Tuesday, April 29, 2008

How/Why do you Read?

My day started today with Blogger sending me a comment from a post I wrote a long time ago, about Melina Marchetta's third novel On the Jellicoe Road. The commenter castigated me for criticising what was apparently his/her favourite book. How could I? How dumb was I? It was a reminder of how differently people read, and the reasons why they read. I can't tell you how many times we have read a novel in class (Cold Mountain was a notable) and had a number of students absolutely loathe it, and a just as vocal group love it. House of Sand and Fog is a great novel for dividing a class between those who support one character and those who are barracking for the other.

Why does this happen? For the same reason some viewers love Lost and others hate it, and some viewers love House and some hate it. I often look at the highest rating TV shows, or the bestsellers list in the Saturday paper and wonder how on earth that show or that book became so popular. It's about personal taste. The biggest divide I've seen (which still seems a bit strange to me) is between the science fiction fans and the fantasy fans. Both seem to think the other group has no taste at all!

Very often it's about who you are and where you are (in your life) when you read a book. I was given a copy of The God of Small Things but it took me a year to get around to reading it because I never felt in the right frame of mind - in other words, I felt too darned tired to get my head around the language and ideas. I was glad I waited because eventually I loved it. I read a lot of crime fiction, but not indiscriminately. By that I mean that there are certain authors whose voice and characters I enjoy, and others who leave me cold or fail to engage me by page 30. One divide in crime fiction is between those who are Hercule Poirot fans and those who are Miss Marple fans (and never the twain shall meet).

Sometimes we try to read a book at the wrong time. It's a funny book when we feel depressed and not in the mood for silly stuff (even though we might need it). Or it's a literary novel when our brains just can't cope. Although this blog is called Books and Writing, I don't really post reviews. I write comments on books I read because they stir me in some way, either positively or negatively. Often I will write about a book from a writer's point of view - what I learned from it - rather than purely a reader's stance.

I always have a pile of books next to the bed (and another one in my office, plus a library pile). At the moment I'm reading Creativity for Life (writers' and artists' book), Killing the Possum by James Moloney (YA), Firebirds Rising (anthology of fantasy short fiction) and Compulsion by Jonathan Kellerman (crime). And sometimes I dip into a short story collection by T.C. Boyle, and I've got Best American Short Stories 2007 waiting. Oh yes, and the new Sarah Dessen YA novel. If I am going to comment on any of these, it'll be because I have an opinion - not a paid one, either - and I'm keen to share it and hope someone else out there wants to chip in.

At the beginning of this year, we asked students to follow Chris Baty's example (the NaNoWriMo guy) and make two lists - one of things they love in books and one of things they hate. It's an interesting exercise because it really tells you the kind of book you want to write. One student said he hated books that used haunted objects. Another loved books with slapstick humour. It's a great thing to do - you might surprise yourself if you try it.


Anonymous said...

Some time ago I heard a wonderful review of 'The God of Small Things', so I sallied out and bought it. I've picked it up and put it down a number of times. After reading your blog, maybe now's the right time to try it again. I'll dig it out and put it on the top of my pile.
Thanks for an interesting read - your blog, that is.

Tracey said...

It's funny when people respond on a personal level to something that you're trying to be objective about, that refusal of others to recognise your right to have a differing opinion. Still, it's nice to think that some readers feel so passionately about a book that they respond so personally -- leaves us all hoping that some reader out there will feel so passionately about our books, and isn't that a wonderful thing to contemplate!

Sherryl said...

Lorraine - I hope you enjoy it. It does take some persistence, then you kind of fall into the rhythm of the language and from then on, it's great.
Tracey - what we secretly hope is that everyone will love our books, don't we? But it's true that some won't, and some of those people will be the editors we are hoping will publish it. That's the hard part!