I have recently joined a book group and members had commented on their interest in my choice in books, due to having a degree in English Literature and as a writer. This offhand comment intrigued me a lot as I do not consider myself any more qualified to chose or critique a book compared to those without a relevant degree. What I would say is that it gives you a love for more than just a good plot and characters. I love unreliable narrators myself, but I know this is a personal preference as it allows for fiction within fiction and witty endings.
It also made me think about the way we choose books. When I was younger, I had no interest in current best seller lists, prize winning novels or what had featured on a TV book club. Yet as an adult, I feel myself more and more interested in such things. When I was very young, I read anything with a cool looking cover (preferably a pretty girl looking thoughtfully into the distance, horse and dragon optional extras) that was in our local library. I read without preconceptions and I consumed everything from Enid Blyton, Babysitters Club, Alan Garner, Hardy Boys, A Dream of Sadlers Wells, Colin Dann, Saddle Club and Richard Adams to name a few. I missed some popular children’s fiction for my age and generation such as Dick King-Smith and Judy Blume simply because the library didn’t have much in stock. Looking back I sometimes cringe to think how much time I wasted on pre-teen angst novels (by my teens years I’d luckily discovered fantasy) and horse/ ballet books rather than reading Roald Dahl and Susan Cooper novels. But this was my choice ignorant of polls, opinions and internet reviews.
Sometimes when I am in a well-read SFF crowd I feel a bit like a faker as they discuss and argue, throwing names around that I know, but have never gotten into to: Asimov, Stephen Baxter, Arthur C. Clarke, Orson Scott Card, William Gibson. Even the pure fantasy enthusiasts shake their heads when they find out I refuse to touch Robert Jordan (on principle that I don’t want to start something I can’t finish), I never got into George R.R. Martin (heresy but the truth) and as much as I had a Pratchett phase and still love the man for introducing me to the comedy footnote, I think his best work was around Mort and don’t generally pick up his new stuff very often.
Whenever I tried to read these top ten lists that are inevitably trundled out by Amazon or some blogger or other, I get disappointed. They told me because I liked Anne McCaffrey, I would enjoy Katherine Kerr. They were wrong. And then you get the well-meaning work colleagues that find out you are a bookworm and wax lyrical about Dan Brown for half an hour whilst you nod politely and claw your own thigh under the table.
I liked it when things were a lot simpler. That moment when you pick out a random book from a library and suddenly you are the first and only person to have discovered it. This world you have been given is more magical and real than the family eating dinner beside you every night. And you wonder how you ever got by before you found it. You want to share it with the whole world and yet you want it all to yourself. This is a feeling that only comes when you are still young, and possibly now with the age of the internet, won’t come at all. I can’t pretend to have “discovered” Kazuo Ishiguro or Ian McEwan all by myself in a dusty second handshop. But I discovered Anne McCaffrey in a school library. And I discovered Tamora Pierce lurking next to the Point Horror novels in the public library.
I was always jealous of people whose parents read a lot. The ones who got read a chapter of Lord of the Rings before they went to bed, or the ones whose houses were labyrinthine. Our household had a dictionary and a dozen hand-me-down Enid Blyton and girls adventure novels. My parents rarely read at all and when they did it was in Chinese. Despite this, looking back I am thankful. I am thankful that whilst my parents didn’t read, they never stopped me from doing so. They took me to the library and left me without guidance to pick my own way and choose my own genre and story.
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