Guilty Reads are Good Reads

Last week I wrote about two childhood favorite authors. This week, another of my longtime guilty-pleasure reads passed away. Clive Cussler wrote unabashedly men’s action-adventure books, although the last few years I’d stopped looking for his stuff – it just wasn’t ‘feeling’ right to me, and I couldn’t put my finger on why. When I was a kid, though… I used to read everything I could get my hands on. Although my parents prioritized reading… actually, I’m going to stop there and go down a rabbit hole for a minute.

The First Reader and I came together through a shared love of books and reading. We met, close to two decades ago, on the Baen’s Bar, which was an is a forum established by a publishing house devoted to getting authors and readers together and talking about books. There are some differences, though, as we’ve discovered in talking through the years. He grew up in a house with no books. I grew up in a house with more books than shelves to put them on, and have fond memories of building bookshelves with my mother, actually. He learned to read when he went to school, and sometimes feels a little left out when the avid bibliophiles on the Bar would start talking about learning to read almost before they could walk. They, unlike he, had a parent like mine, I’m guessing (or a sibling). Mom read to us from before we were born, I’m pretty sure. I know she read aloud to us daily well into my teens. I can’t remember learning to read, but Mom tells me I was about four and a half. I have just always read. And I have always read a lot, at least until the last few years! My First Reader loved to read as a little tow-headed boy, and it wasn’t until he was well into adulthood that he finally realized why his mom would hide her magazines she liked to read, and why his father would grump and growl at the little boy who would rather read than watch television. His Mom felt guilty about her pleasure in reading, because it was something her husband could not enjoy with her. And his father felt guilty that he was unable to read.

We talk about feeling guilty reading certain kinds of books – and sure, there are books that have all the mental nutrition value of candy bars and popcorn. Sometimes? That’s not a bad thing either. I’ve cracked jokes about bon-bon books I read in the bath when I am trying to relax or feel better from being sick. I don’t want the biography of the man who first organized American Military Intelligence or my HPLC for Pharmaceutical Scientists while I’m doing that. I want a book that I can sink into, escape from the cares and pains of the world, and emerge from at the end refreshed.

Which brings me out of the rabbit hole and back to Cussler. Obituary notices popped up everywhere – considering how many books he wrote, and the impact he had on the literary world, this is hardly surprising. It’s also not terribly surprising that some of the obit writers couldn’t pass up the opportunity to poke a little at the late great popularity of the man with lines like this “American author of more than 80 books forged path as prolific commercial writer who sometimes published four books a year.”

The man was epic. Not only did he manage to put out multiple books a year, he was an explorer, an adventurer who lived some of the wildly improbable things he wrote into his books, and he knew with unerring accuracy how to write an appealing tale. We who look at his life in awe could do worse than to revisit some of his earlier work and study it for just what made them so dang popular and fun to read. I suspect that whoever wrote his wiki article had a clue. “Cussler’s novels, like those of Michael Crichton, are examples of techno-thrillers that do not use military plots and settings. Where Crichton strove for scrupulous realism, however, Cussler prefers fantastic spectacles and outlandish plot devices. The Pitt novels, in particular, have the anything-goes quality of the James Bond or Indiana Jones movies, while also sometimes borrowing from Alistair MacLean’s novels. Pitt himself is a larger-than-life hero reminiscent of Doc Savage and other characters from pulp magazines.” You know, I’ve read some Crichton. But I found myself rolling my eyes at the messages he liked to insert with a ham-handed fist, so I stopped. Dirk Pitt and Al? I just liked them and had fun knowing that their adventures were sheer fantasy.

Sometimes, you want a flight of fantasy. No need to feel guilty about it. That’s the beauty of reading: we can step outside our own vale of tears and sorrows for a time, to ease our minds and relax a little.

(header image: my First Reader about the age he would have learned to read)

69 thoughts on “Guilty Reads are Good Reads

  1. — I’ve cracked jokes about bon-bon books I read in the bath when I am trying to relax or feel better from being sick. —

    There is a role for such ultra-light reading. There must be; it sells like beer at a ball game. My wife Beth calls them “beach books:” the sort of book one purchases exclusively in paperback and doesn’t much care if sand gets into the creases. If they help to hold the prevailing level of worry, stress, and homicidal fury to a tolerable level, that is justification enough.

    However, there is a downside to a reading diet of such books. It’s comparable to what living exclusively on chocolate bars would do to the body. The brain can fill up with fluff, leaving the sufferer unable to digest more substantial fare. So take care to balance your prose consumption properly: no more than three beach books to every “Magister Ludi,” “Buddenbrooks,” or “Remembrances of Things Past”….

    Wait: WHAT AM I SAYING? Forget that heavy, pretentious crap. Stick to beach books. You might not be named chairman of the English Literature department, but at least you’ll remain tolerable to the rest of us. (:-)

    1. Heh. Yes, a balanced reading diet is important, too. But my ‘heavy’ fibrous reading books are much more likely to be non-fiction than ‘litfic’ because those give me no joy nor sustenance. They are more like, hmmm… making myself choke down an aspic salad loaded with bizarre stuffs that should not be suspended in gelatin. Technically food, and technically ‘healthy’ but oh, man, who wants to live on a diet of that?!

            1. Um… Guys… There’s nothing wrong with molded food and aspics. It’s standard Victorian cooking, and people have been doing that stuff successfully since the Middle Ages.

              What the heck is wrong with that cook? How did she not make it tasty?

              Look, guys. It’s shrimp, mayonnaise, and Knox gelatin. Everybody likes tuna salad and shrimp salad, right?

              The gelatin is tasteless. It’s just making shrimp salad stand up straight and be formable without slumping. (And adding some sweet or regular chili sauce is just putting the shrimp cocktail sauce into every bite of shrimp.)

              So if the shrimp salad mold tasted bad, or looked bad, that is totally on the cook. (Or possibly a bad batch of Knox. I mean, how do you get Knox gelatin that has a smell?)

              If you don’t like the pink look, the obvious thing to do is to make cracker or toast or bread “scales” suitable for scooping, and put them all over the fish.

      1. My general term for most “casserole” and “salad” foods is “garbage can surprise!”

        Just because it’s about to crawl out of the refrigerator on its own, doesn’t mean it needs to be dumped in the pot…

    2. When I go brain numb, I read poetry. Like early W. B. Yeats, or Wordsworth, or Browning (male). And Kipling. Because if I’m that tired, I can’t follow a plot.

    3. Eh… you never went to a Lutheran church pot-luck luncheon? All the cream of-something-can-o-soup casseroles, and weird-stuff-in-aspic that you could ever eat.

      But yea – comfort reading, like comfort food. To each our own.

  2. My parents loved to read and “infected” my sister & me with the love of reading.

    While nether enjoyed SF/F, Mom’s only problem with my reading was when I read after bed-time because I won’t want to get up on a school day. 😉

  3. I am absolutely certain Cussler handed off the actual “writing” part to others early in his career. The style is too different, and the later ones too uniform. And it has been a relatively common thing since the turn of the century.

    Crichton… he wrote some adventure novels under various pen names (John Lange, Jeffery Hudson, etc.) while he was in med school, all of which I think are pretty good. But the ones he wrote after he want to Hollywood aren’t anything like those. Maybe they were all just frameworks for eventual screenplays, but… ecch.

    1. I think Cussler handed it off sometime in the early 2000s. Everything he did in the ’80s and ’90s was his, and was a lot more interesting than what came out after the turn of the century.

      1. That’s pretty much how I figure it. I suspect the prequel chapter, or whatever the term is, is his or mostly his, and the rest is done by others.

      2. Although I had a background in Geology, and a minor obsession with the ACW, I still enjoyed Sahara.
        I rolled my eyes a lot, but it was a rollicking good yarn.
        But after that…
        I can come up with one title, and no plots from that time, to the time I quit reading him.

  4. Oh, I have a confession to make.

    I don’t have “guilty reads”.

    None at all.

    Because if I enjoy it, I don’t listen to people who attempt to make me feel guilty about reading “that stuff”. 😆

    1. Same here. My grandmother forced my poor grandfather, a teacher of Latin, Greek and Philosophy, to hide his lovely leatherbound collected works of Dumas behind Vergil and Goethe. When I inherited them, I proudly placed the books besides Dostoyesvky and Dorothy Dunnett. I have Auel happily sharing shelf space with Austen, Tolstoy with Tolkien and Adrian Tchaikovsky, and George Eliot with Kate Elliott and Steven Erikson, or Proust with Ellis Peters. I’m not ashamed to show that I read Karl May, and so far his books got along fine with the Thomas Mann collection right beside them, even after I added GRR Martin to the mix. 😀 Robin Hobb and Hölderlin’s poems might even become friends.

      Only Goethe had a shelf of his own, but that was due to the fact that I added his biography and other related non-fiction works. He recently suffered the intrusion of a biography of Alexander Humboldt, though. Other non-fiction stuff gets its own shelves, mostly.

      1. I guess we’re supposed to feel “guilty” about anything less than poetry or goat-gagger-sized Serious Literature.

        Despite decades of thinning, my shelves still contain rows of Mickey Spillane and Carter Brown. Because sometimes all I want is an hour’s read before going to sleep. And they all have a beginning, a middle, an end, and a plot, none of which are a given in modern litterboxerature.

        1. I have to do some reshelving again, to be honest. 😉 I keep buying more books than I donate to the local Book Takeaway Room and just stick them into the empty spaces or the new shelves I added last year. When it gets to messy – and too dusty – I’ll spend a weekend overhauling the lot.

    2. I feel like Nanny Ogg, when someone asked her if she ever had so much fun she felt guilty. She was confused, and so am I: guilt is just not a concept I recognize in this context 🙂 The books in my bookcase are arranged by genre, then by alphabet. So I’ve got Dante on the same shelf as the “World War Z” book, because that’s where the horror goes. Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose” can chill on the shelf with Elizabeth George and Sue Grafton, because that’s where the mysteries go.

      Now, I used to have the rule that a book couldn’t go in the bookcases until I read it, but then I moved. Keeping a literal to-read pile was starting to get out of hand. Failing to attend to the that pile is the only thing I feel “guilty” about.

      I’ve never read Clive Cussler. In high school, a dishwasher at the restaurant where I worked was reading him one day. He told me that Cussler wrote the books to fund adventures, but I was skeptical. Surely that claim had to be a marketing gimmick? But, I also wistfully thought it would be cool if the claim was true. I filed away the idea of checking him out, but I forgot all about it. Hopefully the books are on Kindle.

        1. Oooh, I wonder if the “Hunley” is what the dishwasher was referring to! It’s the right time frame, because I was working at the restaurant in 96-97. This is a cool story, thanks for bringing it to my attention.

          Hunting for a lost submarine is the kind of fun writer’s research I want to do. I definitely have to get Cussler’s books now.

    3. Same; I’ve got “enjoyment reading” and “exercise reading” (usually has overlap with enjoyment) and “research reading” (which I only do until I get what I need out of it, at which point it either ends or becomes one of the other two).

      On occasion I have Obligation Reading. Nuff said. I have mostly gotten to the point where I won’t force myself to finish a book JUST because I started it.

  5. Best guess is my older sister taught me how to read while she was learning to read in kindergarten. Mom was quite surprised to have my kindergarten teacher scolding her for teaching me to read so young.

    It’s interesting, to me, that my reading has fallen way off as I write. Whatever hunger reading satisfied, is apparently sated by creating stories.

    1. “It’s interesting, to me, that my reading has fallen way off as I write.”

      So its not just me then? That’s a relief, I thought I was going weird. I haven’t read a book in months. I’m down from three books a week to three books a year.

    2. I’m not sure about sating the hunger, so much as I just don’t have time. I’m not the fastest reader, and now I’m carving an hour here, couple hours there, for writing, and then using those other hours I used to have free for research…

      Learning to write also seems to be following the same learning curve as working sound & lighting. At first, I really enjoyed other shows more because I could see the work behind the magic. Then, I started engaging in more critique of technique and execution than enjoying the show… and my enjoyment of live shows dropped as my standards rose.

      Like costumers who can’t watch a really nice show with great acting because the costumes are a jumble across three centuries and you can see the bra straps peeking out under the bodice… So, I look at some books I loved as a kid, and go “How did I manage to like this despite the infodumping, the wordbuilding prolougue, the headhopping…?”

      Turns out the answer is: I’m good enough to see the flaws, but not good enough yet to see the magic that pulled me in as a kid. So instead of getting hung up on the execution flaws, I need to keep reading to try to learn the skills and techniques I haven’t learned yet… and the best guide is by learning to enjoy the story anyway.

      1. > my enjoyment of live shows dropped as my standards rose.

        Asimov said his enjoyment for reading fiction dropped sharply after he started selling stories of his own; as a fellow practitioner, he was reading them from a different viewpoint.

        One of several reasons I chose to stay a reader instead of a writer…

    3. I’m just too brain drained to read as much as I used to. And most books cannot compete with TV noise. I don’t have a quiet place to read at RedQuarters when the TV is on. I can write with it on (ear-phones), but my writing office is not a good reading-space. And the sound problem remains.

      1. Living alone, I control the sound. 😉

        However, I’m finding it easier to relax reading when I’m “off the computer” in the easy chair.

      2. Having grown up with the continuous presence of both books and tv, I have a harder time relaxing in total silence.
        I usually wind up looping a MST3k ep on the DVD while I’m reading.

  6. A “guilty read” is any book I start, before I have written reviews of the books I’ve finished.
    However, there always IS a reason when I do that, and I promise it’s not trivial. Crossing Marduk’s sunny plains with Prince Roger, having Kyrie give me a warm-up and another piece of pie at the George, or battling terrorists and buying an ancient castle complete whilst Mother Enka makes up another batch of Mountain Tiger: sometimes, that’s just what I need to decompress. (I skip Oh- No-John-Ringo pages, though; old dogs, ya know.)

  7. I have a box full of old GALAXY magazines, which I will get around to, maybe next year. I subscribe to ANALOG and my son to AZIMOV’S, which we swap. My preference is ANALOG. Some of the writers in AZIMOV’S just don’t work for me.

    1. Almost the whole run of Galaxy is at If you have any missing issues you can probably find them there. Handy for when you’re missing an issue in the middle of a 3 or 5 parter, you know.

  8. I don’t know if I’ve ever read a Clive Cussler book and I’m not sure I ever heard of Dirk Pitt.

    Does anyone have a recommend for The One book to read of his featuring Dirk Pitt? (Clearly if I love it I’ll have a lot to read, but I would hate to accidentally buy the single stinker in the bunch for my first!)

      1. Agreed.
        Begin at the beginning. If for no other reason than mentions of prior adventures pop up. Which do wonders to pull you into the story when they trigger nostalgia, but could break immersion if you’re suddenly wondering why a Ford Tri-Motor is hanging from the ceiling.

  9. Loved the awesomely over-the-top way Cussler threw stuff together…

    Clancy: “Here’s an tale of cutting edge military technology in action…”

    Grisham: “A gripping courtroom drama…”

    Critchton: “A science experiment gone horribly wrong…”

    Cussler: “Imma take some dead Cosmonauts, stick ’em in an airship, and crash the sucker — then tie it all in to a ship that sank back in 1918!”

    Clive Cussler exemplified the phrase, “Never let reality get in the way of awesome.” It’s a shame Hollywood could never make a movie that was up to his standards, but that’s because Hollywood isn’t up to his level — or QUALITY — of imagination. Especially at the executive level.

    1. but that’s because Hollywood isn’t up to his level — or QUALITY — of imagination. Especially at the executive level.

      If you ever watch Ryan George’s “Pitch Meetings” on YouTube, you’ll sometimes get the feeling that you’re actually watching a documentary of how some of the crappier movies get made. Each bit features a movie executive and a screenwriter:

      “Why do the characters do that?”

      “So the movie can happen!”

      “How does the hero do X?”


      Not gonna hold out hope that Cussler will ever be brought to the screen “properly.”

      1. I still remember that skit for one of the Academy Awards shows with Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller pitching “Titanic 2” to James Cameron 😀

        I saw a documentary some years ago about the process of “greenlighting” a movie, and one of the people they interviewed said something to the effect that the real miracle of Hollywood is that movies get made at all.

        1. The Hamlet 2 movie did get made. Not sure if I even really want to know more about that one…

          1. Long story short, it’s actually a movie about a high school drama club that has to get money or be shut down for some reason or other.

            So the teacher decides to do a sequel to Hamlet.

            It’s a musical. With a flamboyantly gay Jesus.

            Matters proceed as you would expect.

      2. Harlan Ellison summed up the studio decision-making process quite well:

        “I don’t care if it’s crap as long as it’s WEDNESDAY!”

        Shame that IT project management adopted it as a business model…..

    1. Hm, good point, bad fan-fic is probably a guilty read.

      (the good stuff is just “make a mental note to nag them to put something on Amazon.”)

      1. Some people learn to write by writing fanfiction. I sometimes I read fanfiction because it makes me feel better.

        1. And thank goodness they do!

          If novelizations, and in-universe novels, are both real writing– then so is fan fic. Just you don’t get paid for it. They can all be really good, or really bad. And some of the bad stuff is so bad that it’s fun. (Crackfic!)

    1. It ca be entertaining and enlightening to look at children’s books more than a few decades old, just to look at the level of the writing in them. They’re more literate and expect more from their audience than many a modern NYT bestseller. They usually have a better story, too.

    2. It can be so very entertaining and enlightening to read children’s books that are more than a few decades old. Not last for how literate they are and how much they expected from their audience. I find some of them superior to supposed ‘real’ modern literature on that score.

      1. The easiest difference to see between the juveniles of my youth and the YA of today is that in the juveniles you could actually have a young adult as the main character, whereas YA requires a juvenile.

        I was recently in an online discussion of Catseye by Andre Norton, and people were talking about how grown-up it seemed. I pointed out that it does, after all, open with the main character, as a matter of course both to himself and to everyone around him, looking for a job. They agreed that did it — a YA protagonist looking for a job is obviously in a dreadful plight.

        1. “a YA protagonist looking for a job is obviously in a dreadful plight.”

          That sounds highly odd to me. But then, my parents were 1930’s Depression kids. I think that on Dad’s side out of five boys and one daughter, only one completed high school and only one other, Aunt Beulah, went to college. The others all dropped out of grade school when their mother got them jobs

          1. That’s why your family of that era could not appear in a contemporary YA written in the current era.

  10. The nearest thing I have to a “guilty read” is “I don’t like reading this, I really would like to read something else.” Otherwise, I’ll read just about anything.

  11. Guilty reads? For me that’s mostly my reprints of pulp magazine material from the 30’s-50’s like The Spider, Captain Zero, Operator #5, Yen Sin and Wu Fang, Weird Tales and Planet Stories, I love all that stuff. It can be surprising sometimes to look at that old disposable entertainment and see not just how fun it is but how literate it was.

    The there’s the Judge Dee mysteries and the novels of Harry Flashman. Someday I have to check and see how much of what those books showed me about Imperial China and Victorian England is true.

  12. Reading to your toddler is one of, if not THE, most important things you can do for your kids. Kids love doing what they see parents do. If you spend every evening swilling beer and watching sports or reality TV, expect your kids to do the same (sans beer). Read to your kids EVERY night. It need not be children’s literature; read to them encyclopedias or the newspaper. It’s easy. You only have to do it from conception until they’re two. At age three they start reading to YOU. Then all you gotta do is listen and help with unfamiliar words.

    1. We alternated nights once we learned how to read well enough to handle the books Mom was reading to us (think The Borrowers, Five Little Peppers, Swiss Family Robinson, Little Women). Reading aloud is a great tool for teaching more than reading, public speaking is important.

  13. I don’t have “guilty” reads. I do have books that I know will be more work (but worthwhile), and others that are less work.

    I also have books that I reread to convince myself that reading SF is rewarding when I’ve hit a bunch of duds in a row. Or a really bad book that I kept reading because it was by an author who had previously done good work, and I kept hoping it would get better. One particularly bad book took rereading ALL of H. Beam Piper’s work before I would touch SF again.

    And then there are the books I reread just to remind me how good the best the field can produce. Lord of Light — IMHO, the best novel the field has ever produced — violates so many rules that writers are taught, but pulls it off. An SF novel written primarily with fantasy tropes and the Hindu pantheon, and with a giant unsignaled flashback, for example — but it was Zelazny at his peak, and pretty much nobody else could have made it work. Or Citizen of the Galaxy — a totally clearly YA book, which is as adult a book as you can get, and which shows how a message can be told without stopping the story.

    My parents read to me as a kid, until I got old enough to read by myself. When my younger sister was born, then the three of us were in the rotation to read to her.

  14. Like Susan Sto Helit, I was the kid who ignored Litatachur in favor of a good book. Which, back in my HS days in the early 90’s, meant a lot of Clancy, Crichton, and Cussler- back when they are at their peak. Of course, a good leavening of Douglas Adams, Dune, and others in the SF genre, plus a lot of Travis McGee novels to round out my character.

    So, I fell pretty much no guilt at all for reading the “wrong stuff”. I have read quite a few ‘classics’, but usually the ones that are actually interesting.

  15. So very much this.

    It’s also fun to point out to literature snobs that someone like C.S. Lewis wrote sci-fi, and then watch the “Does. Not. Compute.” expression on their faces as they try and process the info. Then you get the real fun of introducing them to new books.

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