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.