Why I Read
While this blog focuses primarily on genre fiction, my general reading tastes are much more eclectic. I have been known to indulge in the truths universally acknowledged in the works of Jane Austen. I have days where I love nothing more than to escape into the poetry of Lisel Mueller, Robert Frost or Richard Wilbur (among others). And I have long said that if I could ever learn to write even half as well as Ian McEwan (post The Child in Time), I would give up whatever day job I had and write novels for the rest of my life.
(Of course this isn’t to say that genre fiction can’t be great literary masterpieces. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell isn’t just a well written genre book–it deserves to be a classic. Not a genre classic, a CLASSIC with no hedging modifiers).
I also am not one of those who rends her garments and bemoans the children when I hear people don’t read novels as much anymore. The unspoken assumption in those pieces is that “Reading is the brussel sprouts of culture–you do it because it’s good for you, even if you just end up spitting out a regurgitated gooey mess for a B+ level paper in a liberal arts literature class for it.” I guarantee you that the vast majority people won’t do something merely because it’s “good for them.” Furthermore, turning reading into brussel sprouts, designed to cure intellectual spasms, is the fastest way to kill the enjoyment of any book.*
Any sort of medium is capable of producing great art (it is TV that gives us Mad Men, it was film that gave us Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), and any sort of medium is capable of producing throwaway entertainment (many mass market paperbacks). To single out reading as something special and magical that only the truly intelligent can appreciate both oversells its importance and undersells its potential.
In other words, I read because I like it. When I pick up a book, I have decided there’s something about it that’s worth my time. I can either enjoy the book on its own terms or perhaps ironically, the way people enjoy throwing spoons at theatre showings of The Room. Sometimes I’m in the mood for a literary masterpiece, a book that will change the way I look at the life, the universe and everything.** Other times I’m looking for a fast read that may not give new perspectives on life, but give me a few hours of enjoyment.*** And other times, I’ll have what TVTropes calls bile fascination–I’ll want to read a book simply because I can’t believe such a thing can exist and I want to see how off the wall it can go.****
In a future post I’ll go into more detail about what sorts of characters, themes, and plots make me stick with a book vs. ones that make me throw the book at the wall in disgust. With all the books out there, one has to know her own tastes to get a better sense of what books are worth her time. Sometimes you just know, while other times, experimenting is the way to go. Just like with any other artistic medium.
* Of the books that I consider my favorites of all time, only one of them I initially encountered in a classroom setting: The Master and Margarita. And even that one was in a college class where we spent two class days on it max. Enough to make me want to re-read on my own time, but not so much that I was worn out by the epic quest to find symbolism.
** Examples of such books are Atonement (Ian McEwan), Til We Have Faces (C.S. Lewis), and the aforementioned Sparrow.
*** Charlaine Harris is particularly good at crafting books like this.
**** Real Vampires Have Curves anyone?