Reading is a form of self-care
Let’s talk about reading. I’ve used this space to talk about self-care before. I might even have mentioned books are my self-care. As parents, as teachers, as aunts and uncles, as inhabitants of the grown-up world, we often spend timing poring over reading suggestions for teens, tweens and toddlers. I know that I’ve put together a few. In this article, I’m going to switch it up a bit and talk a little about my reading.
Reading, and finding pleasure in it is a learned behaviour. We’re doing it for the kids! No, we really are not. We are doing it for ourselves and this is vital, it is necessary, it is important to acknowledge.
It’s autumn, dear reader. It doesn’t quite feel like it in Switzerland because September has decided to greet summer’s swansong with bright skies and glittering lakes. The weather is warm, pleasant. Cardigan weather in the morning, T-shirt weather in the afternoon. What’s not to love? Well, if you needed one more reason to love September, here it is: September marks the beginning of autumn bookselling season and is, by far, the best time of year for book sales. Or, if you wanted to have a little more fun, ask Instagram and TikTok. As I write, BookTok and Bookstagram are a riot of autumnal aesthetics. Everything is ochre, there are pumpkins, blankets and fairy lights are twinkling everywhere. Social media is telling us that we are collectively ready to escape from …Well, everything …To pastures new and fanciful. And, for once, I couldn’t agree more.
I’m sitting here with my Pumpkin Spice Latte, wearing my mustard-yellow cardigan, in my skinny jeans and sporting my side-part, being the proudest, cheugiest (yes, I also had to look it up) geriatric millennial there is, and I am ready to escape my responsibilities. Escape your responsibilities with me?
Now, if you follow my social media pages, you might even have read how have I might even have mentioned that the act of buying books is a little different to the act of actually reading books. I buy books voraciously, even avariciously. Sadly, many spend months languishing in my TBR pile. But do you know which books never languish for too long? Romance books. Romance books never languish.
So, let’s talk romance, because finally, at the ripe old age of 36, at the tail end of 2021 I am finally ready to reveal myself as a not-so-secret reader of romance and put it on record.
First things first, let me just defend Romance a bit while some of you roll your eyes. Romance readers have to face a lot of judgement from readers at large. Think romance, and automatically, you will think of Fabio. You might also think of Fifty Shades of Grey, Mills & Boons and any other number of stereotypes about the genre. It’s odd isn’t it that we are perfectly okay with reading gruesome depictions of horror and crime with decapitations and defenestrations galore (let’s be honest, we are not only okay with it, we celebrate it) but it’s the reading about consensual sex that has all riled up and moralising. The genre is accused of misogyny, of being small, of being reductive, reducing women and women’s pleasures and ambitions to finding the right man …And that’s it. I believed this for a long time. I avowedly did not read romance. I was too busy reading women written by men to even thinking that women writing about women and men could possibly be worth my time.
But as ever, Jane Austen led the way. I fell into reading Romance via Jane Austen.
My university did not teach Austen. Jane Austen, the woman who is responsible for converting the world to the pleasures of reading and for spawning an entire genre (Regency Romance…Um, Bridgerton anyone?) was too trivial and too small for my university.
They were happy to teach us about domineering men who beat their wives (Heathcliff) and domineering men who kept their wives locked up in attics (Rochester) who believed that their love interests (Cathy and Jane respectively) were not like other girls but they could not bring themselves to teach us about men who learned to set their pride and prejudice aside. I read Jane Austen as a guilty secret and then I read Georgette Heyer. Slowly but surely, this path led me back to Elizabeth Gaskell (also largely ignored by university English Departments because her novels clearly don’t contain enough suffering) and eventually to Nancy Mitford and then gradually, over time to Sophie Kinsella ,Jenny Colgan, Julia Quinn, Tessa Dare by way of Sidney Sheldon and Jilly Cooper. These books were marked as either ‘chicklit’ or as ‘bonkbusters’ but whichever way they were marketed, it was clear that they were marketed towards women, not men. If you were a woman reading these books, you were not allowed to say that you were a reader or even that you enjoyed reading. If you were a man, you simply didn’t read these books because even if you wanted to, you would feel judged by the other readers in the bookshop or even the cashier. Romance was definitely not meant to be taken seriously. Happy endings (pun and inuendo intended)? Who needs them?
Me. And about a zillion other people like me, across the gender and sexuality spectrum. In fact, romance novels and novellas are the most popular genre in terms of raw book sales globally.
What is wrong with books that argue in favour of being loved? What is wrong with books that talk about how to love? Doesn’t this standoffishness feel rather Victorian?
The genre conventions of romance are as follows:
- A happy ending. Happy endings are powerful. In Romance, people who we are accustomed to seeing as suffering find happiness and their happy-ever-afters.
- The central plot is a love story. Or, a lust story.
Romance has, historically, been a problematic genre in terms of representation and inclusivity. But, in recent years, that has changed. It has expanded and become more inclusive than it was before. The genre has a long way to go but change is happening, and it is not nearly as slow as it is in other genres or even in literary fiction. Self-publishing and the advent of digital readers has changed accessibility; many romance writers publish their own work thus bypassing the gatekeeping of traditional publishing.
Here are my suggestions of books that you should check out if you are new to romance.
- Evie Dunmore’s ‘The League of Extraordinary Women’ Trilogy. I thought they were all wittily written. Dunmore paints the history of women’s suffrage and how it links to rights of workers out of the shadows.
- To Love and to Loathe by Martha Waters. This is another historical romance that I really enjoyed.
- Beach Reads and ‘You and Me on Vacation’ by Emily Henry. I enjoyed both books. They were fun, frothy and while Henry takes the genre seriously, she also plays with it. I felt that both books had a lot of heart.
- The Royals Next Door by Karina Hale. If you are fascinated by Meghan and Harry, have a read. In addition to the royal-watching, this book has a lot to say about caring for someone who is bipolar.
- Kerry Winfrey’s ‘Waiting for Tom Hanks’, ‘Very Sincerely Yours’ and ‘Not like the Movies’. I loved these books. They were like mugs of hot chocolate in bookish form.
- Christina Lauren. That’s it, that’s the recommendation. Look up the recent books by this writer duo. My favourite so far has been ‘Roomies’.
- Helen Hoang’s ‘The Kiss Quotient’ series. Representation and romance while not being preachy? Yes please.
- Beth O’ Leary ‘s ‘The Road Trip ‘ and ‘The Flatshare’. Sweet and funny with a capital F.
- Sarah Manning’s ‘Rescue Me’. There’s a dog, there’s love. What’s not to, uh, like?
- Rachel Lyn Solomon’s ‘The Ex Talk’. Solomon is a really good writer and I’m looking forward to her next book, ‘Weather Girl’ which promises representation and inclusivity for book boyfriends as well.
- Talia Hibbert. This list of 10 books turned into a list of 11 because I cannot not include Talia Hibbert. Her Brown sisters series is a treasure, just full of Black British joy. Representation never read so well.
Which books would you recommend? Come and join the conversation.
To read posts from August, click here