Lately, I have noticed a disturbing trend.
It seems that the best-selling book in the country, according to the New York Times, for several weeks running, is something called “50 Shades of Grey.” It is in a genre that some enthusiasts have described as “mommy porn.” It includes such sentences as (thanks, Buzzfeed) ”My inner goddess is doing the merengue with some salsa moves.” (Warning! The others are much, much worse.)
Just as the Justice Department is bringing a case against some book publishers for colluding with Apple to fix e-book prices, I’d like to bring a case against e-book makers for colluding against taste.
For years, the Respectable Book Industry depended on a non-negligible component of shame. There were some books you just couldn’t read on the bus. People might See. You had to carry The Greek Millionaire’s Virgin Bride squirreled inside your copy of “Moby Dick.” Not that that title was much better, but at least there were no visibly ripped bodices.
Reading “Lolita” on the train? Better slip it into a copy of Highlights Magazine For Children.
On second thought, no.
It took me years to finish “Of Human Bondage” for the simple reason that it was kind of awkward to carry around with you in airports. Folks tended to look askance at the title.
But this is part of the territory. Books always involve a certain degree of mortification. “Read any good books lately?” strangers ask.
“Well,” you hem, “I just picked up my copy of “Tristram Shandy ”again. What a book! What a book!” You neglect to add that you were using it to squash a bug, and that at no point in the interaction did you open it. Some things are better left unsaid.
Literary fiction depends upon this shame to work. A classic is a book that everyone wants to have read and nobody wants to read. “Fifty Shades of Grey” is the opposite.
There is no disguising the popularity of romance, as a genre. But for years, the necessity of revealing to the other people on your commute that you were enraptured by “Bear Meets Girl” kept it at bay. Instead, you slogged through “Anna Karenina.” It was tough going. You rooted for the train.
Now, thanks to e-readers, the shameful tincture has vanished. The dark cloud has lifted, like the skirts on many a cover, and you can read whatever you darn well please — instantly! You don’t even have to linger in that section of the grocery. The other people on the subway will be none the wiser. The cover always looks the same — no mortifying bodices, no salivating strongmen. Just you and the merengue-dancing goddess.
And so this happens. It was only a matter of time. First we lose our shame, and then E. L. James’ magnum opus shoots up to the top of the charts and refuses to leave. Our seamy underbelly is there, in the New York Times Bestsellers, for the whole world to see.
Curse you, e-readers.