As a child, one of my favorite movies in the whole world was The Pagemaster, for a variety of reasons: I loved books, the voice cast was beyond my wildest dreams, I bore a striking resemblance to Macaulay Culkin in glasses, dragons are awesome, bullies were also a problem for me, and Christopher Lloyd is a personal hero of mine. The character of Richard Tyler did frustrate me to no end, however, as he did not seem properly appreciative of being sucked into an animated world of adventure, and I was jealous of the fact that my own books were not anthropomorphic.
I still adore that film, as well as the beautifully-illustrated hardback version of the book my parents bought me, and “look to the books” is essentially the driving force behind my interests and goals, be they academic, personal, and professional. I actively avoid thinking about the fact that there are books that I won’t ever get to read, because the concept makes me dizzy. I have been known to buy books instead of food – ramen and PB&J are sustenance, but hardly food – and I am always in need of at least two more bookshelves than I actually own or have space for.
Over the past few years, however, I found myself slowly reading fewer and fewer full works; I keep track of anything new I finish every year, and so this decline was tracked in real-time. By the end of 2012, when I realized that I didn’t even average one book a month, I decided to start making an active change in how I spent my free time. The dry spell levelled out a bit in 2013, and I managed to get a dozen titles read, though that is hardly noteworthy; 2014 has been significantly better, and I am already at twelve titles, and that will probably be fifteen or sixteen by the end of July.
As a quick point of clarification, I count comics and graphic novels separately from books, and so the amount of reading I am doing is still more than the average person. Considering that I gravitate toward titles by the likes of Alan Moore, Warren Ellis, Neil Gaiman, and Mike Mignola, it’s rarely a case that I’m reading comics because they are “easier” than books. Hell, the two books I most recently finished are genre fluff compared to something like League, but reading a book is distinctive from reading a comic in ways that I don’t have the right degrees to articulate.
Suffice to say that reading a book engages my mind in a way that is palpably different, and I was missing that feeling. I was also finding that writing was becoming more difficult – again, something I’m sure a person with more education in cognitive processes could expound upon – and that simply wasn’t acceptable. Finally, all posturing aside, not reading even a book a month left a bad taste in my mouth, and was compounded by the shame past-me already felt toward present-me for taking a financially secure desk job with a steady schedule, instead of travelling the world and chronicling it.
For most of my youth, I was a voracious reader, to put it mildly; my parents and grandparents were very encouraging of this habit, but found themselves at an occasional loss as I burned through books with little regard for cost, often finishing titles the same day they had been purchased. In elementary school, our public library had a “bookmobile” that came around each month and allowed us to check out books; they allowed me to check out more than the maximum after only a few visits, and keep a few I particularly enjoyed beyond the due date.
There were several ongoing series that I read, Goosebumps being the most prominent among them, but as with most young readers I frequently just grabbed books that looked interesting, and often didn’t realize until later – if I realized at all – that they were part of a series. Some of my favorite books and authors were discovered in this haphazard fashion, and there was always a feeling of excitement and realizing there was something more to be read. Probably the best example of this was Harry Turtledove’s “The World at War” novels; I bought the first book, Into the Darkness, at an airport kiosk because it was long and had a picture of a dragon on the front. When I reached the end, it seemed kind of abrupt, but I shrugged it off as “Maybe the author is making the point that war doesn’t always wrap up neatly.”
Imagine my surprise and delight, then, when around a year later I came across the second book, Darkness Descending, this time at a grocery store. After finishing it, I used the Internet to discover that the third book was already available in hardcover, but decided to keep reading them as mass market paperbacks. For the next four years – there were six books total – I looked forward to May, the end of school, and the release of the next book. High school came and went, and I was a sophomore in college when the series wrapped up, with a fair amount of my own living and growing up done in between.
Over the course of my teens, this process repeated itself several times over: The Thousand Orcs, which the first book in its trilogy, is more than a dozen books into the Drizzt saga; Prophecy, the second book in the Symphony of the Ages, came home from the grocery store because it has a dragon on the cover; I bought the BattleTech novel Lethal Heritage because I loved the MechWarrior games, and it was years before I had copies of the next two in that trilogy; my dad was a big Anne Rice fan, and I read Memnoch the Devil before any of the other Lestat books, because he thought it stood well on its own.
The point is, there was a time when my desire to read overrode any thoughts about making sure to check and see if the book was part of a series, let alone trying to acquire all of the books in said series before proceeding with the first one. In addition to not having the disposable income to make that work, younger me wouldn’t have been able to resist just going ahead and reading the book that what right there is front of me. It meant I read a few stinkers, and there are probably a dozen or more series that I only finished part of, but it produced what most people would consider a very well-read individual.
Over the years, though, something changed that I can’t quite put my finger on, let alone identify exactly when it happened. I became focused on discerning if a book was part of a larger continuity, and wouldn’t read things unless I could get ahold of the “first” one; this was soon replaced by the drive to “catch ‘em all,” and books were put on the back-burner until I could buy the whole set, sometimes in one ill-advised and overly-expensive swoop. The end result – having a lot of books that don’t really get enough attention – is something I discuss to an extent in a previous article, but I want to focus on some different aspects here.
The thrill of discovery in a bookstore, or the book aisle of more general shops, has been all but eliminated. I have such a massive backlog of things to read that there is literally a plan in place for what I’m going to read ten or twelve books in advance. There are notable exceptions from over the past year, such as Stephen King’s Joyland and Owen King’s Double Feature, which I bought at release and put aside other things to make room for. Trips to the used bookstore 2nd & Charles have also yielded gems such as Neuromancer and The Quantum Thief, both of which had caught my interest years ago but I had never gotten around to reading.
There have been one-off casualties of my shift in reading tendencies, too, which I would be remiss to overlook. I pre-ordered Joe Hill’s NOS4A2, thinking it would fit in well with the other King family books from last year, but I wasn’t expecting the 700 page monstrosity that Amazon delivered. To use the most banal phrase imaginable when talking about reading, I simply hadn’t budgeted for the novel to be that long, and had other things on my plate. While the same length expectation wasn’t the case for Dan Simmons’ The Abominable – after Drood, I hardly expected something short – it has also been shelved until that magical day when I somehow have free time.
Enjoyment of a work right off the bat for its own sake has also been watered-down by the need to know if it is part of a larger universe, at which point I go all Ash Ketchum, as mentioned before. I was perusing Borders several years ago, well before they went out of business, and came across a novel called Matter, written by Iain M. Banks. I started to get it, but the inside cover revealed that there were other novels in his “Culture” setting, which I had never heard of, and none of which the store had on hand; I put it back and didn’t pick the series back up until last year.
I did something similar within the exact same time frame with the works of Stephen Baxter, whose novel Ring was given to me, along with numerous other books, when Beth’s parents were getting ready for a move. This time, the web informed me that the book was part of the “Xeelee sequence,” whatever that was. I now have almost all of that series – there are a couple of novellas that are fairly overpriced – but still haven’t read any of them. It actually took a bit of research to determine what books went in what order, because the associations between them are more lax than in a traditional, numbered series.
Multiple titles that connect to one another without formal structuring is actually a common practice, especially in sci-fi, that goes back longer than I care to appropriately research. In a way these books are designed for people to read exactly the way I used to, by picking up something that looks interesting and just diving in. I’m sure publishers appreciate this style, since it means they don’t have to worry about losing potential casual readers who see “Book 4” printed on the cover and move on to something else.
The final big shift in my reading habits has been more gradual, and didn’t really jump out at me until I signed up for an online reading site recently and was adding books to my collection. In the past few years, the books that I have purchased and read have been almost exclusively science fiction. A deep-seated love of sci-fi is nothing new, as it has always been my favorite genre, but it used to be interspersed with other genres as well.
Works in other genres have snuck in there, such as the offbeat pop-thriller Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning, and a few books in Henning Mankell’s excellent Kurt Wallander mystery series, but otherwise I’ve been reading about spaceships or artificial intelligence. I’m currently in the middle of three books – a hard copy of Cibola Burn at home, the eBook of Use of Weapons at work, and the Endymion audiobook while I’m driving – each them a variant of the same essential concept.
While this shift is the result of multiple factors, such as a predisposition toward sci-fi on the part of the friends who suggest what books I read, I think the biggest impact has been my increasing tendency to purchase books online. Basically, I buy more sci-fi books than anything else, which means the shopping sites suggest more sci-fi books than anything else. This loop is further reinforced when blurbs on the books I am reading make mention of other books in that same genre, and so on. I’m not complaining, especially since I think science fiction is arguably more interesting and more important than any other genre, but I’ve already decided that the next book I read won’t have any lasers or faster-than-light travel.
A sub-set of this narrowing in scope is that I have a few authors I follow, and even within the genre the rest fall by the wayside. I don’t have any qualms about picking up each new Dan Simmons or Stephen King book, obviously, and those writers often stray into new territory. Yet a lot of my shelves are filled by only a handful of writers, and I feel that is also negligent on my part as a reader. In the case of authors like Stephen Baxter, or Peter F. Hamilton, I have nearly a dozen books by each, yet have never actually read a work by either of them.
Looking back on The Pagemaster, I wonder if maybe I judged young Richard too harshly, and ponder if I could ever recapture that sense of being thrust headlong into worlds of horror, adventure and fantasy. Perhaps I am the mysterious and powerful librarian, preparing the way for some young, bright-eyed child to step into those worlds; my hope has always been that my collection will be a legacy worth leaving to my children. In the back of my mind, though, I can’t help but look at my shelves of unread treasure and see the hoard of some great dragon, carefully acquired and jealously guarded, serving no purpose other than to be hoarded and gazed upon.
At least that version features a dragon and not a sentient spacecraft…