How Has Your Reading Changed…or Not?

Thirty years ago (yes, really!), I was reading 700-page novels. In high school, I fell in love with Russian novels (yes, again, really!), and then in college discovered the British Victorian writers and fell, if possible, even more deeply in love (yes, oh, whatever…). It was an extension of what I’d felt when I found fantasy writers like Tolkien and his followers–the experience of being a fast reader who could finally stay with one particular story & set of characters for more than a day or two. Those fantasy series, and these novels…kept going. And, oh, the characters.

When I went on to grad school, I knew what I was going to be reading. More Victorians. I ended up doing my orals on the Bront ës, and my thesis on Wuthering Heights. (And don’t you think, BY NOW, that a spellchecker should NOT try to change “Wuthering” to “Withering?!”) I read and read and read and…

…I burnt out.

Grad school was where I discovered that academia was not the right place for me. That while reading was as necessary as breathing to me, and that–yes–I could talk about a book for hours–all this analysis, this taking apart the author’s meaning and intent, was starting to wear thin. And those long books suddenly felt…really long.

So I switched gears. The last semester I wrote my thesis and took one course: Modern British Drama. 20-50 pages/book, with about 10 lines of text on a page. And lots of laughs.

And for reading pleasure, I picked up Barbara Pym’s novels and…mysteries. (Yes, back to books I could finish in a day-and-a-half.) I discovered Ruth Rendell and rediscovered Agatha Christie. Again…not such long books. Some might say Agatha Christie doesn’t do character–I’d disagree. But I think, in Rendell’s novels and the rest of the mysteries I read in the next few years, there was a connection between the characters in the Victorian novels I’d been reading and these new series. The characters stayed around. And, even while they were busy solving crimes, they also (especially the more modern detectives) had their own life problems–problems that also went on and on, over multiple books, not unlike the never-ending problems that carried Victorian characters over 700 pages.

I still read mysteries. They satisfy something in me that I haven’t yet identified, but probably don’t need to examine too closely–they obviously satisfy that something in a huge number of other readers, or they wouldn’t be so popular. If I’m hanging around too long in just children’s or teen books, or in just fantasy, I find myself needing a fix of someone strong and aggressive, who’s out to solve someone else’s problems, even if they can’t really work on their own in a big way yet.

And then there is the kids/teen lit. This probably makes up anywhere between 80 & 90% of my reading today. Why? Well, yes, obviously because I write it. But more than that, because there is just so much on the market that is brilliant. Honestly, if you want to go as far as possible from the dense layers of Victorian novels as you can–pick up a 200-page realistic YA novel. You’d run out of red ink if you tried to edit one of those books from the 1800s into a story for teens today. (Well, honestly, except for maybe Wuthering Heights, but I may be biased.)

But again…the characters. I think this is the core of my reading over the years. The people who all these writers have drawn onto their pages, for me to immerse myself in. You’d think I would read mysteries for the plot, but I can pick up an Agatha-Christie novel for the third time and still not figure out whodunnit. Because it’s the people she wrote about and all their quirks and attitudes and perfect dialogue that hook me in and keep me reading. It was Cathy & Heathcliff and Catherine and Hareton that made me love Wuthering Heights. It’s the scene at the end of The Hobbit, where Bilbo and Thorin meet for the last time, that brings me back for a zillionth reread and has me in tears yet again. It’s the pain of Lia in Wintergirls that wrenches at me, that makes me need to put down the book for a break and calls to me until I pick it up again.

Character. So, yes, if you look at the books on my shelves today and compare them to the ones that were there thirty years ago, they don’t look so much the same. In fact, you could probably fit three of the books today into the space of one from the past. But it seems, after all, there is a connection, a continuity, in my reading over all these decades. Obviously, it’s the quality of the writing. Most importantly, though, I think it’s the people who that wonderful writing–those writers–created.

What about you? What are you reading today that you weren’t reading years ago? Is it a total switch for you, or do you see a common thread? Drop your thoughts into the comments and share.

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5 thoughts on “How Has Your Reading Changed…or Not?

  1. claudine says:

    Hey, that was really fun. It was like reading a biography of your (reading) life. Great analysis too of what connects the books.
    I’m not sure I could figure out my reading history.As a kid, I read every spare second. Some people might scoff and not consider it real reading, but I loved every kind of comic book from Horror, to the Classics, to Superheroes, to Romance, to Donald Duck. Also read a lot of short story collections, mostly Alfred Hitchcock. The Walter Farley Black Stallion series was also a favorite. My mother had hundreds, maybe thousands, of books she’d had as a child that I also loved. Most written in the early 1900’s. I went to high school in the sixties and read the popular books of my generation, Stranger in a Strange Land for example. Got into poetry and back to the classics: David Copperfield, Dracula. As a young woman got into Harlequins and started reading some of the kids books I missed. Also, more sci fi and tons of fantasy.Loved biographys and historical novels. Still do. Also read lots of self-help books and religious writings. You made your post so interesting. Mine looks like my house: lots of stuff all jumbled up in no particular order, and lots of stuff I can’t even find. But I’ve had fun reminiscing. Thanks.

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    • beckylevine says:

      Claudine, my mom also had books she’d read as a child–while she was in England–so I grew up reading a lot of those. I did Harlequins myself, when I was 12 or 13…until my dad said we had to start paying for those ourselves! 🙂

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  2. Jenn Hubbard says:

    I’ve always read widely and still do. But I went through a horror phase around the age of 10 that I’ve never repeated since. And I read much more nonfiction now than I did as a child.

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    • beckylevine says:

      I have never gotten into horror. I could barely read Agatha Christie when I was a teen! When I was in college, I made the mistake of starting an Edgar Allen Poe assignment at 10:00 p.m.–no sleep that night.

      I read more nonfiction, too, but that’s come along with the historical fiction writing. I do venture off into some that isn’t connected, though, so I think I can count that as different.

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  3. Dare I admit what I used to read when I was in high school? Danielle Steele, Sidney Sheldon, along with GO ASK ALICE and everything by Paul Zindel and ME Kerr. Mostly I was a sucker for a love story.

    Today I devour YA lit, mostly contemporary and fantasy, but also sci-fi and historical fiction. And it IS all about character for me. If the character is someone I love, I can read about him/her brushing her teeth for 2 pages. 😉 I can read Ellen Emerson White’s The President’s Daughter series over and and over again. I love stories that make me feel, but you know what I’d like to read more of? Books that make me laugh out loud. Very few do. AUDREY WAIT comes to mind, as well as SPANKING SHAKESPEARE. FLY ON THE WALL, too. I still love a good love story (loved THE SUMMER I TURNED PRETTY and ANNA & THE FRENCH KISS), but today, I need more, I need real characters I fall in love with and mourn when the story is over. (And I do want a basically happy ending – I need that thread of hope at the end.)

    Did you know I’m procrastinating and I should really be working on my WIP? 😉

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