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Television vs. books: junk is still junk

Are junk books bad for their readers?

“Junk books?!?” you ask. Oh, you know the ones that I’m talking about: the bodice-ripping romance, the Tom Clancy thriller, the never-work-out-but-lose-weight-anyway diet book and just about anything bought in the checkout line at Wal-Mart during a weak — or bored — moment.

Perhaps long, but light nonetheless.
They line our bookshelves, pile up on bedside nightstands and stay on the waiting list at the ol’ library. These books are the ones that we use to convince ourselves that we’re not wasting time or killing brain cells.

“It’s better than reality TV,” I’ll argue. And perhaps that’s true, but I’m afraid that I’m kidding myself.
Junk, after all, is junk.

Back in time

The latest light read in my life is “Pompeii” by Robert Harris. The New York Times bestseller hit shelves last November, but I held out for the paperback, which made it into my Amazon.com shopping cart this month.

I’ve enjoyed the historical thrillers from Robert Harris since his novels came up in a conversation with a friend at the Neshoba County Fair a few summers ago. We were sitting on the front porch, beers in hand, rattling off writers and titles that we’d read.

I admitted to my Tom Clancy period, a time when I’d be at the Foodmax in Starkville at 2 a.m. or so and pick up one of his paperbacks. Then I’d read it ‘til the sun came up, miss a class and do it all over again.

Now, I’ll read a few pages to kill time at the soccer fields or in a traffic tie-up and lament the thousands of pages — and lost hours. I’ve decided that Clancy can tell a story, but he can’t really write.

Blurring the line

Robert Harris can write. Well, that’s what I think through four novels: “Fatherland,” “”Enigma,” Archangel” and “Pompeii.”

I think that it was “Enigma” that hooked me: England 1943. Much of the infamous Nazi Enigma code has been cracked. But Shark, the impenetrable operational cipher used by Nazi U-boats, has masked the Germans’ movements, allowing them to destroy a record number of Allied vessels. Feeling that the blood of Allied sailors is on their hands, a top secret team of British cryptographers works feverishly around the clock to break Shark. And when brilliant mathematician Tom Jericho succeeds, it is the stuff of legend.

And let the adventure begin. The intrigue of England in World War II is captured by the characters, landscape and dialogue, and it allows the story Harris has to tell to unfold with a scarcely noticeable barrier between the fiction and the reality.

Then again, with other authors this element can be a bit unnerving, too. I’ve engaged in just a few too many conversations with folks who think that Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” or “Angels & Demons” is 100% real, true and accurate on all counts. Clearly, they aren’t. But they were fun to read. Why? Brown can tell the story.

What’s baffling to me, and many others, is why so many readers want to believe that “The Da Vinci Code” is true. It’s an interesting consideration, but one more suited to sociologists, psychiatrists and the religion profs. And the hard-core, conspiracy-minded readers. I’ll leave that aspect alone and just feed my junk book habit with the rollicking good tales, which is the central point of the thriller, romance or fantasy fiction work.

The elusive balanced diet

For better or worse, I think that I’ll stick with my junk books. I’ll toss in a few healthier tomes to come up with a more balanced mix and to assuage my guilt. But man, it’ll be tough to pass by the new fiction shelves on a trip to the library with the Seven-Year-Old and her faithful sidekick, the Four-Year-Old.

While we’ve encouraged them to develop a taste for the classics — “The Wind in the Willows,” “The Secret Garden” or “Charlotte’s Web” — I’m afraid they’ve picked up junk book tendencies.
Of course, “Froggy Plays Soccer” is a pretty good story.

Read on, girls. Read on.

Contact MBJ editor Jim Laird at jlaird@msbusiness.com.

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