Dirty Little Reading Secret

As bibliophiles, we’re often held to a higher standard when it comes to the novels we spend our time reading. Friends often assume that because I’m well read, and because I write, that I not only have good taste when it comes to the books I read, but also that I exercise that taste with every single book I read.

But the fact is, that like everyone else I like to unwind. Sometimes I like a book that isn’t challenging, has no deep meaning, no mysterious plot twists or characters that challenge my preconceptions.

But…I may not always carry that book quite as openly as most of the books I read.

So, tell me…what is your Dirty Little Reading Secret?

For me, I have an affinity for Star Wars novels. Specifically, the straight-to-paperback, starfighter-pilot-oriented series that have come out in recent years. The characters are one-dimensional, the plots are templates and the bad guys never quite die off. For me it’s the reading equivalent of television wrestling.

So…am I alone?

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Intergalactic War II

So, in case you missed it, yesterday Matt committed the most heinous act of blasphemy ever by anyone, even tangentially, associated with sci-fi. Although he will be forgiven, the Vogons have been notified.
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But I do understand where he’s coming from. He fell victim to one of the classic blunders–Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy could never have lived up to what it had become in his mind. We’ve all fallen victim to this, and if we’re being honest we’ve all probably done it to other people.

For me, it’s Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. I hated this book. A visceral, palpable hatred. But I doubt it has much to do with the story or the writing. No, my ex ruined this book. She was both horrified and excited to find out that I’d never read it. Not only did she run right out and buy a copy for me… she hovered. She asked me, at least twice each day, how much I’d read. Did I get to the part where…? Did I like the part where…? Eventually, I finished the book just to get rid of my literary stalker.

In subsequent years I’ve thought about giving the book another try. This book is nearly universally loved by sci-fi types, so it’s probably safe to assume that I’d like it if I gave it a fair shot. But even the thought of reading it again starts my teeth grinding. And even though, in my head I know that my distaste didn’t stem from a weak story, or bad writing, or over-description, or any of my other pet peeves about writing–even though I know that I dislike the book because of the conditions under which I read it–I know I’ll never revisit it because it already has a negative impression.

It would be easy for me to point out to the formerly good guy, Matt, that much of his impression of the book might have been attributed to having inflated preconceptions about Hitchhiker’s. That part of the magic of the book is how it tends to catch readers off-guard with its silly characters and ridiculous plot. It is making fun of serious sci-fi as much as it’s making fun of society. But by the time Evil Overlord Matt read the book, these weren’t a surprise to him. He expected a funny book. In fact, he probably expected a very funny book.

I guess the moral here is to be careful when making recommendations to your friends. You can easily ruin the very thing you’re trying to sell.

That, and Matt should be punished for his heresy.
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How You Say It

Not long ago I got into one of those discussions that can happen when bookish friends are at the bar and have been waiting too long for a table. “What was the first book you can remember reading where you immediately wanted more?”

Like any question that leads to a great debate, one that is chock-full of ambiguity. Does it mean what book made me want more of the author’s work?…More of that series?…Or does it really try to find out what book started to turn me into a reader?

So I thought back to the books I read as a kid. I discounted the books that we usually think of as children’s books, simply because they are a different reading experience than novels or short stories. And while I know it wasn’t the first book I read, I kept coming back to one title. I remember when I finished it, I just had to tell someone how great it was. My Papa was the other sci-fi lover in the family so that’s whose ear I bent (in my mind it was five minutes, but now that I have kids I know it was probably more like a day). And I remember being beside myself when I found out there were more books in the series.

The book was The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. 30 years (or so) later, the book still holds up to repeat reading, and stands as one of my favorites. And as I look back over a reading life that has spanned about 35 years, that book seems to be a remarkable standard-bearer for the type of books I love the most.

If I stand at my bookshelf, it’s easy to see the books I read the most. To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis, is heavily-creased, dog-eared, faded and generally looks like it’s gone a few rounds with a hyper puppy (a fitting analogy if you’ve read the book). Red Thunder, by John Varley, though not much more than a pulp sci-fi novel, is probably the most heavily highlighted and annotated book I own. Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, has been forced on so many of my friends that I’m on my fourth copy. Lamb, by Christopher Moore… I could go on and on…

But it’s been only recently, that I realized not only how much these books are emblematic of the books I love to read the most, but they are also harbingers of the kind of writing I aspire to, even if I don’t always realize it.

What ties these books together is not just a genre–sure I love sci-fi, but there are hundreds of great sci-fi books that I’ve devoured and never picked up again. It’s also true that all of these are wildly funny (although with Red Thunder I would say that while the story is humorless, the characters bring a great wit to the events), and that’s a sure way to my heart. But if I had to pick a single thing that brings them all together it’s dialogue–I could pull back a bit and call it “Voice” just as easily, since several of these have a delightful first person narration that speaks directly to the reader.

Why? Every book I’ve ever read has dialogue. So what is it about the dialogue in these books that makes them so gripping to me?

It took me a long time to be able to answer that question. In most of these books the dialogue isn’t particularly poetic, or lovely. Nor are the characters’ words particularly insightful.

No, what makes these books such fine examples of gripping dialogue is that the author uses the dialogue not only as a means to tell the story, but also as a tool for character building. But perhaps most important of all, the characters nearly never say what you think they will.

Reading good dialogue is like watching an intricate fencing match. Each participant has their own agenda–maybe one is trying to get a straight answer, while the other is teasing with tiny revelations like a prose dance-of-the-seven-veils. In great dialogue, there is offense and defense, lunges and ripostes, jabs and parries. When dialogue is good, a section of dialogue will never wind up where you thought it would.

To me this is not only the hallmark of great writing, but also of a great storyteller. And will always get me coming back for more.

Young at Heart

I’ve just discovered something about myself. I’m a great audience.

I’m a sucker for a story. It doesn’t even have to be a good story—just not a bad one. I realized this while going through my recent reading list.

To understand this it helps if you know a little about a popular theory of art called the Suspension of Disbelief.

The suspension of disbelief (also the willing suspension of disbelief) is an unconscious contract that a reader (or watcher, etc.) gives to the storyteller (or artist). It’s easiest to explain by example.

When you are in a theater watching the latest Indiana Jones movie you accept that the story you are going to be told is a little outlandish, that the hero will be the beneficiary of extraordinary luck, that it’s fundamentally OK that hundreds of people are going to die, and that there are limits to the level of special effects, and your mind makes allowance for these things as you watch the show.

The suspension of disbelief is necessary to enjoy the story being told. If you did not suspend disbelief you would question how it’s possible for a man with a whip to defeat an army with guns. And you’d be right. But you wouldn’t be enjoying the show.

So, a few days ago, while reorganizing my bookshelf—reshelving the ones I’d just read or pulled out to reference, pulling out other I had yet to read, or want to reread again—I realized that in the last month or so I’d read a lot of pulp.

I’m no snob when it comes to novels. True, some of my favorite stories came down from heavy hitters—Poe, Shakespeare, Dumas…—I also greatly enjoy the thrillers so often trashed by the literati. Heck, I actually liked The DaVinci Code…both times I read it. I think Stephen King is a master storyteller, no matter that he writes horror and bestsellers, both of which are a kiss of death among literature snobs.

I think what it comes down to is that I just enjoy reading so much that you’ve got to present me with a pretty bad book for me not to get caught up in it.

And I do get caught up.

I never figure out the killer before it’s revealed. The surprise ending that surprises no one, almost always surprises me. When an author kills off the secondary character that everyone liked, but that every other reader knew was going to die, I get upset.

See the thing is, I love stories. I love good plots, even if the characters are boring. If you’ve got no plot, but the characters are interesting you’ve still got me hooked. Even if those are so-so, but you’re a good writer, I’ll still enjoy the journey.

And to take it a step further, I love writing. One of my favorite books is about the impact of the Bill of Rights on modern life. Not much storytelling going on in there.

I suppose there are writers out there who would think this a weakness—that I can’t tell the difference between good and bad writing, or good and bad books.

I choose to look at it a little differently. I see it as a plus. I still love writing. I haven’t become so cynical that I have to look down my nose at what I don’t believe measures up to my standards.

Or to put it a different way…when I read, I still get to be a kid.