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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Laurie Halse Anderson’s SPEAK

I’ve gone back & forth on whether to weigh in on this, thinking that there are so many people speaking eloquently that maybe my two cents will just be extra. But then that creates silence, at least on my part, and this is the whole problem.

If you haven’t seen what’s up, check out Laurie’s post here about what’s happening with her wonderful book Speak.

As I said, I don’t really know what more I can say that isn’t already being talked about, but for what it’s worth…

I am, as you could probably guess, vehemently against any kind of censorship or book banning. And I don’t care how much quibbling people do about semantics and meaning, when you tell a school they cannot teach a book, when you tell kids they cannot read & learn about that book in their school, when you forbid a librarian from carrying that book on their shelves–that’s censorship. There is no situation in which I find this kind of thing acceptable.

That said, I have a special feeling about Speak. As for many people whose tweets & posts I’ve been reading, Speak was perhaps my first intro into the brilliance of YA writing. I was reviewing books for the Horn Book Guide, and Speak showed up in one of the first boxes I was sent. I opened it, read, and was blown away. Years later, I had the same reaction when I read Wintergirls, also by Anderson, which I bought on purpose because her writing is so incredible.

Both books shocked me, stunned me, pained me. I do a great deal of reading while I eat, and if you think it wasn’t hard to read Wintergirls during a meal or a snack, without staring at the food on my plate, thinking about my attempts to eat healthily and lose weight, dig far into self-examination of my feelings and motives and behavior, well–think again. Anderson is too great a writer to deal with any of these topics and not make you hurt while you read them. To be honest, Wintergirls is a book I would talk to any parent-friend about if/as I recommended it for their child; I would urge them to read it as well & to try and create an opportunity to discuss it with their child, to–at the very least–stay open and aware to what was going on for their child as he or she read it. Because it’s scary.

It’s also real. And it should be read. And shared.

The same is true for Speak, which–again, if you haven’t read it–is about a girl who stays silent because of and about being raped. Rape that this man from Missouri (I really hate to even give him the validation of typing his name here) is calling porn. Sick? Oh, yeah. What’s sicker? That he’s trying to stop kids and teachers from reading the book together and talking about it.

I saw, after I first posted this blog, that Sarah Okler’s Twenty Boy Summer is also on his list. Here’s Sarah’s take on things. Twenty Boy Summer is another book I read and liked and that, in no way, fits the description this man is trying to apply to it. Ack!  I honestly can’t remember whether Slaughterhouse Five, his other target, was one of the titles I read in my Vonnegut phase, but I think you all can guess, by now, how I feel about trying to ban it–no matter whether it passed across my reading plate or not. (And if you want to roll on the floor laughing, do read my favorite story by Vonnegut–“The Euphio Question” in Welcome to the Monkey House.)

Anyway…when I was in high school, many years ago, our English teacher was told he couldn’t teach us Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War. A board member came to speak with us, at another teacher’s request, and told us that this wasn’t censorship. I can still remember the absolute fury I felt at what I was sure was a flat-out lie. In hindsight, perhaps she was just eyeball-deep in denial, but that’s another kind of lie, and I still feel angry at her for forcing her lie onto our reading, our choices. I feel that same anger today.

So many people have made this statement in the past few days, but it’s worth repeating. I will allow you the right to have some say in what your own child reads. I will admit that there have been times in the past when I have skimmed/skipped portions of a book that I was reading to my son–some racist passages in older stories that I was just too unhappy about and uncomfortable to read out loud to him. Was this a good choice? I don’t know. Did I try, whenever I could, to read the passage and talk to him about it? Yes, I did. I wasn’t always successful in pushing myself that far. Do I pay attention to what he reads these days, at fourteen? Yes, I do. Do I try to read many of the books he’s reading–I do, for my own knowledge and entertainment, and to just…stay aware. So, yes, you have the right to do this with your children. You do NOT have the right to do it for my child, or anyone else’s children than your own. And I will Speak Loudly against you for trying.

As I said, people are blogging about this a lot, and you can follow the Twitter thread at #SpeakLoudly. Don’t know if what I’ve written is a contribution or not, but it was clearly something I needed to say.

Author Appreciation Week: Laurie Halse Anderson

Have you read Wintergirls? Speak? Any of Laurie Halse Anderson’s other YA novels? If you have, then you’re going to understand immediately what I’ll be talking about in this post. If you haven’t yet, well go ahead and read the post, then head out and pick up one of Laurie’s books.

For me, Laurie Halse Anderson epitomizes the courage of young-adult novels and young-adult writers. And I’m not talking about the courage of defending her books, of facing arguments about whether or not kids should be reading them. I’m talking about the courage to write the stories in the first place.

Laurie’s books consistently blow me away. They’re not easy books for me, a reader who often builds her to-read pile out of humor and fantasy and escapism, to pick up. They’re not easy books for me to turn to Page 1 in. I don’t leave the real world when I read Laurie’s books, I’m thrust sharply and deeply into it. With a grace and strength of writing I haven’t found many other places.

I read Laurie’s books for two reasons.

First, I read Laurie’s books because I know that I will be caught up in a story that doesn’t let me go, one that–even as it makes me face unpleasant truths—takes me along for such a ride that I don’t want to get off. Laurie takes on hard topics in her stories, topics people often call issues, but she never fails to weave those topics into a tight, fast, plot with complex, painfully believable characters. The amount of research Laurie must do for her books, I can’t even begin to fathom, but the facts of her research never jump out as facts; they merge seamlessly into the main character’s life–her problems, choices, and actions.

That’s the first reason I read Laurie’s books.

The second reason is that Laurie reminds me, as a writer, what I want to strive for. I’ll be honest. I don’t know that I will ever choose a subject matter that has a pain at its heart as strong as Laurie chooses. I don’t know that I will want to or be able to. And that’s okay. Reading Laurie’s books, however, reminds me that I do want to tell whatever story I choose with as much honesty and truth as I possibly can. I want to do this for myself, as that writer, and for the teens who I hope will read my books. Laurie reminds me, with every word she writes, that truth is what those teens deserve.

I appreciate both reasons equally.

A few more Author Appreciation posts for you to browse:

Thanks to Sara at Novel Novice for the avatar!