Diary of a Mad Reader
I won’t say I always read. I was a sickly kid, and I remember the long days of childhood before I could read. In those days, where antibiotics were available but the traditions for treating sickness hadn’t changed yet, I was kept confined and usually in bed at the slightest fever. I was the only small kid in the family and the cats weren’t allowed around me when I was ill. My much older brother was busy with school and friends, and only occasionally had any substantial time to read to me. Our parents both worked.
I must have spent a cumulative few years building improbable lego things and telling myself stories. And then I learned to read.I still remember the first thing I read, actually by myself, half decoding the words and half remembering my brohter reading me the story: it was a Disney comic and it was a mystery, where Mickey inherits a haunted mansion, or is it? The butler and his cronies were actually faking the haunting. The art was gorgeous, filled with shadows and mystery. The story engrossing enough for a little kid to make her way trough reading a few sentences at a time.
There followed a lot of Disney books, which had come down from cousins and brother. They sometimes were missing the end or the beginning, which meant you had to make it up. By introducing me to things like myth of Atlantis, the idea of space travel and mystery, the stories probably made me ready for genre.
The problem is when you read a lot, you read faster. And soon I dropped head first into Enid Blyton. I think I was six when I found a book called Valley of Adventure which had it all from hidden caves behind waterfalls to old people still hiding from the Nazis way after WWII. After that I got Ship of Adventure and Castle of Adventure and Circus of Adventure from various recesses and hidden places in the house. From that to the Famous Five books. The Seven Club was okay, if I was out of anything else to read. But they never thrilled me.
I’ll confess that I read those books way too late: they were familiar and easy. We still have a bunch of them lying around as well as Enid Blyton’s boarding school books (all in old form. They’ve been revised into insanity poor things) in case the grandkids want to read them. But they weren’t all I read. For one, you couldn’t always find them in order, and they weren’t on sale at any given time unless a new house was bringing out a new edition (Portuguese publishers printed to the net before it was hip And the net was always low) so finding them often involved finding books stowed away in attics and outer buildings, in discarded luggage and long-closed cabinets.
In the process of finding them, I fell into everything else there was to read in the house. It ranged from classics — Dumas, Sir Walter Scott, serious histories, Roman mythology — bought by my great grandmother one chapter at a time, from a string seller (so called because he had chapters of a kind hanging on a string from a tall pole) and then bound when she had the complete work to my cousin’s Portuguese Romances (the classification is needed because Portuguese ideas of HEA are weird. Apparently the most fortunate ending is when he dies and she mourns him forever. Go figure.) to written spaghetti westerns, i.e. books in which the US geography became weird, with Ohio next to Texas, but the cowboy always got his girl.
By eleven I found science fiction and it became my reading of choice. But not the only thing, because there was never enough to read, so I took to mysteries, both hard boiled and cozies, because dad read them.
I read dad’s “mainstream” (worthy, usually acclaimed books.) I read my parents’ old school books when I found them (my mom’s history book from 4th grade, which I found at 7, started a passion for history. When I started asking dad questions he found me/bought me books of Roman and Greek history. I used to scrunch myself between mom’s fabric cabinet and her sewing machine while she was working, and read until very late, because mom was busy and didn’t realize how late I was staying up.)
I immersed myself so completely in books, I didn’t hear myself being called to diner. Or to anything.
I read every book that came into the house. Every book. That included my brother and cousin’s high school books. Even when this involved reading them standing up by their desks and running away fast when I heard footsteps. (To be fair, unlike younger son, I didn’t solve their math problems ON THE BOOK. One of the great dramas in my house was when younger son locked himself in older brother’s closet, to escape the wrath of the fourth grader whose books have been written upon by the first grader. “He wrote in your books?” “Worse, he wrote the right solutions!” Sometimes a mother’s worst task is keeping a straight face.)
Some summers I remember by what I read. The summer I was 8 I discovered both Asterix and Mark Twain. Then I made a friendship mostly because this boys’ parents bought hm every single book he asked for. I devoured the tales of Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Robin Hood and whatever I could think of to ask my compliant friend to demand. (In return I told him the story, so his parents thought he was reading.)
The summer I was 14 I got in trouble by reading Future Shock and then trying to talk about it to a teacher, who decided I was lying…
In the middle of all this I also read what might be called “appropriate books for a young lady” including a bunch of very moralistic books that grandma had loved as a young woman, and fairy tales (some of them gorgeously illustrated) given to me by various elderly relatives who didn’t realize what I actually read but just heard I liked to read.
I wasn’t totally unnatural. One of the summers in elementary school, inspired by the fairy tales, I spent the summer drawing and making paper dolls and their various outfits and then telling stories involving them.
Yes, of course I started writing at six. I think there is a “fill to this line, and the reader becomes a writer.” I think my first “novel” was very bad Enid Blyton, written on composition books and about 30k words long. By high school not only had I graduated to very bad Heinlein (the gentleman in the back should forever hold his peace of be thrown out with his chewing gum following after him. … though I’ll say in my defense I write slightly less bad Heinlein now.) but I had acquired a fan club. When I brought out the distinct gengivitis-pink composition book (I’d acquired a crate of them for free in a story too long to tell) my classmates would hold for half an hour, then start clicking their fingers in a sign I should pass it back to the person behind me. The new chapter would then travel around the room. This is weird, until this moment I didn’t realize that even though most of those girls didn’t like me, they all wanted to read the next chapter. Which goes to show you they weren’t as insane as most organized fandom who confuse the author with the book and vice-versa.
But this is not the diary of a mad writer, but the diary of a mad reader. You see, I never thought I could make money from writing, not even a little bit of money. So, writing was a hobby. Reading was life.
When I got married I had several years of bliss, because all the books I’d never found/heard about in Portugal, were here available. I read my way across our moves around North Carolina and South Carolina, exhausting the resources of the local libraries and then borrowing from the nearest library. Or getting inter-library loans.
While moving several times, working a few years, I got up to six books a day. And even though we tried to mostly borrow, we got rid of 2/3 of our library when we moved to CO, which left us with fifty boxes of books.
The week we moved to Colorado, my first priority was getting books to read while in a hotel, trying to find an apartment. I found the used mystery bookstore in Pearl Street (Denver) Murder by the book. For the next ten years it became my regular summer vacation and holidays trip (we lived in Manitou for half that time and had small kids. Long drives were rare.) and I never got out without spending $200.
Part of our social life was going to Barnes and Noble with another married couple who were our best friends and having something in the cafe, then browsing together around the store. It was pricey but lots of fun.
I didn’t realize it had turned sour till the late nineties where, if I found anything I wanted to read it was usually in the history shelves; sometimes in the discounted books.
In the mystery store I started picking up less and less. I think in my last visit I spent $50 on Patricia Wentworth, new editions to replace the ones I’d read ragged.
And I realized I was buying more and more used.
I stopped — mostly. There were exceptions — reading sf/f first. I still read Diana Wynne Jones, Terry Pratchett, a few other authors. But it wasn’t the place I visited first.
This made me fall more heavily upon mystery. Only that too started to pale.
For years I read only new history books, everything else I re-read or filled holes in my older-books collections.
Then I discovered romance, and that not all of it was as silly as I’d been lead to believe. Many were disguised historical mysteries, in fact. And Heyer — well — Heyer was just fun.
And then it too started to show issues, in the newer books.
What issues? What chased me from genre to genre. Ah.
It wasn’t even politics. Not really. It was boredom.
If you think I didn’t read plenty of leftists growing up, and learned to appreciate the story despite that, (when I didn’t agree with the opinions because I didn’t know better) you don’t understand Europe. I was so used to saying “writing genius, political idiot” when recommending books to friends that it would never occur to me to stop reading someone because they were crazy-left. I stopped reading some of the crazy feminists in the US because the books were repulsive, not because of the politics.
But that was part of the problem. Mystery too was infected by repulsive characters and “everybody is amoral.”
And most of all, above all, more and more as the nineties turned into the oughts, political correctness drove me crazy. I mean climbing the walls, waving fists at clouds nuts. Because there seemed to be issues everyone hit the same way all at once. Issues on which no debate was permitted and which were written with all the robotic lack of passion of indoctrinated pupils. There was the wave of abusive fathers/husbands in fantasy; the same wave poured out to mystery and then caught up with romance.
And women were suddenly ALL cardboard saints. Not just in their own terms, but in modern terms. I think I stopped reading romances — at least current romances — when I hit the third in a row published within a month, different houses, where the main character was a suffragette. And I can count on fingers of one hand the main characters who didn’t help fallen women, illegitimate children OR run shelters for abused women.
It was boring. Gone was anything quirky, anything vaguely daring.
For many years I went down into a spate of re-reading. In that time the three bookstores (Now in Colorado Springs) near my house struggled and two closed (the remaining one is supported by restaurant.)
Maybe it’s coincidental. Maybe I have weird tastes. I wouldn’t think it, since I’ll read the instructions for medicine someone else in the house is taking; instructions for machinery we never owned but only found the manual for when we moved to the house, children’s books, every genre known to man, and some that seem to invented for my pleasure.
Maybe other people really like books that have the same moral preaching tone as grandma’s precious Victorian tales of good boys (who always ended up as papal guards) and good girls who died in a saintly way. What do I know?
What I do know is that until indie, I had no trouble — except for history books — staying within budget. Well, I bought Baen, sometimes used, when I was broke. And a few writers from other houses (I discovered F. Paul Wilson in 98.)
But mostly I re-read.
And then there was indie, and I could find stuff I wanted to read again, including Jane Austen fanfic which is great when I’m exhausted. I have all my genres back.
Sure, I discard a ton of books I start — thank heavens for samples — but I always did that when browsing.
Do I miss bookstore visits and browsing. A little. But being able to buy a book from bed at 2 am when suffering from insomnia is something that my younger self would kill for.
The point of all this, though, is that I don’t think I am alone. I am what is called a “super reader.” I.e. by myself I account for the same business as dozens of people who read one or two bestsellers a year. I think we kept the book business afloat.
Until it forgot their job was to supply us with printed crack, and, with few exceptions, tried to “educate us” or preach to us, or simply not allow us to explore things and thoughts it (mostly starting to editors. I remember when cozies became “not really mysteries.” It wasn’t even political, just insane snobbery.)didn’t like.
Traditional publishing and the apparatus that served it wasn’t killed by Amazon. It committed suicide. It wasn’t even as someone commented yesterday assisted suicide. When Amazon came along and I could buy anything (turned out the stuff I liked mostly didn’t go on shelves near me and I never knew it existed)it had been years of being disappointed by Barnes and Noble (and Borders was worse.) and even the local independents.
And when indie came along it just gave me more to read.
The book business committed the classical blunder of thinking it had a captive audience forever and ever amen, and that it wasn’t simply the supplier of what customers wanted to read, but the teacher, choosing what the customers should read.
Let’s not lament it. It died by its own hand and is not worth mourning.
Instead, let’s praise the wonderful times we live in, and download another book. Good or bad, evil or saintly, exciting or dull, it is there, and I can decide if I like it or not.
And that’s how it should be.