on reading

Moving with books

I try to pack my books almost blindly, so that the eye does not stop and the mind does not all of a sudden decide that this particular book is the one I should be reading right now, only to repeat the same sequence with the next book. I pack too quickly and spend the next two weeks staring at columns of identical boxes, forgetting about what’s inside.

As I unpack, I am crippled by being unable to decide which genre goes where. For the first time in my life there are too many bookshelves and not enough books. I joke to a coworker that it’s only a matter of time. I have built-in bookshelves that require a ladder to reach the top level. I feel like Giles when I do that.

I get out all the fiction from A to G, but then I find that one stray Louise Erdrich and have to shift everything all over again. And then there is a gap. Where did H-L go? In some box that was shoved under five other boxes, of course. It does not help that past me decided not to label most boxes. One box is labeled helpfully with just ‘books’. Thanks, past me.

I have a bag of ARCs I didn’t want to move and just shoved them under my desk at work. I don’t even remember what’s in there. I guess I’ll find out when I bring them home today.

I can finally start reading again.

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Reading modes

If you could visualize yourself in your perfect reading mode and place, what would that look like? Being completely immersed in an amazing new book, whizzing through it at eighty pages per hour, or slowly savoring some delightfully dense old classic?

I always have this conflicting vision of me either reading five galleys in a day and loving them all, or sitting down with a paper and pencil and deconstructing some truly amazing short story so I can still that writer’s powers. It is quite clear that I cannot do both these modes of reading at the same time. I suppose I can try and do these two things in one day, but that almost never happens. I am not saying that one mode of reading is more important that the other. I occasionally come across some misguided opinion that the only good reading one can do is ‘deep’ and ‘serious’ and ‘thoughtful’, as if there is no thought involved at all in reading some good erotica (quoting Jon Stewart on the subject of books, ‘it’s like a movie you get to direct in your own head!’).

Breezing through upcoming releases for work and doing some reading for what is essentially research seemed like mutually incompatible modes of reading until I came across writer Lisa L. Hannett quoted in Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer (which I only half-jokingly called ‘my bible’ the other day on Instagram): ‘”Frivolous” reading is as important as creative play. Reading for fun, reading to feed your imagination, reading to revel in the childlike wonder of being elsewhere’.

Reading for fun here is the same as reading to feed your imagination, but in my mind, one could easily argue that close, deep reading of something is also the type of reading one does to feed one’s imagination. When I dissect someone’s story, I want to see what makes the author tick and hope that maybe it will also contribute to my own clockwork. Sometimes this dissection leads me into my own direction and helps me make something new (I’m talking about inspiration, not plagiarism).

In the end, I don’t think it matters how one reads, or if one reads more “frivolous” books as opposed to serious ones. Hopefully, it’s all good fodder for fun or work.

Reading resolutions

I can’t possibly resolve to read more. I will have to either quit my job or stop sleeping. But while that option is out, I can resolve to read differently.

I don’t want to make resolutions like ‘I will only read women authors’. Instead, I think my resolutions should be more like ‘I will read fewer/none white straight cis dudes’. Because I can resolve to read only women authors, but should I not also read gender-nonconfirming/non-binary/trans folks? Let us not make our reading resolutions binary.

I want to read more POC authors. I read a bunch in 2015, but not nearly enough (especially given how much I read).

I want to read more speculative fiction. It’s my original love, and it’s been somewhat neglected in 2015.

I want to read more short stories.

And yes, I will be doing Read Harder challenge 2016.

We’ll see how this works. We’ll also see how this works with whatever ARCs and galleys publishers throw at me.

The burden of originality

A few weeks ago someone at work was reading aloud a review of a science fiction novel. During the part that described the plot, another someone snidely remarked ‘like that has never done before’.

I have to say I bristled at this. Realistic fiction is full of same old stories, but speculative fiction seems to be given a greater responsibility of coming up with fresh and original plot lines. There’s still an old-fashioned assumption that SF (particularly the science fiction part of it) is purely a genre of predictions and ideas.

Why do we (mostly) forgive realistic fiction for rehashing same old marriage-in-trouble, coming-of-age, going-off-to-war, dead-family tropes, but do not forgive science fiction for retelling its stories in different ways? Speculative fiction is absolved for re-imagining tales only when it cops to doing so on purpose (see a number of fairy tale-retelling anthologies).

But perhaps we do not let the so-called mainstream fiction off the hook either. I often see people look at a book and go ‘oh no, not this stuff again’. So what is the problem? At least half of the time I think it’s just the dust jacket description. I remember the blurb for Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin. It sounded so boring, I avoided the book for months. But in reality, it’s one of the best fantasy books I (eventually) read.

Every day, I look at stacks of ARCs and galleys in the break room at my job. These days, I pick them up and read the first sentence of the blurb. If it grabs me, I take the galley, but about 99% of the time I put it back. That’s because most of the blurbs are along the lines of: ‘after a terrible attack, person rebuilds her life’, ‘after losing parents, person rebuilds life’, ‘person is faced with a failed marriage and rebuilds life’. They all sound kind of the same and kind of unexciting, mostly because they are so general. It’s always a story of friendship, a story of love, a story of loss. When summarized in a sentence, even the best tales sound, well, kind of meh.* I want to quote Jo Walton, who wrote that her child had once jokingly remarked that there were only three conflicts in books: Man vs. Man, Man vs. Plan, and Man vs. Canal (i.e. technology). We always say that there are no new stories, and yet we demand newness, something we have not seen done before. Why do we care about this elusive ‘originality’? And why is certain type of fiction held to a higher standard when it comes to it?

What do reviews mean when they talk about ‘originality’ anyway? Things can’t be too original or they become ‘experimental’ (i.e. hard to read and too weird). Maybe it’s not the plot, maybe it’s the setting or the characters. My opinion is that this ‘originality’ is all in an author’s voice that can bring the same failed marriage of two orphans in New York to a whole new level. Or a voice that can take first contact or a sentient spaceship or the chosen one trope and spin it in new ways. And voice is really hard to encapsulate in a blurb.

I don’t think I’m looking for originality anymore. I’m looking for a book that has a good voice, because that’s what’s going to make characters I can feel emotional about, a setting that seems fascinating (even if it’s same old Mars), and a story that I want to follow (even if it’s the same chosen one trope). This requires me to mostly ignore the blurbs and just read the books. Stay tuned for future posts dedicated to topics like abandoning books halfway, using complicated social recommendation algorithms to find books to read, and wishes for time-turner or superhuman speed-reading ability.

 

*Let’s play a game where we summarize some good speculative novels in a sentence, shall we? Try to guess what any of these are. 1) Young man escapes an attack on his life and flees into the desert. 2) An order of monks preserves the remnants of humanity’s knowledge in the post-apocalyptic world. 3) Two people learn to understand each other better after a long trek through ice and snow.

What snooze-fests these must be.

 

Genre fatigue and how to cure it

I have never been a strictly speculative fiction reader, but for many years, spec fic comprised probably about 80% of my book diet. For the purposes of this post, I am going to assume that fantasy, urban fantasy, many flavors of sci-fi, and variations on the new weird belong in the same broad category. I don’t want to get into the quagmire of ‘what is genre?’ discussion at the moment, and I want to have room for my pretty varied reading tastes even within said genre. I started with fantasy (the book that started it all was Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams, if you’re curious), slowly making my way into sci-fi territory, and finally settling somewhere in the weird and slipstream area. At this moment, I can only describe my reading preferences as ‘books where strange stuff happens’.

I wrote about my genre reading here for many months (which is basically decades in Internet years). I run a sci-fi and fantasy book group. I read a lot of genre blogs. I voted for Hugos (though not this year). I still gravitate first to sci-fi and fantasy section in any bookstore I visit. But for many months now, the genre has not been my best friend. I have what I call ‘genre fatigue’. It’s not just a fantasy fatigue or hard sci-fi fatigue. It’s this generalized unwillingness to read widely in what I previously considered my area of expertise. I burned myself out on swords, dragons, spaceships, AI, nanotechnology, cyberpunk, dystopias (though I think everyone must be burnt out on those), you name it. Maybe I feel like I’ve read every possible permutation of character/setting/plot one could have in speculative fiction. Maybe I just need a heavy dose of reality in all my reading.

What genre fatigue might look like

What genre fatigue might look like

Part of this deviation from genre is due to having a vast sea of non-genre books in my vicinity. Most of the galleys in my room are not genre. Most of the books I buy and sell at work are not genre. Even my library hauls are now heavy on things like plays and poetry. For a while in the past few months, I read mostly non-fiction. Or only poetry and comics. Sci-fi and fantasy were paradoxically still okay in comics form (even though, as Warren Ellis says, there is even less realism in those*).

These days, the fatigue seems to be abating. Perhaps I’ve had my fill of what one could call mainstream fiction. I picked up a fantasy book last week to deal with some depression crap. But I still read very widely outside of the genre, and I doubt speculative fiction will comprise as much of my reading as it used to. There is no real cure for genre fatigue. I don’t think there needs to be one, it’s not a life-threatening condition. Now, general book fatigue, that’s an emergency situation, but I’m not there yet.

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*Here’s the full quote from Ellis’s Orbital Operations newsletter from 8/16:

Suspension of disbelief is inherent in the comics form because we pick up a comic already understanding that we’re seeing a heavily filtered and codified representation of the world.  Real and irreal use the same visual codes.  Unreal figures in comics are made of the same stuff as the real ones.  Talking about the systems of the world is just telling stories that try to explain how the world works.  Picking up a comic, you already know that at least one person is essentially lying to you.

Lists of books!

For those of you who like Lists of Things, I did some blog maintenance thing yesterday and updated my ‘Read in 2014‘ list and created ‘Read in 2015‘. Go see! They are sort of terrifying, aren’t they? How much free time do I really have?

If you want to know why I keep lists of things I read, it’s because I am one of those People Who Like Lists, because it’s fun, and because I tend to remember events in my life through books. A book can remind me where I was or what I was doing when I was reading it. I read Anthony Marra’s The Tsar Of Love and Techno while camping this summer. I read Benjamin Black’s Christine Falls while waiting for a plane to Toronto in January. I obviously went through some period this summer when I wanted to read only emotionally wrenching books, judging by this lineup:

  • Lidia Yuknavitch, The Small Backs Of Children
  • J. M. Ledgard, Submergence
  • Lyudmila Ulitskaya, The Big Green Tent
  • Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life

All of these are very good, by the way. But not light.

Other reading trends:

1) There are some graphic novels I read and reread in a span of a few weeks. I am a dedicated comics rereader. A) they don’t take a long time and B) I like to binge on series in comics. I have my annual reread of Warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan whenever I start feeling too good about people.

2) There is way more poetry in 2015. Me reading poetry is something relatively new. There was an entire period in my life when I was convinced I could only read poetry in my native language. Now it’s more or less a staple of my reading diet.

3) More plays in 2015, also a new phenomenon.

4) There is way less speculative fiction in 2015. I had what I call ‘genre-fatigue’ for a few months (one of the reasons I stopped writing here). I could only take my sci-fi/fantasy in comics form.

5) Apparently I read Alex + Ada volume two, but not one? Doesn’t seem right.

6) I don’t list single-issue comics. It’s a personal preference.

7) I’ve read 192 books in 2014. Didn’t quite make it to 200. TOTAL FAILURE. Kidding.

So there you go. Lists. Now onwards to read 200 books this year!

Some thoughts on book enjoyment as a function of time

The other day I had a brief Twitter conversation with Memory from In The Forest of Stories about whether one’s enjoyment of a particular book is related to the amount of time it takes to read it. It doesn’t seem like something that should make a difference, yet for me, how long it takes to reach the last page is actually a big factor in how much I’ll like a book. Perhaps it is simply because books that do not engage me take more time to read. I keep putting them down and then picking them up, then putting them down, sometimes to never pick them up again. It doesn’t really matter whether the book is long or short. I remember times when I spent days reading a tiny 150-page novel and two days whizzing through a 650-page doorstop.

Picture of books of diverse length. From top to bottom: read (enjoyed), read (enjoyed somewhat), read (loved), did not read. There, now my dirty secret is out.

Books of diverse length. From top to bottom: read (enjoyed), read (enjoyed somewhat), read (loved), did not read. There, now my dirty secret is out. I have never read The Stand.

Here’s an infographic on how long it takes to read 64 popular books. It uses 300 words per minute as the measure, and doesn’t really take into account complexity of narrative structure, for example (i.e. something like the Lexile measure). I am probably on the higher end of reading speed (though absolutely not as far as Larry Nolen at OF Blog of the Fallen), and that might be another reason why I don’t like to spend a lot of time reading one book. Maybe it’s specifically a fast reader problem.

You might ask: ‘ok, you can read pretty fast, but do you retain anything?’ Personally, I do have a really bad memory for books. But it doesn’t seem to matter whether I spend just a few hours with a book or a few days trying to read it ‘closely’. In fact, I think my bad memory is another reason I read books quickly. If I spend too much time with one book, that means there is a day or two when I don’t touch it, and those couple of days are just enough for me to forget what happened in previous ten chapters.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to Dan Jones’s Wars of the Roses before all those dukes and earls get mixed up in my head and my enjoyment of it takes a dive.