The Reader and the Book
I read a selection of fine books this week and I was bored to tears until the very last one. There was a reason for this, and this reason had absolutely nothing to do with the quality or the affectiveness of the writing. It was all to do with me, the reader. Looking back, I can see how I would have reacted to those same books if the month before had been a normal month for me. This made me think how we talk about our reading.
Reading is affective. A good book touches our soul. A bad book wants to make us throw it across the room. Some books are brilliant but cold, but this icy quality is rare. It’s much harder to write a brilliant book with no heart than it is to write a clichéd book that makes us want to see what happens next to the characters in their page-lives.
It’s hard to evaluate how a book is likely to appeal emotionally to someone else. We try to, “Read this, you’ll love it.” It gets even more difficult, however, when we don’t realise that we ourselves, as readers, have moods that are like clouds on a windy day and that those moods change the way we read.
A wise reader would simply say, “I don’t feel like reading this book today.”
I was not a wise reader this week, nor last, for I have a lot of things to catch up on and March was riddled with crises. I read what I needed to read, to get on with work. Normally, I think, “I shall read this horror novel today and that science book tomorrow, for today I crave horror.” Normally I fit my criticism to my reading mood, for this means each book I read gets given as fair a chance as I can give. My life overwhelmed my reading, however, and sensible choices were not possible.
Readers are not passive. We bring a bit of ourselves to every book we read. When our lives get too exciting, we bring more of ourselves with us into the book and we might even use our books to help us sort things out or to escape somewhere safe. Our lives always touch our reading. The question is how often we notice this.
So what precisely happened when I read review books when my mind was in a state of disarray? I was reading Young Adult speculative fiction (for I have a love of Young Adult fiction and so cheer whenever I get sent a review copy) for that was the reading that was waiting for me.
Normally when life goes pear-shaped, I read books from my childhood or I read epic fantasy. I have comfort reading. I have it in reserve this week, in fact, when I finish writing this. My current recreational reading is Helen Lowe’s Heir of Night series, which is epic fantasy and so something I know I shall enjoy, regardless of life’s curious detours.
There was a clear conflict. A part of my brain knew that I had to read for fun. The other part said “You promised people,” and “These look like good books. Look—Young Adult fantasy and science fiction.”
I listened to the wrong half of my brain.
Let me show you how it affected the second last book I read in this seriously bad way of spending one’s reading time, and the last book, which is where I finally realised that the relationship between myself and my books was not normal.
The second last book was Ari Marmell’s Thief’s Covenant. It contains so many things I love in fiction—it is witty and has twists and turns that twist the turns; it has a vaguely French fantasy setting. Its notion of religion is somewhat half-developed, but not very many fantasy novels understand the reality of religion, so the fact that Marmell tangles world building (how the gods operate) with religion (how people formalise and bring into their lives how they think the gods might operate) is not terribly unusual nor is it an impediment to liking the work. My main problem with the cool main character is that she is more robust emotionally than I am. I like my heroes more imperfect, I suspect. I know many people with this great inner strength, but this week I was myself not like that. This made it was a real struggle to read the book and, at the time, I couldn’t see why. It simply appeared emotionless.
The book was not emotionless. It is not a cold crystal work. The problem was at the reader’s end: there was nothing to draw me in emotionally because Widdershins (that main character) was so alien to where my life is at the moment. I shall revisit the book sometime, for I suspect it’s not the struggle-to-read that it appeared to be this week. In fact, I know it’s not. I can see all the technical reasons for it to be a page-turner. Not very deep (the religious element, the characters all add up to not very deep) but how many people genuinely want very deep ideas when they read swashbuckling thief stories? And in this tale there is much buckle and it is well swashed.
There is another series of books I need to re-read someday for almost precisely the same reasons—the new trilogy by Tansy Rayner Roberts. I read the first volume the last time my life went pear-shaped. She’s a lovely, lively writer and so, when my life emerges, I shall re-read her novels for the simple joy of it, along with the Marmell.
It’s a form of respect to writers to seek their work out again when the mood is right and when you can give them their due.
The latest book I read, the one where I discovered what I was bringing to my reading, was another speculative fiction Young Adult novel, E.C Myers’ Fair Coin. It deals with some profound issues so—even though it took me a hundred pages—the book drew me in and, eventually, drew me out of my funk. Books can do that. They can change the inner landscape just as our mood can change the book itself.
Fair Coin would have been a better book with a less neat ending, I feel, but the ending was essential for the market—it’s hard to sell a Young Adult book set in a universe that’s too bleak. Even in dark places, there must be hope.
Fair Coin is about a teenager who tosses a coin and changes reality. It’s not quite the regular “If I wish this, then these are the consequences.” It’s darker and, until the last fifty pages, less predictable.
It was the darkness that drew me in this week. It enabled me to see the emotional values in the book and the way it looks at friendship. It’s not a happy novel. Even the straightforward resolutions aren’t really resolutions. Obviously there is going to be a sequel, where maybe, maybe the characters find a little hope.
Two books, both good: one left me cold and the other drew me in. And yet, the first book (the one that left me cold) had the tighter plotting and the word-play and the things I normally enjoy. I want to argue that the first book had no heart, but that would be entirely false. It would be easier to think that the first book had no heart. I was not in a position to find its heart, however for I was dealing with a series of catastrophes and Thief’s Covenant didn’t give me any escape or any resolution. Nevertheless, Thief’s Covenant is an (in other circumstances) enjoyable Young Adult fantasy.
Not all books fit all the situations a reader is in when we read. And sometimes when a book reads as cold or badly-written it’s not the book, it’s the reader. Readers are never neutral. We always count. Our lives enter into the way we read and we become part of the interpretation of the books as we turn each page.