Thursday, July 29, 2010

Reading Notes - Trusting books again

(This post is adapted and updated from one I wrote for my private blog, Zucchinis in Bikinis, in 2004).

I am a Terry Pratchett fan. I like the Discworld novels a lot, and have found most of them highly enjoyable. My favourite Pratchett novel, however, is one that's rarely seen on most Pratchett fanciers' lists of Top Ten Super-Best DiscWorld Books. It's called A Hat Full of Sky.

It is, it should be said, very good - a typically witty Discworld story, featuring some of the witches (who are among my favourite characters). It isn't perhaps as hilarious as some of the books, and it is curiously short on double entendres and what the TV guide likes to refer to as "adult concepts". However, it engages in much more potent philosophical musings than most of the Discworld books. Tiffany's journey through fear and confusion to understanding herself and the monster that pursues her is really very cleverly written, and delves into a lot of deep concepts, like Death and Guilt and Self-Control and Human Volition and The Nature of Fear. So although it is less funny, it is also more worthwhile (in my view) and I'm likely to re-read it again and again, whereas most Discworld books get read once and put aside.

The first time I read this book, I flipped to the back flyleaf and discovered why the lack of sniggerable jokes: A Hat Full of Sky was written for "younger readers" (I'm guessing early teens). Which gave me pause - does that suggest that I liked the book because I'm effectively mentally 13? Do I lack the maturity to deal with adult literature?

Further evidence for this interpretation can be advanced with the following three facts:

1. My absolute favourite book of 2009 was Suzanne Collins' Catching Fire, the second in the Hunger Games series - a YA novel.

2. I recently permanently abandoned my futile third attempt to plow through A S Byatt's The Children's Book, which is without doubt one of the most literary (and adult) works of fictions I've attempted recently.

3. My all-time top 10 books contains 6 titles that were ostensibly written for middle-grade or YA audiences.

Well, it may be the case that I am mentally immature, but I think I've also pinpointed another factor in my enjoyment of these YA book and my increasing wariness of "proper" adult storytelling. It was such a huge relief to me to read stories where real, substantive concepts were engaged, where drama is built and sustained, where characters are tested and some of them bruised, but where none of the viler side of human behaviour is on display in explicit, technicolor detail. Lots of people get harassed and threatened, but not assaulted, abused, maligned or murdered in horrific ways. There are deep relationships, but not messy and dreary interpersonal ones. No-one lets off strings of expletives as a substitute for dialogue. No-one, in short, is distracted from the deeper questions by unpleasant little surface interludes.

Don't get me wrong - lots of YA and middle-grade books contain violence, injustice, fear, terror, hostility, loss, grief, fury, and so forth. I'd challenge anyone to read the Hunger Games books and not feel at least some of these emotions powerfully emanating from it. Don't read Tomorrow when the war began if you have a weak heart, and so on. And certainly, some of the themes that appear to be dominating the YA market at the moment leave me cold. Vampires? Yeahno, if it's all the same.

But reading the best of these stories reminds me of the sheer physical pleasure I used to derive from reading when I was a child and teenager. With a book in hand, I'd dive joyfully into the world being created, absorbing every word into my skin, losing myself in the pages. I read all the children's classics, of course, but also a lot of heavier (or at least adult-targeted) stuff - I went through a significant Jane Austen worship phase around 12 years of age, I'd read Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion twice each by 11, and I lost myself entirely in Isaac Asimov's Foundation and Robot series in year 9 (around 14, I think). I still remember that feeling of abandoment, of trusting myself completely to the story, almost like flight - with my arms spread out, I'd fall into the covers of the book and disappear.

Part of that feeling was the trust that I had - implicit then, damaged now - that the book would not betray me; that it wouldn't sandbag me with awfulness that I couldn't handle, that it wouldn't gratuitously introduce violent and twisted themes, that it wouldn't make me feel sick and besmirched. I still can't happily read fiction that is violent or explicitly abusive, especially if the violence is of a particular kind. I've never been much of a fan of romantic fiction, yet as an adult I have enjoyed many books with romantic themes, but not one with violent or abusive themes. The nasty taste that those books leave in my mouth lingers, like a too-young wine, and makes me feel compromised by merely having read it.

What I'm finding now, more and more, is that I'm reading widely and catholically on the non-fiction side (popular science, linguistics, psychology, mythology, history, and social commentary are favourites at the moment) but that my fiction reading is becoming more limited and tentative. I'm tending to read known authors, or books recommended by friends, or books I can confidently tag as being unlikely to contain content I'll hate (for example, mysteries written in the "cosy" genre don't usually have upsetting bits), or YA stories. I'm also revisiting some of my favourites from the past (I'm halfway through Tony Hillerman's excellent Navajo mystery series, which is just as good the second time around).

I don't really admire this shrinking back in myself. I don't want to be the sort of person who sniffs disapprovingly at books, and I want to be able to take a chance on something that sounds interesting. But more than that, I want the feeling back again, that feeling of excitement and delight and freedom that reading used to give me. And I think that controlling my fiction selection, so that I don't fear the book too much to surrender to it, is key to that.

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