vampire novels that are set in various locations. MacAlister’s work never takes itself too seriously, meaning it never heads into Wisconsin cheese-fest territory. All of the books are stand alone novels, but similar in theme. Even though I’m still reading “intelligent” books, I’ve enjoyed listening to audio books right before bed lately, and I thought MacAlister’s series would be a good choice.

Where did I hear of these books? I read the first one, A Girl’s Guide to Vampires, when it came out in 2003 and loved it. So fun! Silly, mysterious, set in a different location than the States! I read it twice in one year.

girls guide

But when I went to find the book pictured above on my shelves last night… it was no where to be found. Did I give it away because I was ashamed again? It didn’t matter that my first vampire love was written by Anne Rice or that I had never read Stephanie Meyers. All vampire fiction was “baby” territory, a place for those too stupid to recognize capital-L Literature. Given the big ol’ shaming the Twilight series took in the media, and the way people wanted to distance themselves from vampire fiction as a result, I wouldn’t be surprised if I stuck A Girls’ Guide to Vampires in the donation box years ago.

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73 comments

    • When I was reading these books, I did not feel guilty. It was in retrospect that I felt bad: why didn’t I read more, better, harder books that made me smarter, more competitive, more well rounded?

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  1. This is a great topic! I have wondered about this very thing when I look back at my book list from junior high, high school, university, and beyond. So many of the books on the list make me cringe, and I wonder why I didn’t read more of the classics back then so that I wouldn’t have so many left to read now? Here’s my theory (for myself)… when I was in school I was learning all day and doing homework at night, so when I read I wanted it to be fun and easy – an escape. Then I have a stint of more literary works on my list between University and having babies. Once the kids were a bit older, I think I started craving more challenging/intellectual reads because of being around children all day. And now I find I have a nice mixture of both, depending on my mood and what’s going on in my life. I think it’s all valuable.

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    • Once in a while my mom would recommend a book to me, but it was mostly me going to the library or getting books from garage sales, and the Sweet Valley Twins were everywhere. That was the biggest bunch of books I read–almost all of them, in fact. I think Don’t Die, My Love sticks out because I loved it so much and then suddenly felt bad (whereas some part of me knew the SVT weren’t what I should be reading) and that I bought A Girl’s Guide to Vampires when I was a freshman in college, when I should have “known better.”

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  2. I love your little dinosaur! It’s definitely unique! 🙂 I think most of us think at some point that maybe we should have read more sophisticated books throughout our lives to be more well-rounded people, but hey, if you don’t read something fun and maybe even silly every now and then, it would take all the fun out of reading. That’s my opinion anyway.

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    • I should have named my art a conform-o-saur 😉

      As I wrote to Naomi just now, I think the issue was Don’t Die, My Love SUDDENLY hit me as a something to be ashamed of, and A Girl’s Guide to Vampires was a book I bought on college. Both of them suddenly became a source of shyness rather than thinking of them as junk food books. Perhaps one can’t tell what junk food is if that’s all one eats for 18 years.

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  3. That dinosaur is amazing! I made a sad looking gargoyle in art class ages ago and it would have been much improved with polka dots!

    When I was in middle school, I read an awkward romance book (no vampires, sadly, but it had a Greek love god) that was probably the most embarrassing thing I was caught reading in class; my teacher confiscated it and called my parents.

    It’s easy to think we all “should” read high-brow lit all the time, but variety keeps it fun. When I was working on my summer reading list, I wondered if some of the books might be “embarassing,” but I also /really/ want to read all 20 this summer so a couple need to be a little light. 🙂

    The Twlight shaming has always fascinated me. Not many people say “well, at least the kids are reading /something/”. I read them a few years ago, I even blogged about them, and the relationships they feature are surprisingly unhealthy. There’s a strong stalking + controlling = loving vibe that I think puts people off of them more than the vampire bits.

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    • Thank you. I feel like your gargoyle befriended my dinosaur in my heart 🙂

      I can’t believe the teacher actually called your parents, unless you attended a private religious school. What you read in such places can be touchy. What happened after the school called your parents?

      I want to say I was too old to read Twilight when it came out, but that can’t be true because middle-aged moms read it, too. Anyway, it was written for teenage girls, and I was teaching college. I remember my freshmen students going nutty over it — and I was teaching at an all-women’s college! Some of them missed class because they went to the opening showing of one of the films. I think the excerpts I’ve read are very shallowly written, and the relationships are definitely abusive. After a while, the all-women’s college put up posters about movie romances, like the one in the Twilight series, are actually stalking, like you said, and not love. Love is not possession.

      When I was reading the two books I mentioned in my post, no one shamed me. It was me shaming myself years later. I was at a college full of wealthy brilliant people, and I’m sure I had impostor syndrome coming at me from all angles. If only I had read like them, I would know what hell I was doing, I kept thinking.

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      • It was a public school, but the teacher opened the book to an extremely explicit section (which I hadn’t even gotten to yet!). If I recall correctly, the Greek love god could be human and stay with the librarian (of course she was a librarian) if they engaged in *ahem* certain acts. Because the book caused such a stir, it’s much more memorable than it would have been otherwise. Lol.

        I saw somewhere recently that Neil Gaiman has written about his twinges of imposter syndrome when meeting/working with other famous writers. That really surprised me. If someone so successful and beloved by readers around the world /still/ feels that way, it must be more normal than we realize. 🙂

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          • Oh, right! I think I’m mixing up a bunch of his quotes in my head. He has a longer one too from a commencement address that is also good (he’s very quotable):

            “The problems of failure are hard.

            The problems of success can be harder, because nobody warns you about them.

            The first problem of any kind of even limited success is the unshakable conviction that you are getting away with something, and that any moment now they will discover you. It’s Impostor Syndrome, something my wife Amanda christened the Fraud Police.

            In my case, I was convinced that there would be a knock on the door, and a man with a clipboard (I don’t know why he carried a clipboard, in my head, but he did) would be there, to tell me it was all over, and they had caught up with me, and now I would have to go and get a real job, one that didn’t consist of making things up and writing them down, and reading books I wanted to read. And then I would go away quietly and get the kind of job where you don’t have to make things up any more.” -Neil Gaiman

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  4. Hahahahaha! I adore your dinosaur!! I bet it was the best one in the class!

    No, I’ve never really been ashamed of reading anything, but I think I’m lucky because I have an older sister who read all kinds of pulpy fiction, so most of what I read looked quite classy in comparison… 😉 But I think it’s about balance really. I couldn’t bear to only read ‘good’ fiction – I need something that doesn’t require loads of brainpower and concentration some of the time. Well, most of the time, to be truthful!

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    • My dinosaur says, “rawr, thank you.”

      I think the issue was not being self-conscious at the time, but looking back and being ashamed as an ADULT. Now I think less about feeling ashamed of what I’m currently reading and more what you guys will think in terms of interest in content.

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  5. firstly, I love your dinosaur, and the fact that you still have it. secondly, you should NEVER be embarrassed about what you read, and i feel very strongly about this. reading is important, no matter what it is, and the more you read, the better you are! Read what you like, and ignore the haters 😉

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  6. Oh my gosh, I find it absolutely delightful that you still own that dinosaur! You’re anecdote reminds me of the time I got rid of all my journals from when I was younger because I was ashamed of what I had written, how immature I sounded, and I just could not see any benefit from keeping them. Many years later, I deeply regret this. I wish I would have waited a little longer. Anyways, I think there always room for a few guilty pleasures and if you’re happy reading these books because they’re fun, forget the guilty part of that phrase, it’s simply a pleasure. Happy reading!

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  7. Haha, your dinosaur sounds great. And it actually looks great! Little did we know back then that they probably had feathers too. Really too bad that you succumbed to the group thinking and changed the way it looks 😦

    And I definitely remember a few reads that now seem embarrassing (it’s just like teen bands, isn’t it?) I suppose we all have those. I’m nearly 29, there’s no way I’m still the same person I was age 13. I can’t name most of those now though, cause they were most likely from the library, and there was no Goodreads then (maybe that’s a good thing? :D)

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  8. I know exactly how you feel, Melanie! I purged my shelves of my (ahem) rather extensive vampire romance collection when we moved house a couple years back, desperate that no one else should discover my secret shame! BUT I wouldn’t have made it through my postgrad years without Twilight, et. al. I think maybe because I was reading so much highbrow stuff for my studies at the time, it was lovely to have that escape. I really enjoyed them! (Sunshine by Robin McKinley was one of my faves, if you haven’t already read it.) I also read a lot of really corny horror novels as a kid. R. L. Stine’s Evil Cheerleaders series was a standout. And I’m still a sucker for that kind of stuff. Sometimes it’s good to just read something purely for entertainment’s sake. P.S. your dinosaur is super cute. I love the spots!

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    • I just finished one of the new Fear Street novels to see what it’s like. The plot needed love. I also remember reading Christopher Moore, but he was more for adults. When you were reading the Twilight series, did you ever tell you follow grad students?

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      • I’ve been scared to read the new Fear Street–I have such fond memories! I’m pretty sure they’re a lot better in my head than in reality!! I’ll look forward to reading your review though! And yeah, I was very open about reading Twilight with the other postgrads. They still tease me about it!

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        • Oh, no! Well, now you’re a published author, so they can jog on. I’m not reviewing R.L. Stine here because he’s a male author, but basically the plot had a lot of holes and things that were set up, but not used later. A bit like a unfired Chekhov’s gun. Then again, it may be part of a CONNECTED series… I’m not sure.

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          • Ah, yes, of course you wouldn’t be reviewing him on GtL! It’s been so long since I read Stine, I reckon I’ve definitely romanticised how good his book are. I’d be a little devastated to find all those Goosebumps and Fear Street novels aren’t the literary masterpieces I like to pretend they are, but I suspect many of them have issues too… :p

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  9. *2 cents* you’ve just totally written down everything I’ve felt. GOD there was this awful book called Venom that I read and tried to behave like the girl because​ I thought she was cool. And she wasn’t cool. She was an a*****e. GOD!

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  10. I love this!
    It’s just been the last few years that I’ve tried to be really okay with all the things I would have once considered guilty pleasures. Especially in college, and especially as a Lit major, people are so snobby about what they like. I’ve tried to take on an “I’m just happy people are reading, regardless of content” mentality about it. Even with myself. I try to tell myself: “It’s okay that you read the fourth Twilight book more than once. At least you were reading.” 😄

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  11. I love that dinosaur and its so cool that you still have it. Its different but great. I think the only thing that I have ever been embarrassed of reading is 50 shades of Gray. When the series came out, there was a lot of hype around the book. In Kenya, the movie was banned and so naturally, I had to read the books. I think I liked the first book though I was so confused by all the sadomasochism.I was intrigued though but yeah, the whipping and spanking was something else. I read the second book before finally quitting on the series. Its not something I tell people though lol. Great post!

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  12. I love your dinosaur! I’ve never been ashamed of reading any books. They serve a purpose: I read easy Debbie Macomber recovering from an operation, hard academic books when doing research. I was lucky to have free rein on my reading as a child and the run of a neighbour’s bookshelves with no judgement on choices but room for discussion as a teen; maybe this has helped. The only books I would not review in public are those relating to some aspects of my upbringing which would be seen and cause issues if I talked about them in public. But I’m not ashamed of those, just careful where I shout about them.

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  13. Oooh, those Scholastic catalogues: I loved loved loved them. That was the highlight of my elementary school years. Some of those books I still have, but not many. I was definitely not the kid who was reading all the “smart books”, all the classics, if there was/is such a kid though.

    I loved series, which often were repetitive but I loved the characters and didn’t notice (or didn’t care if i did notice, because I still wanted to spend time with those characters I knew so well) and I often chose my books by their covers (although that was disappointing sometimes, too, and sometimes a boring cover could still lead to a good read, but I would still be drawn to the next pretty cover and try again). Our past selves are not always easy to love, but we have to keep trying I guess!

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  14. Great post! I read sooo many Sweet Valley Twins/High and the Baby Sitters Club books when I was younger, and I definitely read them past the intended age limit. I’m kinda waiting for it to be alright for me to pick those books up again, if i’m being completely honest here… 🙂 🙂 My current reads that I deem “guilty pleasures” are cozy mysteries. I can only read one and then I need to read something heavier, but there’s something wonderful about being able to turn your brain off and just enjoy a silly, fun book.

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    • My husband said he read The Babysitters’ Club when he was in elementary school and didn’t realize they were for girls. He said he was hooked on the idea of kids running a business, and then they talked about interesting things, like divorced parents and Stacy being embarrassed about having diabetes. He said we read the right books for the moment, and it’s impossible to fairly judge ourselves in the past.

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  15. This is a great post! I’m not necessarily ashamed of any of the books that I read when I was younger, but I am guilty of reading things without questioning whether they are accurate or not. I hope that I’ve changed that.

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  16. I think our reading tastes change and develop over the years, or even weeks/months. I’ve often wondered to myself if I would enjoy/dislike books more or less if I had read them at different points in my life. For example, when I read a YA book that feels cliché and full of tropes, I often wonder if my teenage self would have enjoyed it. The opposite is also true. I think back on some of the books I read when I was younger and disliked, and wonder if I would enjoy them now as an adult.

    I think book tastes are a lot like fashion trends. I never look back at a picture of myself when I was younger and am ashamed at what I was wearing because it was the style at the time!

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    • There was a girl in my grade with whom I was always in competition. She was way smarter than me, though, as her guardians tried to make her multi-talented, playing violin and piano, dance, reading, writing, etc. She was always reading such smart books….I haven’t thought about her in a long time, but now I’m wondering if her intelligence then makes me look back now and feel ashamed that I wasn’t doing more to be smarter. But…. that’s not what books are always about… right?

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  17. Your dinosaur is the best thing I’ve seen all morning. How do we know that dinosaurs didn’t have polka dots and green heads? This is a really interesting post and it made me think about how prevalent book-shaming is. We are so pressured to view some genres as inferior to others – to distinguish between ‘lowbrow’ and ‘highbrow’ literature – to the point where these pressures become internalised and we begin to feel ashamed about our own books and impressions. I’ve been working in a bookstore since I was twelve and always feel like I need to justify my reading choices to my colleagues (who are all much smarter and more interesting than I am) and to customers. I often feel that reading ‘trashy fiction’ is only acceptable if it is liked ironically or if it has some nostalgic value.

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