Tuesday, November 24, 2009

My Guilty Pleasure

Though I work in religious publishing and have a bachelor's and master's in religion, I have to (begrudgingly and with my head ducked in shame) admit that books about theology, spirituality, and even church and church history (my main interest professionally and academically) are not among my favorite reads. I am very proud of the books I edit, and I feel strongly that they can change people's lives and the church, and there are books I read in college and grad school that definitely shaped the way I understand religion in America.

But for pleasure, these are not the books I stay up late into the night reading.
I know. How can I even show my face in public?

The books that I love and am not ashamed to admit I love are sociology and psychology-type books. Things that explain why people do the things they do--why things are the way they are. Favorites in these genres include Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point and Blink (he has two more recent books out that I still need to read), Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational, Barry Schwartz' The Paradox of Choice, Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness, and Barbara and Allan Pease's The Definitive Book of Body Language. (That last book has the definitive honor of helping Matt realize he never had to read these types of books himself because I will read every other sentence aloud to him, as I did with the body language book throughout our trans-Atlantic flight home from our honeymoon in 2006.)

These are the books that I mention again and again in conversations about consumer behavior, personal satisfaction, interpersonal relations, etc. They are absolutely fascinating to me and I recommend them highly. However, these are not the books I would refer to as "my guilty pleasure." For that, we move beyond "why things are the way they are" to "things I hope never happen to me."

Perhaps it's a sick case of schadenfreude, but I am addicted to ripped-from-the-headlines memoirs of personal tragedy. Given that I am not at all an Oprah- or reality TV-junkie, this reading habit feels strangely out of character for me, and I feel ashamed to admit how entranced I am by this kind of book. I think it is somehow akin to my love of really bad natural disaster movies (if it has cultural landmarks being toppled by giant tornadoes, asteroids, or tidal waves, I am so there). I am ashamed of that guilty pleasure too.

It started several years ago, I think, when I found Bringing Elizabeth Home and Let's Roll on deep discount tables (since I refuse to spend much money on these kinds of books). Recently, I joined Bookswim, which is essentially Netflix for books, so now I have library-style access to tons of books AND I don't have to find room for them on my shelves when I am done with them. So, I feel freer to order books that I am curious about but don't necessarily want to have around forever. I've read After Etan (and blogged about it), and coming up soon is For Laci (about Laci Peterson). Just this past week, I read Mistaken Identity, about that case where the family cared for their daughter in a coma for five weeks before finding out it wasn't actually their daughter. Even though you know the big twist from the beginning, I couldn't put this book down, and finished it in just two evenings.

Obviously, I am not alone (since these books seems to sell pretty well, if their publicity is any indication), but I still feel slimy just talking about these books because they are so sensationalistic, capitalizing on tragedy. I'll admit that part of the appeal is sheer curiosity--the same suspense and intrigue that make 48 Hours, CSI, and various blockbusters so popular--but I think there is something else that appeals to me in these books. It's also curiosity, but not about the tragedy of kidnapping/hijacking/car crashes, etc. Rather, it is curiosity about these relatives who survive to tell the tales. How do they go on? How do they cope when they've lost a spouse? How do they go on living when their child is missing or presumed dead?

Some of these delve into theodicy, wondering why God would let these tragedies befall them. Some wrestle within themselves, dealing with blame, choice, and all the what-ifs the crises of life cam bring. Whether they address the overtly theological aspect or not, these books deal with hope and despair, and pretty much always come out on the side of hope. Maybe that's just because editors know that book-buyers want a happy ending, or because those who are in a stable enough place to write a book about their loss have to have learned to cope somehow, or maybe it is a testimony to the human spirit and the power of God to sustain people throughout the worst times of life.

I am a worrier--and one with an overactive imagination at that. I do think about all the what-ifs and wonder what I would do, how I would respond if it were me facing the horrible tragedies described in these books. Maybe what these books about tragedy really offer is hope--hope that I too could survive to see the grace of God and beauty of life even through immense pain and loss.

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