Musing about reading…

One of the things that has surprised me over the years is how very particular some readers are about what they read. I don’t mean that they are choosy about a particular book, but rather that they won’t read huge chunks of literature because of a perceived unattractive commonality between the books that make up that chunk.

“I don’t like fantasy.”
“I don’t read historical novels.”
“I don’t read non-fiction.”
“I don’t read fiction.”
“I don’t read Scottish novels.”
“I don’t read women writers.”
“I don’t read travel books.”
And so on.

Of course, we all have preferences. I sure read an awful lot of fantasy. But I am eternally grateful that I don’t read just a certain kind of book to the exclusion of other types. I revel in variety.

Looking back, I think I see why. I owe an awful lot to my childhood. Books were in limited supply. I only had access to a public library once I was eleven, and books in the school library were doled out as if they were too rich a diet for primary schoolchildren. One a week, or you get indigestion.

So I learned to read everything. Before I was twelve, apart from children’s books that came my way, I had devoured much of my mother’s collection – which included:

  • Plays (e.g.Complete works of Galsworthy; Complete Works of George Bernard Shaw),
  • Australian literature (e.g. The Getting of Wisdom, writers such as Ruth Park, Norman Lindsay, etc);
  • Historical novels (e.g. Marguerite Steen and E.V.Timms, etc.);
  • Thrillers (e.g.Nevil Shute);
  • Non-fiction (everything from van Loon’s “The Arts of Mankind” to Ion L.Idriess)
  • Biography and autobiography (everything from The Seven Pillars of Wisdom to the autobiography of a filmstar whose name I can’t remember)
  • Mainstream literature (Dickens, Hemingway etc, etc.)
  • Australian poetry – C.J.Dennis, Lawson, Patterson)
  • Travel books, particularly Australian ones.

Throw in some of older brother’s “crime and luscious redheads” books – Carter Brown’s anyone?? – highly unsuitable reading for a ten year old girl, but – well, any book on a wet day…

In other words, just about anything.
Oddly enough, one of the genres that wasn’t on that list was romance – which may account for my lack of interest in that today. Generally, I prefer not to know the ending before I begin, I think. (Hey, but I re-read my Georgette Heyer’s…)

For me, variety is necessary.


Musing about reading… — 9 Comments

  1. Aha, I still have all my Georgette Heyer’s and periodically read them again – not the murder mysteries, I never enjoyed those although I read several, but all of her historical romances. I learnt more about the battle of Waterloo from her book and other odd snippets of Georgian history, than I ever learned at school.

    My reading is not so wide ranging as yours, but I don’t do too badly.

  2. I find it interesting that although you are the generation ahead of me, our reading histories are remarkably similar (that autobiography wasn’t David Niven’s “The Moon’s a Balloon” was it? I read that when I was around 10, highly inappropriate *grin*).

    Something else I have noticed in my internet forays into the lives of fantasy fans and authors… Georgette Heyer seems to be a common thread to many. Maybe there’s a thesis in there? For someone else than me, obviously!

  3. No, Joanna – I would never forget David Niven’s name! This was a 1930’s actress and the book had a similar name to the one much later by Joan Collins, “Past Imperfect” or something similar.

    Ok, finally found it. (Bless google). Ilka Chase, and it was indeed “Past Imperfect” so Joan Collins was filching the title…

    I did love The Moon’s a Balloon though.

  4. I was luckier than you. The Scarborough library opened when I was about ten but we were only allowed to borrow two books a fortnight so I too did a fair bit of ‘inappropriate’ reading of my parents’ books – as well as the family set of encyclopedias which included a volume of folk, tales, myths, legends and fairy tales. I wonder if that led to my interest in speculative fiction?

  5. I don’t know what started me reading, but I don’t remember not reading. There used to be a classic family story when we were travelling on the family boat (which was our home) and there was some kind of storm and they were having problems. I came up on deck complaining I had finished my book and wanted another. My father said “For *** sake, you are living an adventure and you want an adventure story”. I must have been around 10 I think.

  6. We moved to Swanbourne when I was 11, Imagine Me. And I was introduced to Claremont library. I was in heaven.

    Jo – I love that story! Classic!

  7. Just curious about something…you say you don’t generally read romance because you prefer not to know the ending before you get there (which is completely valid) …do you read mysteries?

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about genres, tropes and expectations (what do people expect when they pick up a fantasy? A scifi?) and in a discussion with another friend, came to the conclusion that mysteries and romances are perhaps more similar in some ways than other genres, in that you know the ending before you start. (At least, I can’t imagine a mystery selling successfully — at least not as a mystery — if the crime isn’t solved at the end.)

    So…do you see mysteries and romances as both being less than satisfying in that sense? Or are mysteries somehow different, even though the ending is a given?

    (I read both, btw, and enjoy them for the journey of how they get to that conclusion. But I can certainly understand why others wouldn’t. I’m just puzzled by those who read romance and not mystery because they know the ending, or vice versa.)

  8. Surely whatever book you read, you know the ending more or less. The good guys win even if in some stories some of them get deaded along the way.

    What’s Georgette Heyer if not romance?

  9. Jo, indeed Heyer is pure romance, and it is my exception. More than that, I have read them all before and yet I read them again periodically, so that is really “knowing what happens” with a vengeance. I think I might blog about the Heyer phenomenon sometime.

    CDP – I think the difference is this: mysteries you know the mystery will be solved, yes; what you don’t know is whodunnit. And possibly how they dunnit, or why they dunnit. That is what keeps you reading. And sure, I read mysteries – not as often as I used to, but I have read just about everything Sayer, Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Chandler, Chesterton, Ellery Queen, Christie, PD James, Dick Francis, Paretsky, Grafton, ever wrote, plus a selection of others like Ellis Peters, Rendall, Grisham, Ian Rankin, Cornwall, Evanovitch.

    I am dropping behind in the more modern writers – not enough hours in the day. I always found them satisfying.

    Romance on the other hand – well, I love it when it is part of a larger story. I even write it on occasion, although I tend not to look through rose-tinted glasses all that much while doing it.

    But when it is the be all and end all, it palls. I don’t like reading the first chapter and knowing that female A is going to end up with male B (despite the machinations of female C or diversion male D). With romance, the journey is the thing, but usually there just aren’t enough variations in the journey to please me. And reading about wildly beating hearts et al, just doesn’t grab me much either.

    But then – give me a good Jane Austen or Heyer and I’m happy. Go figure.

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