It’s 10am on a Sunday; I’m sitting crossed-legged in jogger-pants on a stained beige couch in Starbucks and eagerly fingering the pages of my recent Powell’s purchase. Today the black and red cover totes Lori Foster’s infamous name, but other weekends the cover proudly totes another author: Maya Banks, or Nora Roberts, or Jen Frederick. For my readers who don’t know, these are writers whose short, squat, books are stacked in hidden Romance section of every bookstore; in Powell’s the section is tucked between the ‘Local Comics’ sections and the bagel display case in the attached coffee shop.
I began reading romance novels since ninth grade: since pre-whitened teeth and maroon corduroy overalls, since four years before my first kiss but still a thriving romantic. At the time my voracious reading began, it was summer and I lived less than a mile from the local Barnes and Noble. Having made a deal with my father that I could buy five books a week, I would walk to the B&N every Sunday morning, and spend two hours browsing the shelves before settling on the books I would devour before the next Friday. At the time I was easily reading a book a day. By July, I had a list of over thirty books I had read that Summer: completed series I hadn’t had time to complete during the academic year and read all the ‘need to reads’ on the list I kept hung on the bulletin board in my bedroom. And I was looking for something new; I had grown sick of the topics in the young adult and wasn’t interested in reading another dense classic.
I wandered to the mystery section before realizing I didn’t find reading about twelve year old girls who had gone missing, pleasurable. I wandered to the sci-fi section before realizing that I wasn’t interested in reading another book about vampires or werewolves, after having just finished the then popular, Twilight series. Finally, I wandered to the forbidden Romance section: two rows of shelves hidden between the ‘Poetry’ and ‘60’s Music’ sections. At the time, I’m fifteen, but true to my genetics, I look eleven: my hair pulled in a tight ponytail and my weight not totaling more than seventy pounds. Looking out of place to anyone who would happen to glance in my direction, I keep my eyes down, and grab the first novel with the least-obtrusive title and cover. By which I mean: there were no images of men with twelve-packs, no images of satin ties or handcuffs, and certainly no words about ‘dominance’ or ‘submission’. Then I return to the non-fiction section and grab four other books with intriguing covers or witty subtitles. Of the books I grab, one is hardcover: wrapped in a glossy paper sleeve.
After my walk home, I run upstairs to my bedroom, untangle the hardcover book from its glossy sheath and wrap the mask over my new Romance novel. I return downstairs where my parents are cooking lunch, plop down on the couch and get completely enwrapped in the loving, erotic, well-written story. For the rest of the summer, at least three of every five books I purchased were Romance novels; but when school begins again in September, I stop having as much time to read for pleasure (or to read about pleasure).
Two years after this fateful summer, when I’m seventeen, my parents get an expected divorce; sassy, single, and high on divorce statistics, I shush my friends lunch-time conversations, frown at Valentines Day carnations, and annoyingly mutter love isn’t real any chance I get. It wasn’t that I felt like my world was falling apart because my parents were separating, or because I was developing a new melodramatic character trait, it was that I didn’t know one couple I wanted to emulate. I didn’t have one ‘role model’ couple: didn’t have a couple who had, in my eyes, the wonderful mix of love, sex, interdependence, and intellectual compatibility. I was at a loss for sources to fuel my hidden romantic.
My mom and I find a condo to move into, and quickly move out of the neighborhood that housed my collection of books. While I’m packing up my four bookcases of books, I catch a glimpse of one of the Romance novels, all of which I had expertly hidden behind glossy sleeves or stealthy slipped between unsuspecting books. I open up the cover and begin re-reading, within pages I am absorbed again in the steamy romance of a cop and a virgin. Within half an hour I’m fifty pages in and desperate to keep reading: hooked on the storyline, thrilled by the romance of flowers and silk sheets, and secretly loving the steamy parts that occur about every seventy pages. And such is what began an incurable life-long love of the taboo books of the ‘Romance’ section.
Four years now since my re-discovery, I have figured out which authors and sub-genres I like best, and make sure to give myself time to read these guilty pleasures amidst literature about queer theory, classic novels, and contemporary poetry.
I’ve had a hard time coming to terms with my love of these books, always feeling the need to defend this guilty pleasure, trying to figure out how to be the feminist, woman-loving, intellect that I am while speaking and writing proudly of my guilty pleasure reads. Since my past month in Portland, I have spent a lot of time in Powell’s; a bookshop that originated in Oregon with a selection of books that feels as comprehensive as that available on Amazon. Four times now I have spent the day in the stores reading room while people of all backgrounds and interest sit at tables with their book of choice. Grown business men delve into sci-fi novels, a boy next to me flips through a book about birding, a punky teenage girl consumes graphic novels, a mother reads a book about vampires. And I blend into the backdrop of strangers reading my romance novels.
I still consider them a guilty pleasure, but I no longer hide the sensual or suggestive covers, no longer blush when I get spotted in the Romance section by a boy my age. Instead, I smile at the occasional other who browses the section with me, before excitedly getting in line to make my purchase.
In a world that values productivity, consumption, and money over pleasure, love, and fun, it can be hard to grant yourself the time to read a ‘fun read’ or delve into a ‘pleasure read’ (sometimes called a ‘beach read’). But trust that you are no less a contribution to society if you take the time to read for fun, than if you don’t. Your character is not judged by the content of what you read to relax. So I write this article to do two things: first, to come out proudly as a reader of romance novels. And second to encourage everyone to go to the bookstore or library and find a book to read that will give them joy. It is summer and there is no better time to spend the day lost amidst bookshelves and books that will bring you joy, lightness, and smiles.