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In Praise of Mediocre Books

Like many avid readers, I often toss around some version of the phrase “life’s too short to read books you don’t enjoy,” or “life’s too short for bad books.” In general, I think it’s a good rule to live by. As much as we’d all like to believe otherwise, the truth is that every one of us is going to die with books we wanted to read left unread. It’s just a fact of being a reader. So DNFing books is often incredibly freeing. With limited time, both on the planet and for reading, there’s no point in wasting any of it on books that aren’t bringing you joy in one way or another. I’ve DNFed plenty of books in my time, and I’ve never regretted it. After all, life’s too short for bad books. Right?

Well, maybe.

Lately, I’ve been thinking that this idea, this “quit every book you don’t love!” attitude, lacks some subtlety. Maybe there’s a grey area, some murky space in the middle, where we can chuck books we’re not into without any qualms and also read books that are not anything super special without feeling like it’s a waste of time. Because here’s the thing: sometimes I enjoy reading books that are just meh.

Opinions about books are incredibly subjective. Everyone likes different things. I firmly believe that there’s a reader for (almost) every book. The only books I give a hard pass to are books that are sexist, racist, queerphobic, transphobic, etc.— books that perpetuate violent rhetoric about marginalized communities. These books are bad. Let’s move on.

When I talk about mediocre books, I am not talking about particular kinds of books or particular genres. Don’t even get me started on any “I’m a real reader, I don’t do romance” bullshit. I’m not here to give even a wisp of time to uninformed people spewing harmful ideas that sci-fi can’t have beautiful writing, or romance isn’t full of complex characters, or thrillers can’t make you rethink your worldview, or whatever it is. Literary fiction is a made-up distinction. Brilliant books exist in every single genre. End of story.

When I say I sometimes enjoy books that are just meh, I am not talking about “guilty pleasures” (also not a thing, don’t get me started). What I mean is that sometimes I read a book with writing that feels sloppy, or repetitive, or dull. But I’m super into the characters, so I really don’t care about the third time the author uses that one phrase in as many pages. Or maybe I’m reading a novel full of plot holes, and a little part of my brain is saying: “Wait! This makes NO SENSE!” But the bigger part of my brain is like: “This spaceship is so cool! These aliens are hilarious and awesome! Cannot stop reading under any circumstances!”

What I’m saying is that while I love books that blow me away, that make me weep, that get under my skin and utterly change me, those are not the only kind of books I like to read.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, hesitant to write this piece because of the ways I’m afraid it could be misconstrued. I am not an objective judge of literature and would never claim to be. I’m not trying to suggest that my particular tastes in books are the be all and end all, or that I have some kind of definitive knowledge about what makes good or bad writing, flat characters or richly layered ones. My okay book might be one that blows you out of the water. I’ve just realized, over the years, that I enjoy many kinds of books. I enjoy some of them more than others. I like reading both kinds.

I love cooking, so I am going to make a food metaphor. I have enjoyed some truly exceptional meals in my life. I love making extravagant meals for loved ones. But, I obviously don’t eat this way every day. You know what I have for dinner at least once a week? Fried egg on a cheese toasty. It takes ten minutes to make. You can use whatever random bread you have sitting around, whatever cheese. It’s comforting and filling. Do I want to eat it every day? No. Is it the best meal I’ve ever had? Certainly not. Do I love it, still? Yes, absolutely.

As readers, we often put so much pressure on ourselves, no matter what kind of books we read. We all have different kinds of books we enjoy and different tolerances for books that aren’t perfect. I’m all for ditching a book you’re not enjoying. No time! But I also think it’s okay to enjoy mediocre books. We don’t, in fact, have to judge every book against our favorite book of all time. We don’t even have to give books ratings! We can just read — brilliant books and mediocre books and everything in between.

Enjoyment is a broad spectrum. I do not enjoy all books equally. Why should I have to? Sometimes I crave the rush that comes from a revelatory read. But sometimes I just want an egg on toast. It’s far from revelatory. It’s decidedly ordinary, in fact. There are no surprises. By the next day, I’ll have forgotten what it tasted like. But you know what? While I was eating, it was perfect.

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