When I was growing up you had to have a special sticker on your library card to be allowed to take out adult books. Eventually I convinced my parents that I had read every book in the kid’s section and I was ready to move up, even though I was still technically too young.
The minute I got special permission for the ‘adult’ sticker, I gravitated to the wire spinny rack of Harlequin romances. I knew I wasn’t allowed to read them (although by then I had secretly “borrowed” the romances that my mom had hidden in her bedside table many times), so I would race into the library, pull off some romances indiscriminately from the rack, and then go pick out two other book to sandwich them between so my parents wouldn’t see what I had checked out. I had clearly learned that romances were something to hide away so you wouldn’t be caught reading them. I suppose, looking back, it wasn’t the fact that they were romances so much as the fact that they were completely age inappropriate for a kid. In fact, when my mom finally caught me, she wasn’t actually upset—she said she’d rather me read romances aimed at adults than the Sweet Valley High books that were so popular at the time. I think she thought that with a romance I’d be getting better writing.
Even with my mom’s approval, I still kept thinking that I needed to hide my romances from anyone else—especially if I was reading in public, like on the bus. Plus, the covers were getting more lurid as I graduated past the relatively tame Harlequin Presents. I would hide my books inside other books, make fake paper covers for my hidden shame, and I even bought a fabric cover designed especially for paperbacks. But I never stopped reading the books. Even though I didn’t want to advertise it, I devoured romances like candy.
I don’t remember any one of my friends up until college who would admit in public to being a romance reader, and there was no internet at the time where I could find fellow fans. The first time that I felt like I was part of something bigger was when Outlander came out just before my first year of university. All of a sudden all the girls (AND boys) in my classes were reading AND talking about this book. All of a sudden I had romance people around me. It was amazing and validating!
Despite this, I don’t think I ever got over feeling like I had to hide what I was reading. Even today I curate what physical book I’m going to take with me if I know that other people will see it. But a few years ago the advent of ebooks and ebook readers changed my reading-in-public life completely. I got a Kindle, and suddenly I could read whatever I wanted on the bus and no one would know! Erotica? Check! Gay male historical romance? Check! Science fiction ghost romance? Checkity check check! Ebooks freed me to take my reading out into the world. While I sometimes mourn the ability to passively brag about my (curated) reading habits by displaying the covers for all to see, the anonymity of ebooks has expanded the breadth of romance books that I now read. The Princess and the Porn Star, anyone?
I’m also not ashamed anymore to admit that I’m a proud romance reader. I’ll talk about my favorite romances to anyone who expresses interest, either in person or on the internet. I’ll shout it from the rooftops (or on National Public Radio). I’ll excitedly discuss varying levels of smuttiness in books and/or historical accuracy in Viking era romance. Seriously—there’s nothing wrong with reading romance and everything right about it.
I just won’t show the covers of the books I’m reading on the bus.
For the entire month of November, Free Library staff will be embracing our so-called “guilty pleasures” without embarrassment! Join in and show us your pride for whatever you’re reading, watching, or listening to by snapping a photo with the hashtag #FLPNoShameNovember. We’ll feature your photos on our social media accounts and curate a list of the now-shameless titles!