Now and again, we will get half a dozen boxes filled with paperback mysteries. No one ever complains, “Who buys these? Poor souls who don’t get enough violence in their lives?”
It hasn’t happened this year yet, but we will frequently get boxes filled with fantasy novels, with or without an equal number of science fiction tales. I don’t hear anyone whine, “Why don’t these people go out and find something positive to do?”
No, we’ve grown beyond that. Reading genre fiction has become a respectable pastime. Almost.
Because, by gum, let some poor soul donate a mere twenty-five boxes of romances and it sets off waves of helpful psychoanalysis. Romances are one of the last seriously guilty pleasures in the world of reading. (Somebody dropped off five hundred comic books earlier this year: no comments beyond “Wow!”)
These don’t even have the advantage of being romances of the undead or uncanny. With the exception of a couple of vampires, a pair of dragons, and a werewolf, the protagonists in these stories are human. “Or as close to human as anybody in a romance ever gets,” chortled someone who heard me mention this.
They are also primarily historical romances, so we get a lot of lords and ladies, unless we travel to another continent for a game of cowboys and schoolmarms. The collection focuses on the nineteenth century, but this does not preclude some earlier yarns starring pirates and damsels in distress, or knights meeting duchesses who are alarmingly independent and self-confident. I did run across one which involved a Saxon invader and a Roman maiden, but nothing neolithic has turned up so far.
Can we make some case for this as an easy way to learn about history? Probably not. The covers don’t help. I realize that paperback art is not really intended to make the books look like serious additions to the literature of the human condition. It’s designed to get people to open the covers. (Any time I pick up a book and find all the critics quoted on the cover telling me how important this book is to the literature of the human condition, I put it back down. Maybe that’s just me.) The historical data you can pick up from looking at the covers is questionable, at the very least. Apparently before elastic was adopted by our prudish century, people’s clothes fell off on a regular basis. Male chest hair was not invented until about 1920 (even this hero who turns into a werewolf occasionally are bald from eyebrow to bellybutton.) Despite all these covers over here, which show women lacing up their corsets, those covers over there make it clear that no wellborn lady ever wore one when out on a date.
But if that bothers you, there are plain brown wrappers available in the world. We’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, after all. There are people who would willingly go around the Book Fair on the last day and count how many romances we have sold as opposed to those books on higher mathematics I was telling you about last week. Maybe books on set theory would sell better with a few insecurely-clad mathematicians on the cover.
What I’m actually whining about here, swordfish sundae, is a tendency to judge one person’s junk food more severely than another’s. People do not (so far) stand in the grocery store and sneer at you if you buy jelly beans instead of potato chips. So why do we feel free to grumble about people buying paperbacks with bald-chested Anglo Saxon warriors on them instead of the ones where a trenchcoated man with a gun waits in a rainswept alley? Will the man in the trenchcoat shoot somebody? Of course, or you’ll demand your money back. Will the Anglo-Saxon warrior find himself loving the fair Romano-British damsel, having learned to respect her as a person after learning she doesn’t wear a corset? Certainly.
You enjoy your jellybeans and let other people buy their potato chips. If you’re worried what people will think, buy a book on calculus to go with them.