MJ loves his popcorn.
My recent reading has reminded me of a category of books that I read when I was much younger. There was a while when I would pick up a book around noon and be done with it by the evening, often already moving on to the next one (I’m looking at you, Animorphs). I went through such books so quickly, and those books had so little additional substance, that my mother started to call them “popcorn books.” They were tasty, and could be consumed compulsively with little to no thought required. They were appealing without being nutritious, and I would quickly turn to them if given the option.
I hadn’t really thought more about those books. But recently…
I’ve started thinking I’ve simply upgraded my popcorn books. These days I rarely plough through them in an afternoon, but they remain easy for me to read and fairly predictable in execution. Weber’s Safehold series seems to be hitting the same simple sweet-spot that Animorphs struck so cleanly, but with a difference of 16 years or so. With my more “refined” tastes, I expect a little more complexity from my stories, and certainly more words, yet they are still firmly in the ‘comfortable’ category. It’s clear that my comfort zone has grown in the past 16 years. I’d be worried if it hadn’t (and I probably wouldn’t have made it through college). But is it really ok to keep reading these things?
I suppose the clearest argument that I can think of against reading comfortable books is that they don’t push you to grow in any interesting fashion. They lack whatever it is about new books that helps you to become a better human being, and don’t challenge you with new and interesting ideas. If I thought that were necessarily true, I’d certainly be worried about the quantities of genre fiction that I consume.
Wearing my storytelling hat, I can argue that reading all the genre fiction I can get my hands on is clearly a good thing. I’m increasing my familiarity with the practices of other authors, learning more about my chosen craft, etc. etc. Much as you’d expect a sculptor to engage with the shapes present in the world around them and look at other sculptors’ art, a writer should be reading all the time.
Which brings me around to the beginnings of a counter argument. Even as a consumer of the medium rather than as a producer, there is still some worth; reading prodigious quantities of books is generally a prerequisite of defining your tastes for books. Besides which, being an avid consumer and connoisseur of a given medium is often recognized as having value in our society. Also, there is still a good deal that can be acquired from reading the popcorn books that I enjoy these days. If nothing else, they often satisfy my desire for depictions of heroes, as I mentioned in my post on Schindler’s List.
So, when you’ve found something you like, why not go back to it again and again? There’s no shame in indulging yourself every so often, especially if you’re reading for pleasure. There is a danger to popcorn literature of course. It tastes good enough that I’ll often forget to read other things. If all my time is taken up reading one particularly indulgent series, I’m not giving the other things I’ve got to read nearly enough consideration. But so long as I make sure that I go after something new and different every once in a while and try branching out, I figure I should do alright.
If you ever see me calling something popcorn lit, at least now you’ll know what I’m talking about.