My reading list is about a million miles long and never seems to be getting any shorter. When I finish a book, I often find myself at a loss for what to read next – there’s just so many things I could pick. Obviously, I should stay up to date in my chosen genre of fantasy and scifi, but have you seen how many fantasy and scifi books are released on a monthly basis? Good god. Then, of course, there’s the reading I do to research the classes I’m going to teach – studies in American Modernism, for instance, and other literary movements. I’ve got to do that reading, or I can’t reasonably teach the things I claim to know about (and honestly this reading takes up most of my reading time). Then there’s research for my writing, which often takes the form of history or philosophy (and I just simply don’t read enough of that). Then there’s the simple caveat that one should always seek to read broadly – outside the regular genres one is usually accustomed to – and so I find myself putting books of essays, poetry, plays, and other stuff on my reading list, just as a lark.
So, when the time comes to read another book…I’m sometimes at a loss. Accordingly, I’ve created a new rule: one new book, and one old one. I will read a current novel, published in the last few years. Then I’ll go back and read a book I missed – a classic, often. But sometimes it’s a book that I keep hearing about, over and over again. I keep getting the question “have you read (insert title)? No? You have to!”
They always say it that way, too: I have to. I must. It is a requirement of my existence. I cannot define myself as a reader, let alone a writer or professor, if I do not read this book. Frequently these are books I would not pick up on my own. Sometimes they are books in which I have absolutely no interest. It doesn’t seem to matter. I must read them.
As a rule, any book suggested to me this way I will take me, on average, 10 years to get around to reading. While not a conscious act of spite, it is the result of a kind of subconscious revulsion at doing what everybody else is doing at any given time. I hate being part of the crowd. In the end, though, frequently my curiosity gets the better of me and, if I have no better ideas of what to read next, I dig up that dusty old list of “must-reads,” immediately skip over Infinite Jest (screw you all – not reading that. Not ever.) and pick up some blockbuster from ages gone. I call this the “What the Fuss is About” Read. At this exact moment, I have finally gotten around to reading Gaiman’s American Gods.
I am, of course, well aware of Neil Gaiman’s work. I read the Sandman comics (or some of them, anyway) in the mid-late 90s and thought them very clever and off-beat. I liked them. But then I moved on from Gaiman onto other authors and, next thing I knew, people were scolding me for not having read his magnum opus. Of course, they all had different opinions of which book his magnum opus was, but more often than not it was American Gods.
I’m enjoying the book. It is within the wheelhouse of my favorite genres anyway and Gaiman is an excellent author. I don’t quite understand how this book (or Gaiman’s work in general) is quite as celebrated as it is. I suppose that is essentially the problem with reading a book that has this much hype associated with it: the odds of it failing to live up to whatever magical expectations have come to surround it are large. When I read them, then, and they don’t live up to whatever it was I was expecting, I spend half of my time reading the book trying to figure out what other people saw in it. This is almost impossible to do and can be very distracting.
Such considerations are sort of inevitable for an author though, right? I picked up American Gods for the same reason I picked up The Time Traveler’s Wife and The Night Circus and Scalzi’s Old Man’s War: word of mouth. All authors know that is the most powerful sales force in the world, and all authors want to know how to cultivate it. As far as I’m aware, no author actually knows. So, there we all are, reading Dan Brown and going “really? This?” We start dissecting it in our brains, like an alien on an autopsy table. What makes it tick? Where was the magic sauce? Why don’t I get it? Sure, it’s good, but…that good?
Then, of course, there are those moments where the book lives up to the hype. Neuromancer did that for me. You know what else? The Grapes of Wrath. Tim Powers. Neal Stephenson. Those books – those books are magic. And, of course, they make you feel a little terrible about yourself as an author because you know you’ll never write anything quite that amazing and isn’t that disappointing.
I guess it all makes me wonder why I do it. Why do I read books that don’t strictly interest me just because they were (or are) popular? Because I need to learn. I need to look around at the reading world and try to understand it. If I don’t, what kind of writer am I? In the end, I read these books because, well…I kinda have to.
The President’s Vampire
An Affair with Mr. Danger
The Time Woman
Deadly Street Damage: The Tough Man Files
The Legend of Various Elves
Learn to Do the Thing Quickly and for Free
The Secret of Stalin’s Moustache
This Place I Went on a Service Trip: Stuff I Did There
Nazis in the Panic Room
Dangerous Red Sunrise
The Iron Magic Sword Prophesy
Really Wet Rain
The Barbarian and the Bimbo
The Book of Satan’s Nephew
Gods and Werewolves
Curse of the Magic Pharaoh
The Boy with Multiple Talents
American Hero: The Story of an American Hero
The Collected Wisdom of Some Random Guy
Aliens and their Mailing Addresses
Why I Don’t Understand the Pyramids and How That is Upsetting
POLITICS AND OPINIONS IN EXCLUSIVELY CAPITAL LETTERS
The Sinister Paradox
Underground Crime Master 4
The Lotus Poison: An Erotic Fairytale
The History of the Civil War and Other Stuff You’re Wrong About Because I Said So
How To Make $$ on Twitter! (now available in print for $4)
Robot Love Erotica: Of Plugs and Sockets
A Vaguely Familiar Dystopia
Possible Game of Thrones spoilers ahead. Be ye forewarned!
I’ve been watching Game of Thrones recently. I’m significantly behind, but never fear – I read the books years ago, and I know everything that happens. More than many of you, probably. It has, however, been a while since I’ve read the first three books. I just finished watching the second season, which puts me somewhere in Book 2 (though where book two ended and book three began is unclear to me, since I read them back-to-back). One of the things I’m remembering as I watch is just how many awful people there are in Westeros – Cercei, Tywin, Joffrey, the Boltons, the Freys, the Greyjoys, the Mountain, and on and on. So very often, the end of each episode leaves me feeling sad or depressed. So very rarely do the bad guys get what’s coming to them.
This is, essentially, what we want, right? We want the bad guys to get what’s coming to them. Oh, sure, we’ll wait for it. We’ll wait for a long damned time. Hell, I read all five books waiting for it, always hoping and praying that the payoff, when it comes, will be oh so sweet. I want Arya to shiv Cercei. I want Sansa to push Littlefinger out the Moon Door. I want Danerys to cross the goddamned Narrow Sea and bathe Westeros in cleansing fire.
Do I get any of these things?
Well, put simply, no, I do not. In fact, I’m beginning to lose faith that I will. Oh, sure, bad things happen to the bad guys sometimes. Joffrey’s death was especially satisfying, truly, but for every bad guy that gets his, there’s a dozen good guys who unjustly meet their end. If I’m honest, I’m getting a little tired of it.
There’s something very Anglo-Saxon going on in Game of Thrones. Those old barbarians – the guys who brought us Beowulf – were all about death and loss. Beowulf itself is basically a love-story to the idea of death. They knew we all had it coming to us, so for them what was important was how you faced it. Everything good in your life – all you had built, all you had done – was just one asshole with a sword away from being ruined. It happened all the time, and the Anglo Saxon skops wouldn’t let you forget it. See this passage from Beowulf:
…and soon it stood there, /finished and ready, in full view, / the hall of halls. Heorot was the name /[Hrothgar] had settled on it, whose utterance was law. / Nor did he renege, but doled out rings / and torques at the table. The hall towered, / its gables wide and high and awaiting/ a barbarous burning. That doom abided, / but in time it would come…
Lines 76-84, Heaney translation
You can’t even get one line past the description of the beauty of Hrothgar’s hall before we are told how it all was going to burn down. Dark stuff, guys. You can’t have nice things, because the world is full of awful people. All you can do is learn to roll with the punches and find a way to survive, just like Sansa has.
For me, this frustrates me. I’m reading fantasy fiction, and so I want my cathartic victory to come along. I want somebody to ride in and kick some ass in the name of decency, if not righteousness. Maybe this is overly simplistic of me, and I by no means am taking away from the emotional power of Martin’s story – he knows how to kick a reader in the guts better than anybody I’ve ever read. It’s just that sometimes, as much as the pain and the pathos is fun, I also want to get up and cheer. I don’t do that enough in Westeros, and I’m beginning to wonder if I ever will.
In the end, if the villains get away with it for long enough, the audience at some point will become inured to their faults and crimes. They will become not monsters, but the norm. We will stop caring about the arrival of justice or even vengeance. This is what happened to me by the end of A Dance With Dragons – acceptance of the world Martin has created, in all its warty glory. I don’t expect much out of it; I won’t get attached. He’s lost me. There’s only so many times you can be abused before you move on, right?
A couple years back I was given a Kindle as a Christmas present. I had acquiesced to the idea of getting an e-reader when it became obvious to me just how many paperback novels I had
stashed in my parents’ attic and in my own apartment and that, when I moved, they filled a cool dozen cardboard boxes after I had jettisoned at least 60% of them to goodwill (enjoy my complete collection of Dragonlance novels, suckers!). Since then, I have purchased only e-books and hardcovers. The e-books are for reading; the hardcovers are for those really cool books I want to collect and show off. Most of my paperbacks have sat on various oddly-matched bookshelves in my office for the past couple years, collecting dust.
Fast-forward to this past weekend: I had dug out my old copy of Asimov’s Foundation to give it another read prior to discussing it in one of my classes. I’ve done this every year for a few years now, but this time I happened to get a whiff of the pages. It was that stale, dusty, library smell – a shoebox-ish odor of old paper drenched in too much sunlight. It took me on a journey.
I was fifteen. I’d come home from high school the long way (I took public transit to and from school; it taught me all the values of independence without the cost or anxiety of owning a car). I’d swing through Quincy Center and, rather than take the first bus, I’d wait on the second and wander up the street to my favorite bookstore. I say ‘favorite’ as though the quality mattered to me – it did not. They had books there and I bought them by the armload. I stuffed them in my backpack and smuggled them home, reading by metal desk lamp in the darkness of my room long after I ought to have been asleep.
Everything I bought was from the science fiction/fantasy section. I had no idea what was good – nobody I knew had any idea about this stuff and the bookstore employees were just as clueless – so I bought things more-or-less at random, based off of cover art or title. This was how I met Heinlein and Asimov, purchased by purest accident at the same time – Foundation and Starship Troopers, side-by-side, forever bookending my understanding of the genre (I wouldn’t meet Clarke until much later, in college). I got hooked on Robert Jordan from a free sample being given away at the counter – the first nine chapters of The Eye of the World, back when everybody figured there would only be six books. Jordan, in a very real sense, changed my life. He made writing as a profession seem real, and I can’t say how. Maybe I had always sought a medium to tell my stories, and Jordan’s books showed me how to do it. Maybe it was something else.
My parents were athletes of modest renown. My mother held swimming records at her college until well into the 1990s and, indeed, she still might hold a few somewhere. My father was one of those guys who could play anything pretty well. They took their kids camping, swimming, to the beach, hiking, skiing, sailing – you name the physical activity, I did it. Everytime we went to one of those places, though, I would have a paperback squirreled away in a bag somewhere. My teenage years sometimes come back to me as just one long string of people interrupting my reading. “Auston, why don’t you go swimming?” or “Auston, we’re going for a hike – put the book down.” or “I can’t believe we took you on a sailboat to an island in the middle of the ocean and you’re going to sit there and read.”
It isn’t that my parents were against reading – far from it. My father is one of the best read people I know, devouring three or four books at a time. My mother was a teacher. I just don’t think they quite understood why I had my nose buried in those space-books so much. The reasons are layered, nuanced, submerged beneath unknowable strata of my unconscious, most likely. It doesn’t really matter. I did it, I still do it (though not enough).
Picture me in an attic bedroom, curled up on a carpet under the eaves, a skylight over my head. I’m an awkward teenager of the 1990s, so I’m dressed like an idiot – poofy hair, glasses held in place by a tie-dye Oakley cord, a collared shirt with an alligator on it. I’m fit – athletic, even – but I’m nose deep in C.S. Friedman’s In Conquest Born or book four of The Death’s Gate Cycle, breathing the stale air of a room in the summer with no windows open. My mom is yelling for me from downstairs. I pretend I don’t hear her.
For as convenient as the Kindle is and, by extension, as convenient as the whole Internet is, there is something to be said for hunting down something unknown. Making informed purchases is wise, of course, but also sad. It lacks romance. Of course, there’s nothing stopping me from going and smuggling my paperbacks home today, I guess (I now have a whole new set of people I love determined to interrupt my reading). Maybe I’m getting old and I just don’t have the energy anymore, or maybe I’m just being a curmudgeonly hypocrite, but I know I won’t go back to a bookstore anytime soon. I won’t spend an afternoon in a deathly silent library, just me and the soft roar of the air conditioners and the smell of old books.
For the rest of my life, though, when I open an old paperback and breathe in that scent, I will remember.