Books and writing and reading

Somewhere on my Facebook wall, someone posted a link asking people to list which books they had read that got them to start writing. This got me to thinking about books and writing and reading…especially in the aftermath of this year’s Stockholm Writers Festival.  For me, I don’t think any books I’ve read inspired me to start writing. Probably most of the reason behind my writing is just that it’s the overflow of the stuff that is littering up my brain – ideas, opinions, emotions that I can’t figure out how to handle any other way. But the question did get me to think about the kind of books that I read and why is it I read them.

The majority of the books I have read have been science fiction; ever since I discovered The Martian Chronicles amongst my dads paperbacks when I was 11. I admit that I haven’t been reading many other books since I discovered the Outlander books in 2014. Definitely not much Science Fiction has been read even though I have at least 5 or 6 unread Iain M. Banks novels on my Kindle just waiting for me to look at them.  I don’t buy many real paper books anymore. Last year I gave away almost all of my books from the 70s and 80s that I carted over here and then never unpacked. I don’t want to start cluttering up my limited bookshelf space again. Downsizing is the stage of life where I am trying to be these days. But I did buy 2 new books at the Stockholm Writers Festival. Neither were the sort of book that I would normally buy or read. One of the books was The Good Son by Paul McVeigh. I met the author at the mingle the day before the festival started and we had a great chat. He was interesting and funny and serious at the same time. His book was about a time and a place I knew almost nothing about and I was curious about what he had written. The other book was Falling by Julie Cohen. I sat in one of her seminars at the festival and she had a lot to say about writing. She has written a lot of books. So I was curious. What kind of books does someone write, who writes a lot of books.

I read both books very soon after the festival was over and all the hysteria of it had calmed down. I liked them both. I couldn’t put them down once I started. I kept thinking to myself that I really shouldn’t read new books because once I start a book I have trouble doing other things. All I want to do is lie on the sofa and read the book. I need to find out what happens to these people. It’s an effort to get up, put the book on the coffee table and start to make dinner for my family. It made it hard to go to sleep because I kept wanting to  continue reading. I enjoyed both of them. But the truth is – I will probably never read them again. As soon as I finished them, I started to think about to whom I could recommend the book and give it away to. I have friends who borrow books out of the library. They read the book once and that is enough for them. But I am a re-reader. I like to own my books. I like to be able to pick up a previously-read book and read it again. But not these books and not the 2 books I bought last year either. And the question I ask myself is why. I liked the characters in both books. I could relate to the characters in Falling more than in A Good Son. But I very much enjoyed the story about both sets of characters – what happened to them – the changes they went through.

So…why do I read the books I do and why do I read them over and over again; like I did with Tolkien and Azimov and Le Guin and Zimmer Bradley and Niven and Zelazny and Cherryh and so many other authors… and now with Gabaldon? Science fiction is often criticized for having flat one-dimensional characters. But some of the most fascinating characters I have ever met, I found between the covers of Science Fiction – characters I have never forgotten.

So it’s not the characters that kept me coming back to read and re-read and re-read again and again. It was the worlds that I entered in those books. In the real world, the world I live in, I truly hate traveling. I hate packing suitcases, always afraid I will forget something. I hate getting through airports, afraid I might miss my flight. I also hate sitting on an airplane whose seats are not designed for long legs. I don’t really want to travel to foreign places on this planet. I feel uncomfortable being a privileged first-worlder visiting third world countries and cluttering up their fabulous beaches or mountains. Yet within the covers of my books, I can experience a world built on a revolving ring, I can live in Middle-earth, or the world-encompassing city on the planet Trantor. I can be with wizards saying words of magic. Or hang out with aliens covered in fur like CJ Cherryh’s heroines who travel in space ships or humans living in a space station circling an alien world.

I come back to these books because of the world-building their authors do and the characters they people those worlds with and the fates that await those characters. I keep coming back because I once again want to live in those worlds. Falling and Son were interesting slices of life but they didn’t take me anywhere I want to revisit.

Writer friends say I should try writing science fiction, since that is what I read. But I am not a world-builder. I am only a visitor. The things I am interested in writing about are the things already in my world – the world I try to know and live in. So I write, trying to make sense of my world. But I love to visit other worlds – to disappear there for a while. As long as I don’t have to leave my sofa.

2 Responses to “Books and writing and reading”

  • Ron Pavellas Says:

    I remember W. Somerset Maugham and Henry James making a big impact om me in my early-to-mid teens, especially the latter. I wanted someday to write like James, Not necessarily the same subjects. I guess I was taken by their wordcraft, more than their subjects, although the latter educated me about the world. I had earlier read all the Oz books (14 by Baum) and the 2 ‘Alice’ books, many times, but more, for the fantastic world I could live in. Also earlier: Grimms, Anderson, and all the (then) children’s books, including Greek myths. I also read all the Sherlock Holmes books, many by H. Rider Haggard… and all the science fiction and fantasy that dad bought during the age of the pulp magazines. Now, Sf is not ‘literary’ enough for me, although I detest, on principle, snobbery of any kind (even though I may engage in my brand of it, unconsciously). I’ve read all the tough-guy, hard-boiled, detective, spy stories you can imagine, and count only a few as classic, “Shibumi” foremost. Now, I enjoy any fiction that has soul, uses the English language lovingly, or at least carefully, has believable characters, shows me a part of the world I have not yet experienced directly or through writing. I find many non-fiction books full of soul and good language, which I will not elucidate upon here. Thanks for triggering this response…

  • Stig Says:

    I’ve very recently come to realize how much the world has changed over my lifetime. How long my life has been, and how short the life of the “civilized” world has been.
    I don’t like going back. Not to old places, not to old books. Going back to places that are no longer the places my memories of them were formed is depressing. Reading books that had contemporary themes just a few decades ago, are no longer relevant or useful . Things have changed, and are changing too fast. Mankind is on it’s final spiral into a black hole of its own making. The environment is past its tipping point, and I am starting to question the wisdom of liberal values I have always cherished. I deplore the consumerist economy , see no difference between the right wing and the left wing – both are about expanding jobs, opportunities and technology that mankind has shown no ability to use wisely. Recycling is a fraud. Multiculturalism is a fraud. Bah humbug. I’m a fraud, too.
    There are some books I have read more than twice and would gladly read again if my attention span were not so spastic. Hyperion always delights me. Conrad Richter’s trilogy, The Awakening Land is timelessly comforting.
    I visit the library a lot and occasionally find an author that offers simplistic pleasures. Carl Hiaasen’s hilarious skinny dips into the monstrous cultural swamp known as Florida makes me eager for the time when rising sea levels remove it from the map.
    Mostly I read science, math and tech nonfiction that’s a couple pay grades above my ability to understand in entirety. I hate being smarter than everyone and like the feeling of being humbled by the thoughts and achievements of greater men and women.
    I do love books though. I like the feel, the touch, the smell and the reality of them. I have not, and never will read anything on a “Kindle” or its ilk. I detest smart phones and pity those addicted to their so-called wonders. I would rather be sitting on a subway next to stoned out heroin addict than suffer some twit whose entire life revolves around a piece of overpriced plastic. ( Books are supposed to take up space, and require a certain degree of devotion to keep around. Relationships are supposed to require time and effort and face to face real world contact. Convenience is the downfall of millenniums of hard, and rightly so, work )
    I like to write. I write all the time. I like my keyboard and big new iMac. But I also like to write on scraps of paper, boxes, receipts. I just like to write. And I don’t like to share. I do not like when people say ” What’s that mean ?”. Archibald MacLeish summed it up ” A poem should not mean. But be. ”
    I do my sharing of stuff on Facebook where I enjoy writing lengthy tomes for people who are used to twitter bits. I like communicating with you. I respect your thoughts. I like being a pest. I miss my dog terribly. My dog was very pesky and I am trying to to keep up her good work. I still put food and water out for her, take her leash for walks and spread newspapers by the back door in case she needs to go. I never fully house trained her, Lhasas don’t train well. She slept with me every night, and I have not changed the sheets or pillowcases since she died. Last night I noticed that maybe I will have to do the laundry in a week or two. The bed smells more like me than her. I washed her food dish a couple weeks ago, and that was very traumatic. I wish I hadn’t. I like that it still had her licks on it. I sure do miss my dog. I miss her so much I can’t stand it.
    So I like to read recipes. Melissa Clarke is my favorite food author.
    I like to read the New York Times, at the library, off sheets of paper.
    So let’s get on to the pleasure you get from books ability to take you… beyond the day-to-day Life of Hilarie.
    I have an alternative. There’s a trendy thing goin’ on, lucid dreaming. It’s been practiced ( originally as a form of meditation ) for thousands of years, but now it a trendy thing. That annoys me, because my own lucid dreaming thing just came about naturally. Like one day last year I woke up and said ” Woah, I can control my dream content ” And so I have this meditative routine that I use every night – I put myself to sleep in about a minute – and next thing I know I’m controlling dream content. So I do anything, go anywhere, see anyone – even dead people, and have a jolly sci-fi like adventure. I remember it with perfect clarity in the morning when I wake up. And there are some odd aftereffects of the practice, which I will not go into much detail about just now. Suffice it to say you cannot read in dreams, you cannot taste food, you cannot hear music. You can solve math problems, which is odd. And sometimes you wake up doing what you were last doing in the dream. Like this morning when I woke up putting a non existing spoon into my mouth over and over, wondering where the food went. Then trying to fall back asleep to fetch it from my dream.
    So this started when I had a book idea ( I am using the iBook program on my iMac to write ” Inventory ” a detailed description of every object in my house. ) but this is a different book idea. This idea was about dreams and two concentric globes of thought. My premise is that dream state is the natural province of consciousness, and that reality state is a fraud ( kinda like that movie Matrix, but different ) . Premise is also that all living things have a dream state and are content with it. But some “higher” life forms place value on a clever construct that has nothing to do with the natural order of thought.
    Premise is also that there is no such thing as individuality, that’s a construct. We do not become born, or die. We just are. We are all part of a continuum. We are all different elements of the ” Big Bang” , which again is just a concept made up to keep us busy doing lifeform things, all of which are part of the chemistry/physics of “life”. Whatever.
    So if any of this nonsense reminds you of a book you’ve ever read, let me know. I’ll check it out.
    So Shakespeare is cool because it’s set in a distant time frame and yet people behave exactly the same then as now.
    Also – I’m trying to figure out the Mary Queen of Scots vs. Bloody Mary ( Mary Tudor ) thing, in that I recently watched two excellent movies about. Each film presents the exact same history, from two different vantage points. Both are true. But by having a sympathetic view of their major protagonists makes it impossible to comprehend what really went on. History, therefore is a total fraud. You either live it or have to rely on a version, that no how scholastic, is fake.
    So you know that expression ” Their mind was like an open book”? I like reading those. I like reading minds.
    I like reading facial expressions and fleeting gestures.
    Reading is just looking for things that are symbolic. Letters are symbolic. Letter combinations are symbolic. Plots and characters are symbolic.
    What is really important in life
    other than symbols?
    They got a symbol for that, too.

Leave a Reply