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.


  1.  “He wrote in your books?” “Worse, he wrote the right solutions!” 

    Of course he wrote the right solutions, they were the proper solutions.  Why do otherwise?

    (And as I wrote that it came to mind: to try and get the older brother in trouble.)

  2. I don’t think it was “to educate the masses”, so much as “Smart people are Progressive. People who read a lot are smart.”

    There’s always a danger of buying in to your own propaganda.
    Especially when a core assumption of your dogma is that you have no dogma.

    Sure, some genres were killed because the wrong sort of people read them.
    I’m not sure what combination of virtue signaling and fear of contagion was in play, but both were likely major factors.

    1. I think it’s even simpler than that: they don’t believe in super-readers. They probably never met one. If it weren’t for the internet, how many would you know?

      They read a book a month, and know that they are smart people, so obviously that’s what smart people do, and a book a month is clearly a lot. Everything that isn’t smart that’s published will, of course, take away from the sales of smart books, so . . . don’t print it. Especially since people are reading less and less . . . as proven by the declining sales of smart books!

      1. I’m the one in my family that’s constantly reading. My mom would joke that I’d read the back of the bleach bottle (interesting) or the bottom of the cereal box (same as the top, sadly) when I’m bored. When we’d go places, I’d have a book (or two if I was near the end) to read while going, there, and returning. It was funny. The folks at the local gasthaus thought it was cute. We didn’t cause a fuss while waiting for service. Now? I’ve got all the books I could ever want available through my phone. I’m in heaven, in that regard.

        I went and looked at Goodreads checking on the number of books I’d read this year. I was mildly surprised when it said that I’d hit the 90 book mark at the beginning of August. Then I realized it was about two dozen short because it hadn’t marked a lot of books as read (they were still listed as in progress). I mentioned the number to my wife and her response was, “Is that all?” I’m steadily working towards 200+ by the end of the year.

        1. Back in the days of Usenet, and shortly after a certain Kevin Costner movie came out, my mom apparently nicknamed me Stands With a Book. (My other nickname online was The Resident Expert, since I was very good at tracking down quotes.)

          I decided to track my reading at Goodreads this year. Mind you, there’s a lot of YA in there, and several novellas, but I’m at 257 books for the year, because I’ve slowed down a bit.

          I will not say “I can quit any time,” because that would be a blatant lie. “Hi, I’m a biblioholic…”

      2. I once was arguing online with someone who thought reading a dozen fairy tale collections made him expert.

        At the time I owned at least three dozen such collections and could not possibly have counted all that I had read. (Hurray for libraries!)

  3. Yep, I had the exact same trajectory. Went from reading practically anything with words to select genres in their entirety, to less and less starting in the late 1990s because bored with increasingly same old and irked by increasingly cardboard templates, eventually to not reading anything new at all and almost entirely re-reading whenever I have the itch. And it’s their own damn fault.

    1. Same here – used to max out my library allotment, and there were so many authors that I made a point of reading everything they had written … but gradually, I lost interest in their books. Maybe they had hit a rut in their writing – I used to love Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton’s mysteries, but eventually, they were just … meh.
      I’m having a lot of fun though, following up on recommends from the AoS Sunday morning book thread, though. And a lot of the MG’s books. I think just about everything I have read in the last six months came from those two sources – aside from the Vorkosigan books, which I am rereading.

  4. I grew up on a small farm. The nearest town (of 800) was around 5 miles away and had no book store or public library. The nearest town of any reasonable size was an hour drive. Reading for me was whatever I managed to get my hands on. Old encyclopedias. A couple classics that Mom picked up somewhere; Moby Dick, 20,000 Leagues. What I could scrounge here and there. Funny you mentioned attics, since I remember finding quite a few books in attics. Not everything was appropriate. At one point I found one of the GOR books (I think I was in first grade at the time), and I vaguely recall REALLY liking it, which amuses me since I don’t remember much of the story. I’ve always intended to go back and re-read them, just to see if I could figure out what I thought I was reading. My mother tried to help by buying me books when she could, but money was always tight, and my father didn’t see the value in reading.

    1. I encountered those long before puberty. As far as I was concerned they were the same stuff Burroughs, Kline, and Carter wrote.

      Actually, the first few still hold up fairly well as adventure stories. But the later ones achieve heights (lows?) of bloviation that make Mein Kampf look like a light read…

    2. The first couple of Gor books were entertaining planetary romances (in the adventure sense). The first book has the hero still being quite feminist, and really wanting to free good women. My dad bought the first one back when he was in college. I snuck it out of his book box much later; nothing really objectionable. More moral than Darkover, really.

      But yeah, the author decided to write more on the softcore or scuzzy side of men’s adventure, later on. Thus my dad and I both stopped looking for later books.

      And yes, a lot of Gor fandom consists of chicks who dig scantily clad guys who pretend to boss them around; they all hang out in fake bunny fur outfits at SCA events. If you’ve ever heard of the Tuchux, that’s them.

    1. As a young man in Germany, invent the time machine, and use it to escape the Third Reich. Meet a nice girl, settle down, and start raising a family. Before you know it, it is 1933. By now you have a time machine that will take everyone back. Repeat. Eventually, your kids or grandkids get sick of things, and take you and the time machine to the United States. Travel back in time because of FDR. Run afoul of Wilson. Some kids seek shelter in the loving embrace of the Democratic Party. One grandkid, impressed by all the fuss, goes back to Germany to become a Nazi. Then WWII ends.

      1. And you expect us to go easy on you because of that? Especially when it’s a typo that can spark such awesome story ideas?

  5. Grad school turned me from a super-reader into a “wish-I-was-reading.” Reading fiction, that is. I got conditioned to read three or four (or up to six) academic monographs a week, plus articles. Now I go first to my non-fiction list, and only then do I think, “Oh, yeah, there are novels and short stories out there, too.”

  6. I only noticed that I read less new stuff and re-read way more over the last ten years. Funny I thought it was just life interfering making me a less retentive reader since a lot of the newer books never really got into my head like the old ones did.

    Until reading Monster Hunter International this summer and finding this place after Larry’s blog, I had no idea how things had been developing in book world over the last decades. Seems publishing is as silly as US campuses by now.

    Tried to like Abercrombie, and some others but never got my mind around the protagonists. Funny thing, the person at the indie-store who recommended them looked a lot like an antifa-supporter.

    Eames’s Kings of the Wyld was fun but I bought it on the strnght of the cover.

    In contrast; WJW’s Hardwired is about 30 years old, with critics of capitalism, written in present tense, with fairly shady protagonists, smuggler and assassin, but the books moves fast and grips like a 4×4 with good tyres.

  7. Btw, I came across a fun old book today: Plotting the Short Story by Culpepper Chunn.

    It’s got a lot of stuff about how to generate and elaborate a plot from a few plot ideas. It’s also got some analysis of why you need more than “beautiful writing” to grab a reader’s interest.

    It also includes some advice that today’s more boring writers should be following — like pointing out that although you can start a story with a character and situation’s inaction, it doesn’t usually work well for readers.

  8. We had a Christmas tradition. Half an hour after all the presents were opened the house was silent. Everyone was in a corner reading (except my mother who had to start the turkey so she had to wait to join the tradition). And we were not reading the stack of books we had been given, but finishing some book we had given to someone else but hadn’t finished before wrapping. It was a large family and books were nearly always the only kind of present given. As I got older I missed being able to find that many good books to read and share. Gone for all the reasons and in all the ways everyone else has share….

    1. In her old age, my mother confessed that the primary reason she gifted us kids with the newest Nancy Drew and similar books at Christmas (unwrapped & prominently displayed under the tree) was because she & Dad knew they could sleep in at least a couple more hours until we each finished reading at least one volume.

  9. You aren’t immersed until someone can wave a hand between you and the book and get no reaction — only interposing the hand and keeping it there will work.

  10. I know I have been reading a lot since buying my Kindle 4+ years ago. My “tracking” method has been creating text files of authors’ bibliographies, preferably listed by series, and then using “——“ or “ooo” to mark the ones I read. It is only since March of this year that it occurred to me to instead use “mmyyyy”, because I have been re-reading many of these authors and losing track.

    Also, I’ve read a fair number of books that I haven’t listed anywhere. Almost all of these are library (and recently KU) books. I don’t allow the library to store my history, and I delete library titles from my Amazon content list when I return the books. All this makes it difficult to figure just how many books I have read this year (and impossible for past years.)

    However, it is definitely more than the 144 I can verify from the above, and probably closer to 160. This struck me as a lot of books, until I did the math and it comes out to less than 4.5 per week, which seems low. This would be just under 230 books/year. From all the comments this is actually a respectable number to qualify me as a mad reader?

    I will attempt to do a better job at tracking, because now I am curious. Also I almost always have multiple titles in progress, switching from one to another as the mood strikes me. Most I finish in a day or so, others I take my time and stretch them out for a few weeks. Most fall in between. Is this a common trait among mad readers as well?

    One change I will make is to read even more KU titles, especially from MGC authors, because you deserve to be paid at least something for the pleasure of your words. 😉

    1. I rarely read more than one at a time. Pick it up and put it down when it’s finished. It’s incredibly disruptive to real life. GoodReads says 202 in 2018. We’re in week 37. About 5.5 per week. More than I expected.

  11. …it had been years of being disappointed by Barnes and Noble…


    I first started having money to buy books in the 1980s, and going to bookstores was such an incredible treat. I was in heaven. But as the 1990s wore on, I found less and less that I wanted to buy and take home to read. That was so disappointing, but I was still shocked the first time I came away from Barnes & Noble with absolutely nothing. Finding nothing I wanted became more and more common. Finally it became the rule. At that point, I stopped going to the bookstore. Must have been 1998 or so. I’d always enjoyed re-reading, but it became utterly necessary. Finding new stuff that I like—as I can now—still amazes me!

  12. It was uncommon for me to get out of borders for <$200, and not uncommon to spend more than $500. the only hardcovers I purchased were Baen (I wasn't looking for the brand, but looking at my shelves now, that's what it ended up being) I just couldn't bear to wait until they came out in paperback.

    I'm one of the few people who has read all the HR posters at work, simply because they are there when I'm standing nearby.

    As a kid I would check out the max allowed books on friday, and stay up all night reading and return them on saturday.

    For years, I finished every book I started, just because it was something to read (even battlefield earth in jr high)

    I went through the library alphabetically to be sure I didn't miss anything that sounded remotely interesting.

    I too found a book of wonderful stories somewhere around fourth grade (mid '70s) that I now know was a high school American History book (the last few chapters, covering the post WWII era were pretty bad)

    I'm the type who should not start reading in the late evening, as I generally won't stop until well after I'm to the point that I'm reading with one eye closed because I can't keep both eyes focused on the page

    I love my kindle, I was introduced to the kindle 2 and upgraded to the kindle DX when it came out because the page turn speed of the kindle 2 was slower than the time it took me to read the text that would fit on the 6 inch screen (I took speed reading in 4th grade on college, it helped my comprehension and retention as well as my speed)

    Louis L'amour books are 'popcorn books' (for the most part), it's hard to read just one

    When I was in college (self funded, so very short on money), every time that WEB Griffin came out with a new book in his big series, I would re-read the entire series before reading the new book.

    Why oh Why did the industry make it so hard to find a good book?

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