Reading (In)Discriminately

Okay: raise your hands. When you were younger (say, teen- to young-adulthood) how many of you read pretty much everything? Finished even the rotten books because they were… well, they were books, and they were there?

Okay, so I wasn’t the only one. For me it was SF and fantasy, and historical, and historical romance, and gothics (aka “romantic suspense”–the books with young women in diaphanous gowns framed against brooding manses), and all the Great Books I could get, regardless of whether I fully understood them. Occasionally a best seller, because it was there, and I got twitchy when there was no printed matter to hand. What were your poisons?

Of that cohort, how many of you read that way now? I sure can’t. I might be working on a couple of different books at a time (right now its Seanan Maguire’s Every Heart a Doorway and a book on women’s history called Who Cooked the Last Supper) but I don’t read as fast, or with the kind of intensity, that I did when I was a kid. And my reading seems to fall into three categories: new fiction (SF, mystery, occasional mainstream); research non-fiction (mostly history but sometimes medical history or single-topic writing–on the human heart, or sewage management through the ages), and re-reading. There are some things I re-read annually, for comfort and amusement: Jane Eyre, most of Jane Austen, the Peter Wimsey books; there are other books I re-read regularly: I cycle through Charlotte and Anne Brontë, and through the works of Dick Francis, and through some of the SF and fantasy I keep around. I’m not sure what touches off a sudden need to re-read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall or Proof, but I suspect it may be that they do something in the writing or structure that I unconsciously feel I need to look at. Or maybe they’re just what comes to hand. I’ve taken to replacing old, tattered copies of the frequently re-read with e-books, just so I don’t keep buying the same book over and over.

But what of the books I tore through–and frequently re-read–when I was a teen? I recently learned that Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense novels, which I read to tatters when I was in high school, were available and on sale as e-books. And in about a two week period I re-read eight of them, and I am here to tell you: Stewart was a fine writer. A little more given to botanical and landscape details than I remember, but really good. What took me aback is that there are phrases, whole scenes, that I remember with absolute clarity. But also: there are no dumb shoehorning of characters into doing things that make no sense. Also, the characters (like Dorothy Sayers’s) are well read and know things–I have always wanted to be well-read and to know things, so its nice to hang out with fictional characters who are and do. So I went looking for another writer I tore through at that time; like Stewart, Jane Aiken Hodge holds up remarkably well. Her voice has certain tics, but overall she writes well-researched, sensible, effective historical romance. This somehow makes me feel better about my scorched earth reading habits.

Encouraged to find that some of my teen pleasures held up, I found another ebook I sort of remembered, The Trembling Hills, by Phyllis A. Whitney. It’s set in San Francisco leading up to and after the 1906 earthquake, which is pretty much all I could recall of the book. Since I now live in San Francisco I thought, well, why not. Okay, it’s not a terrible book (Whitney, in her day, was very successful, often on the NY Times bestseller list, published multiple-tens of books, none of this being a guarantor of quality). The setting is well done and well researched, which is nice now that I actually know what she’s describing. The characters are not as paper-thin as they originally seem to be: I spent the first third off the book wanting to smack the protagonist… and then she started to grow up a little, and gain a little complexity. When I finished the book I was not unsatisfied, but I doubt I’d ever want to re-read it.

There is a whole bookshelf of dusty, crumbling paperbacks in my basement that I should probably reevaluate based on this new information. Even at 15 I knew I never wanted to re-read Barbara Cartland, but there’s a vast territory between Cartland and Georgette Heyer; perhaps it’s time I did a little discriminate pruning.

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About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books

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20 Responses to Reading (In)Discriminately

  1. Sherwood Smith says:

    Yeah, I don’t finish anything I’m not enjoying anymore.

    I need to reread my Stewarts; there are some tics that make me wince (like the hero calling the heroine a “beautiful bitch” in the otherwise fairly elegant and historically fascinating Madam Will You Talk, but those were the ‘caveman’ hero days. Set against that was all the Shakespeare reference.

    There are a lot of books I’d rather leave in fond memory, and many I still enjoy. Tolkien I get more out of on each reread.

  2. Foxessa says:

    Edna Ferber and Daphne Du Maurier are also fine, fine writers, whose plots and characters hold up very well. What is shocking to me now, is how much Ferber had social justice issues, class issues, racial issues in all her fiction, a leftist stance which one quite took for granted in much fiction by writers of her era, and which now is entirely lacking in fiction. Nor were these matters shoehorned into the content, nor did they in any way overwhelm the story, or preach to the reader.

    So that explained something I couldn’t figure out when I was a kid, reading articles I didn’t understand really in the various magazines that floated throughout my life, at home, at relatives’ and friends’ homes, at school, in the library — a railing at Ferber as a dangerous writers because she was a commie.

    But looking at any of her books these days, this is what helps keep her work solid — and its so refreshing in this ominous and parched climate of unashamed greed and hatred of anyone who isn’t a billionaire.

  3. Susan says:

    Sewage management throughout history? That sounds like it could be really really interesting. Tell us more, please?

  4. Sue Hutchings says:

    I re-read Robert A. Heinlein’s ‘The Door Into Summer’ at least once every year. And I always find something I didn’t notice before.
    I first read Ray Bradbury’s story ‘The Lake’ (in a collection of his short stories that was published in 1955) when I was ten years old. I cried. I re-read that story a few times a year and I cry every single time — 51 years later.

    • damigiana says:

      At some point I went back and re-read every single bit of SF I had loved in the original English and not in an Italian translation. Some was equally good, some was better (there’s no way to translate all the puns in Douglas Adams’s work) but Asimov and especially Heinlein were much worse. Yet The Moon is a Harsh Mistress prepared me for the world I live in now: a world were if you control computers you control cities and homes, where women who need money can be guest mothers without social stigma, where forms of marriage other than a-man-and-a-woman are normal, and sex only limit is adult consent.

      And yes, I still know whole sentences by heart. In Italian :).

      Oh, and I also read absolutely anything and everything – I had few books for my voracious appetite, and going to the library was thirty minutes on foot each way, plus the time spent negotiating with my mother for permission to go out. To put it in her words “You would read toilet paper if there was anything printed on it”. I also read (again, and again) the chemical analysis printed on the bottled water we bought.

  5. Norah Lofts. I don’t think anyone reads her historicals any more, but I loved them.

  6. Cat Kimbriel says:

    I also pick up non-fiction books that I am not sure how they will work into my own fiction, but something about them caught my eye. I kept Salt when my boyfriend received it and wasn’t interested, and I have 1491 and a book on heirloom apples waiting for me.

    I read most of the Mary Stewart my mother had laying around, but I think the one Whitney I read had an Alpha hero I found disquieting, so I didn’t read any of her other books. RE Mary Stewart: I remember vividly after only one reading when the heroine watched an “old” horse hear classical music in the dark, and suddenly move in the dressage steps of the Spanish Riding School. I think I need to re-read Airs Above the Ground again, if I’m remembering it correctly.

    My mother liked to catch up with many of the Time-Life books, which were packed with information. My first info on ancient civilizations worldwide came from one of their series. I’d run home from school and read at lunch while chowing down. I started reading one I’d missed while clearing out the condo and found out that in the 1800s northerners burned out a young white woman in New England who was educating young black girls. Not what I expected to find in a Time-Life book.

    I’d even read cereal boxes, at one point. 🙂

    • Joann says:

      Everything I know about golf comes from reading the sports page at breakfast! I had no interest, but my Dad got the front page, my mom the “B” section (it varied), and whoever was up next got the comics. That was not usually me. Such memories – I pull out and reread my falling apart Mary Stewart books, although I never really loved the Arthurian stuff. Love Jane Aiken Hodge. Phyllis Whitney – I don’t reread, tried a few and just didn’t enjoy them as I had as a teen. There are many more – I keep finding books to read and re-read – in fact there have been a few that I finish and start over instantly.

  7. pence says:

    Mary Stewart. Yes. I too just finished a reread of Airs. So glad that she is now coming out on Kindle. Somewhere in storage I still have a hardcover of hers that I bought when I was in highschool. I remember my long inner debate over spending a whole $4.95 on a new book. It was a huge portion of my allowance, $25 a month which also covered clothes and shoes. But it would have been forever before the library got the book, and another aeon before it would have gotten down to me on the reserve list!

  8. Jane Austen, over, and over, and over. I am even thinking of translating “Pride and Prejudice” to Spanish so my mom could read it. Of course, there are translations available and I don’t really have all that time, but when I think about it I feel a warm fuzzy feeling, it could be fun and it could be an intensely loving activity. Isabel Allende, specially her memoirs, and specially “My Invented Country”, which I have in Spanish. She has a voice and a sense of humor that speaks to me. Robert A. Heinlein’s “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”. I read it the first time when I was in my twenties; I must have re-read it at least ten times since then and I feel it is time for another reading. Esmeralda Santiago’s “When I was Puerto Rican”, only twice but it is asking to be read again soon. She grew up about five miles, and about 15 years from where and when I did, some things about her memoir are so familiar, and some other things are so different. And of course, I disagree on the correct way to eat a guava.

    • And I still read indiscriminately, specially since now I can buy as many books as I want, but much slower than I did when I was younger. I’d rather buy books than music, movie tickets, or fancy electronics. (I mean, how many new TVs and smartphones can one objectively need?) I read in English and in Spanish. It blows my mind the amount of good books (bad ones too) that are out there! A thousand years will not be enough to read all that is potentially worth reading. I also read cross-cultural, whatever I can find in the two languages that I speak. I just finished reading Haruki Murakami’s “Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World”, and I am slowly progressing through Marcel Proust’s “The Captive”, from “In Search of Lost Time”.

    • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is the Heinlein I consistently re-read–I think, because I love Mike the computer so much.

  9. Some of my re-reading is probably outside my own described curve. I have a fondness for some of Sinclair Lewis’s books (whose style, in my mind, somehow resembles Heinlein’s) and Arrowsmith, Ann Vickers, and It Can’t Happen Here are on rotation.

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