Masochistic Reading

Two of my favorite podcasts center around people who read books they would rather not. The name of the first podcast says it all: Book Club for Masochists. The hosts of the podcast aim to become better librarians “by reading books [they] hate.” Every month they read and discuss genres they wouldn’t normally go near. The hosts of The Worst Bestsellers do something similar, reading “popular books of questionable quality” so they can better advise readers. I am trying to do something similar. That is, to become a better reader by reading the kinds of books I usually don’t read.

Webster’s New World College Dictionary (Fourth Edition) defines masochism as “the getting of pleasure from suffering physical or psychological pain, inflicted by others or by oneself.” So reading masochist might describe a person who willingly subjects him or herself to books they would prefer not to read.

Reading to Impress, or Reading for the Wrong Reasons

It is an interesting prospect, reading masochism. Many of us have probably engaged in reading masochism to an extent during our lives, whether it is reading the latest bestseller because it is the latest bestseller or reading for a book club. We want to be a part of the conversation so we read the books we might not otherwise pick up. I am definitely guilty of this. On the surface this might sound like a bad thing, and sometimes it definitely is. Other times picking up a book for the wrong or foolish reasons leads to good things.

In my early twenties I definitely read like a masochist. I was always a reader but worried I hadn’t read the right books. To fix this I may a list of authors and books that I heard people talk about. Most of these were the types of books people often call “classics.” In hindsight I see that my motivations were foolish. The results, however, made it worth it. Hemingway, Hurston, Steinbeck, and Wright – those were some of the names on the list. Thank goodness for that list.

Reading to Grow My Reading Horizons

Nowadays most of my masochist reading comes in the form of a genre challenge. I am attempting it for the fourth year in a row. This year’s goal was to read books from forty different genres – from action and adventure to western. Ideally by the end of the year I will have read erotica, nonfiction, horror, poetry, pulp, steampunk, something philosophical, and more. (This won’t be an ideal year as I have two dozen genres left to get to and less than a month to get to them.) Based on experience I can say the genre challenge is the epitome of masochistic reading.

I took on the genre challenge in the spirit of putting preconceived notions and previous bad experiences aside. Every genre gets a fair try. The results have been a mix of pleasant surprises, expected disappointments, and still open questions. Horror and true crime have been the toughest genres to get through. I am not sure I will ever like true crime. Fictional evil is one thing; actual real life evil is a much more difficult pill to swallow. After three years of trying it might be time to give it up. Horror is still an open question. I haven’t hated the horror books I’ve read so far but I have yet to find one that I really like either.

The genre challenge isn’t completely masochistic. It has introduced me to new genres, some of which I didn’t know even existed, like steampunk and afrofuturism. There are still a few genres I have yet to get to but have high hopes for, namely westerns and cyberpunk. The genre challenge has also been a good way to read genres I like but for whatever reasons rarely seem to get to. Poetry, drama, and science (nonfiction) fall into this category.

So is making myself read books I would otherwise not choose worth it? For me, it has been most (but definitely not all) of the time. My masochistic reading habits give me a reason to revisit the genres that have a habit of never quite making it into the read side of the ledger, while also stretching my reading horizons.

Are you or have you ever been a reading masochist? If so, what do you make yourself read? Is it worth it to you?

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