By Gabrielle

I’m not proud of it, but it’s true. I used to be the kind of person who would never read anything published in the pocketbook size they call ‘mass market.’ Only thoughtful and poetic prose for me. None of those books you can buy at the checkout at the grocery store. I loved tragic stories and sweeping epics. Good books didn’t make you laugh; they made you cry. The books of my heart were big and bold, sad and heavy.

The height of my book snobdom happened as I worked at Canadian bookseller giant Chapters (now Indigo). As the merchandising manager, it was part of my weekly duties to change over the bestseller wall each week. I was moving titles around, removing ones that didn’t make the cut and adding new ones. Each week as I made my way down the list, I silently judged each title and whether or not it should be there. Each week I dismissed some of the most popular titles just because they were, well, popular.

I didn’t start out this way; as a child, I read just about anything, popular or not. Books have always been a big part of my life. I was lucky enough to grow up with a mom that taught me how to love books, and our regular trips to the library were always something to look forward to. Back then, I read everything. I read classics, poetry, fantasies and adventure stories. I read pretty much anything I could get my hands on. I fondly remember L.M. Montgomery, Beverley Cleary, Roald Dahl, Shel Silverstein, Farley Mowat, A.A. Milne and Gary Paulson. As I got older, I developed a particular penchant for mysteries. I devoured Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, The Bobbsey Twins, R.L Stine, Christopher Pike and more.

It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly my general appetite for reading turned into something more specific and, frankly, judgmental. It was sometime in my mid-teens and early 20s and probably around the time I was working in a bookstore. To be clear, my judgments really only applied to myself. I had zero issue with someone coming in to purchase the latest Danielle Steele to enjoy. I can’t recall ever thinking badly of someone else for their reading taste; I just held myself “to a different standard .” This is pretty common in the book-selling world, I have come to learn. Many (but not all) bookstore owners and employees are snobbish about the books they carry or recommend. It’s like we feel we won’t be taken seriously if we recommend a James Patterson novel.

During my snobbish years, I deeply loved Canadian literature and authors like Timothy Findley, Michael Ondaatje, Douglas Coupland and Jane Urquart. I was in my very early 20s, and these stories felt like a revelation. They matched my angst at the world’s unfairness, spoke to my soul, and made me feel smart. Now that was reading!

As I got older and that generalized angst only the really young can feel turned into more specific concerns of adulthood* How will I pay my rent this month? What am I going to feed my kid, etc.? Life was difficult, and I found reading about others’ struggles harder and harder to bear. I’m an extremely empathetic person, and sometimes books can haunt me for weeks. I started to look for “escape” books. Books that allowed me to take a break from my everyday life and experience something a little different, lighter. Light mysteries, humorous travel memoirs, and, yes, romances. These books were and still are self-care for me. Entertainment and escapism in one. Time for me to unplug and relax. I’d read an escape book in between heavier titles, like a sorbet between servings of a multicourse meal. A palate cleanser.

This approach served me well for a long time. Over the past decade, I’ve become friends with many teachers and librarians whose attitude toward reading helped me continue to expand my own views. Their “any reading is good reading, let’s just get books into the hands of people” tactics convinced me to feel a little less guilty about my escape books. But just a little. In social settings, I still talked about the heavier books I was reading, purposefully choosing to leave out the lighter titles. I wanted people to feel like I was smart. And my definition of smart didn’t include reading romance books.

Fast forward to fall 2019, and I’m working at my local library. We had booked romance author Farah Heron for an event celebrating the accomplishments of women. Farah talked openly about how romance is the ultimate feminist genre, and then my brain broke a little. I had never considered it that way before. It was a total “aha” moment for me. It was like sitting in a dark room and suddenly noticing the crack of light around the door. You stumble towards it, throw it open and are blinded by the light on the other side. Farah opened my eyes to a whole new view of the romance genre.

It didn’t stop there. With eyes wide open, I discovered new authors and corners of the internet dedicated to romance fanatics. I found smart, funny people writing remarkable books with big hearts and incredible characters, and they didn’t shy away from discussing contemporary issues either. Woven around romantic plots, I found explorations of homophobia, racism, poverty and just about every other social justice issue you can think of. Basically? I found my people.

Romance writers and readers are the absolute best. Romance books can incorporate any other genre. Love sci-fi? No problem. Long for WWII fiction? Check. Can’t get enough thrillers? There is a romance for that. There is a romance for everything. With romance, I can have my cake and eat it too. I can satisfy my desire to read diverse perspectives and experiences AND enjoy some escapism, knowing that things will end well because the only thing all romance books have in common is a happy ending. And who doesn’t love a happy ending?

I know I’m late to the party. I feel like that person that shows up for their niece’s birthday party so late they missed the cake, carrying a highly inappropriate gift. I had a lot of self-reflection and work on my self-esteem to do. I had to meet other romance readers to discover that reading romance does not equate to being dumb. In fact, romance readers and writers are some of the smartest, coolest, most badass people out there. But just in case you are still hiding in that dark room, ashamed of your reading habits, I want to say, “walk towards the light.” You won’t regret it. I’m only sorry it took me so long to get here.


*I do not say this to disparage the concerns of the young. Young people today have a heck of a lot more to deal with than I ever did at their age. You couldn’t pay me to go back to my early 20’s now.