We all have those certain things—readerly kinks, if you will—that have the power* to instantly make us happy when we encounter them in books. The list of mine is long: con artists, magicians, girls disguised as boys (or the reverse, when it rarely happens), gods, circuses, old movie lore, ruins, etcetera, etcetera. But today I’m not talking about those. No, today I’m zeroing in on one of my very favorite things to encounter in romances: reading scenes.
Reading scenes, you say? Not...other types of scenes?
Now, before you decide I’ve eaten from the cake of crazy, let me explain. The reading scenes I mean can perform a number of functions, but they almost always flow from the characters’ intellect. Not in a boring way, either. No, that’s right—one of my readerly kinks, especially in romance, is characters finding a meeting of the minds, and what better way to represent that than through the way they experience the written word?
Reading scenes in romance can perform many functions. For starters, they give great flirt. Take one of my favorite examples—and maybe the first time I encountered this kink, actually—Julia Quinn’s What Happens in London. Lady Olivia Bevelstoke and Sir Harry Valentine bond and riposte over an author named Sarah Gorely’s gothic novel, Miss Butterworth and the Mad Baron, from the distance of their neighboring windows. A snippet:
He shook his head. “She’ll never kill off the heroine.”
Olivia stared at him for a long moment, then immediately turned to the end of the book.
“Oh, don’t do that,” he scolded. “You’ll spoil it.”
“I’m not going to read it,” she retorted. “How can it be spoiled?”
“Trust me,” he said. “When a man writes a romance, the woman dies. When a woman writes one, it ends all tidy and sweet.”
Her lips parted, as if she weren’t sure whether to take offense at the generalization. Harry bit back a grin. He liked her befuddled.
“How is it romantic if the woman dies?” she asked suspiciously.
He shrugged. “I didn’t say it made sense, just that it was true.”
As What Happens continues, the reading-fest continues. Scenes are performed to wildly enthusiastic reaction (and injury), Harry and Olivia read in tandem, and have further conversations, all—of course—as they continue to fall in love. I swoon, really.
Even more book-centered is Quinn’s follow-up novel Ten Things I Love About You, featuring Harry’s cousin Sebastian Grey as he courts Annabel Winslow. You see, it turns out that (SPOILER, but only for the novel’s prologue, really) Sebastian is the much-mocked Sarah Gorely, writing under a pseudonym. And while he meets many admirers of his secret work (and endures Olivia’s critiques of it), mostly he’s worried Annabel will hate his writing. Quinn never fails to infuse her playful, well, play with the whole concept of authorship, certainly not missing a chance to make us laugh at Sebastian’s anxieties over and pride in his novels, not to mention threading plenty of humor into the contents of the novels-in-the-novels themselves (did I mention someone dies by pigeon?).
“Here we are,” he said. “Chapter One.” He cleared his throat and went on. “The slanted light of dawn was rippling through the windowpane, and Miss Anne Sainsbury huddled beneath her threadbare blanket, wondering as she often did, how she would find money for her next meal.”
“I can picture that exactly,” Annabel said.
He looked up in surprise. And pleasure. “You can?”
When Seb finally makes his confession to Annabel, he’s revealing a part of himself hidden in plain sight from the rest of the world; it doesn’t get more weighty than that in a relationship.
Another favorite example is a more serious—and more seriously steamy—one. In Courtney Milan’s fabulous Unveiled, Margaret and Ash have some of the most memorable reading scenes around, as she shares aloud the contents of his brother’s A Gentleman’s Practical Guide to Chastity. Milan’s scenes have it all—flirting, humor, major character development, and, well, the aforementioned steaminess.
“There is no need to belabor the reasons for chastity, of course. But as a mere reminder to my readers, I outline the most important points. Male chastity is absolutely vital for three reasons.”
Vital was the shape of her lips, making those words. Vital was that flash of skin covered by silk, peeking from under the dark hem of her dress. Vital was the ache he felt, something deeper than the mere wants of his flesh.
Excuse me while I use the pages of my book as a fan.
And, last one, I’d be remiss not to mention Kieran Kramer’s delightful When Harry Met Molly, which features riveting readings of “Kubla Khan” (“A stately pleasure-dome,” indeed) and Byron, among others. I haven’t gotten a chance yet to read her latest, Cloudy with a Chance of Marriage, but I understand it features a bookseller as the heroine. Do I even need to say that I can’t wait?
In closing: Reading is hot. But we all knew that already, right?
So ends my prosing on (as they say in novels) about the topic. Please chime in below with your own favorite reading scenes (or even if you find them snoozers—say it’s not so). I couldn’t think of any contemporary scenes that fit the bill off the top of my head, so add ‘em if you got ‘em.
*Assuming they’re done well, of course. There is little more disappointing than encountering the lackluster execution of a favorite thing.