The Help Desk: I used to read terrible books. Are the books I read now just as terrible?

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to

Dear Cienna,

Flipping through my high school yearbook, I was confronted with the uncomfortable reminder that my favorite book in senior year — the book I told everyone they had to read — was Fight Club.

My reading actually got worse after that. In college, I fell hard for Ayn Rand for a semester. And I’m still embarrassed about the way I got suckered into thinking House of Leaves was deep.

So how do I know that the books I like now are any better? Will I one day be as embarrassed by my love of Jonathan Lethem and Mary Gaitskill as I’m already embarrassed by my teenage admiration for Charles Bukowski? Why is everything I liked ten years ago so awful, and is there a way to shame-proof my next ten years of reading?

Dawson, Bitter Lake

Dear Dawson,

Thank you for bringing up many cringeful memories for me – I still have a few Bukowski poems memorized; I became a nihilist when I first learned the word "nihilist" and put a copy of Nietzsche's The Antichrist in my bathroom; it was eventually replaced with a copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and then the Tom Robbins opus, Word Porridge Nostalgia. I should be embarrassed about at least half of those things but I'm not.

The only time I am genuinely embarrassed is when I'm wrong and no one has the right to tell either of us our taste in books is wrong, just as my medical school friends don't have the right to tell me a witch doctor is not a real doctor and the pompous OshKoshBGosh-wearing motherfuckers on the message boards at Farmers-Only-Dot-Com don't have the right to tell me a spider farm is not a real farm when SPIDER FARMS EAT ANT FARMS FOR BREAKFAST.

Just because YOU'VE never milked a spider doesn't mean it can't be done.

I've already devoted many words in this column to how much I love judging other people's taste in books. You can turn a timeline of someone's favorite books into a topographical map of how they've evolved as a person.

If anyone views their own taste in books (or anything else) as perpetually on point, it's a good indication of their personal stagnation – they've crawled so far up their own ass that they've gotten lost in the small intestine's labyrinth of bullshit, pitched a tent and are listlessly calling for help with only a well-worn copy of On the Road for company – a book they still refer to as The Great American Novel.

So to answer your question: No, there is no way to shame-proof your reading list other than to stop feeling shame about the things you're interested in reading. So stop it.


Cienna (To like-minded farmers, RudeNag69)