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.