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.
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.
As a writer, there is an inherent risk in reading. It’s a risk you must take, of course, and risk you couldn’t avoid taking anyway, since all writers start as readers and remain such. The risk is reading a novel (or story or poem or screenplay or whatever) that you simultaneously love and realize that you, yourself, could never ever write it yourself. It is a moment that is both inspiring and disheartening; you see, with a clarity that is often unobtainable, the sheer heights you must scale to stand shoulder to shoulder with your would-be peers. If you’re like me, a book like that can put you in a writing tailspin for a week or more as you try to parse out how the author did it and what the magnitude of their achievement means for your own work.
There are a couple authors who do that to me. Ursula K LeGuin, for instance, has an easy, elegant prose style that I can’t quite wrap my head around. Margaret Atwood builds characters so real that it seems impossible that they don’t truly exist. Most consistently in my adulthood, though, the single author that has managed to flabbergast me most often has been, without a doubt, Neal Stephenson.
Now, I don’t intend to make this post all gushy and fanboyish, because in all honestly I am not a gusher or a fanboy over Mr. Stephenson. His books, as impressive as they are, aren’t flawless paradigms of narrative prose. They sometimes have pacing issues, sometimes they seem to end at odd points, and there are moments where Stephenson’s hyper-cool style lead the plot on tangents that, while fun, also seem to dilute the narrative power of the work. That said, they are still a million times better than anything I am likely to write, so who cares what I think?
The feeling you get reading a Stephenson novel is that you are in the hands of a storyteller both infinitely hip and monumentally intelligent. He manages to make Sumerian myth gel with futuristic motorcycle races all while actually educating you about the basic framework of computer science. If the purpose of reading fiction is to be transported into other places and other lives, reading a book like Cryptonomicon or The Confusion is like buying a ticket on Magellan’s first cruise round the world – it might take you years to complete, but oh the places you’ll go! The sheer density of information is overwhelming; the tangents glow as brightly as the main storyline, the secondary characters evoke your senses as much as the protagonist until, eventually, you have difficulty telling whose story this is and what it’s about. Weirdly, amazingly enough, though, you don’t care.
I’ve read five of Stephenson’s books; I find myself constantly recommending them to people. They baffle me at the same time as they impress me. How is this possible? How can a five-hundred page book that goes on innumerable tangents and deals with a half-dozen seemingly unconnected characters still be fun on every single page? How (and why) does he condense so much information about the real world into a single volume, even when very little of it seems essential to the plot? To be honest, I’m still trying to figure it out.
My Technology in Literature class is about to embark upon Snow Crash, Stephenson’s cyberpunk classic. Though they are bemoaning its great length, I know they’ll love it anyway (even if they don’t finish it). This will be my fourth or fifth time reading the book, and each time I’ve been able to unpack more and more of the dense story and apply it to a kind of thematic framework. It’s fascinating and so unlike so much other science fiction out there. What have I learned from it as a writer? Well, a lot of different things; a lot about how to weave humor into narrative, a lot about how to manipulate style to reflect character voice without speaking first person, a lot about how to show rather than tell. Most importantly, though, is this central lesson:
I will never write a book like Neal Stephenson does, and that is okay. That, ultimately, is the point. Neither I nor anybody else should tear themselves down over the achievements of another writer, because this isn’t ultimately a competition. We are joining a conversation in which writers like Neal Stephenson are part. Should we bring our A-game? Hell yes, but even more important than bringing our A-game, we should also remember to bring ourselves. So be like Stephenson; be your own original.