Reading Krystal’s subtle and savvy piece, it struck me that our talk of guilty pleasures involves two controversial assumptions: that some books (and perhaps some genres) are objectively inferior to others and that “better” books are generally not very enjoyable. Combined, the two assumptions lead to a view under which, to pick up Krystal’s metaphor, we think of books the way we often think of foods: there those that are “good for you” and those that merely “taste good.”
Just as I'm posting a comment (admittedly a self-justifying one) below which tries to make the case for books that are enjoyable, entertaining and easy, I happen upon this piece on the NYT blog. I don't agree with the author's contention that we prejudice physical work over intellectual work ie. Running marathons, climbing mountains and competing at high levels in tennis or basketball are very difficult things to do, but people get immense enjoyment from them. Why should the intellectual work of reading “The Sound and the Fury” or “Pale Fire” be any less enjoyable? The intellectual equivalent of recreational sports are puzzles and games; crosswords, Sudoku, and the ultimate calisthenics of the mind chess etc. which are very popular and can be difficult. I think people get as much pleasure (maybe even more) from an intellectual challenge as a physical one. My contention about the value of a so-called 'difficult' read versus an 'easy' one would be that it's essentially a false dichotomy. Very often books initially dismissed as 'easy' eventually, over time, turn out to be, sophisticated and influential eg. Raymond Chandler, while books respected for their so-called complexity and influence end up being unreadable and more talked about than actually read eg. Joyce's Ulysses. Books considered masterpieces in one era end up forgotten, just as others are re-discovered as long-forgotten masterpieces. Wasn't Shakespeare once considered popular theatre, the soap opera of his day? It seems to me that there is a difference between suffering through a book and enjoying the challenge of one (as one might do with a good crossword). Even so-called complex novels have a responsibility to the reader, and that is never to bore him. Admission: I couldn't finish \The Sound and the Fury. It bored me to tears.