Why I Read What I Read

by Patrick on October 9, 2009

Last week, I posted my list of favorite books of the last ten years.  On Facebook, where this blog is syndicated, one reader commented that she hadn’t heard of the books on my list (other than The Corrections) but that she couldn’t understand why someone would want to read a book that reflected their own life experiences.  She said (and I’m paraphrasing all of this) that she read to be transported to another place or time, to escape from the banality of life.  Who would want to read about doing the dishes?

I can’t stop thinking about this (which is usually how long rambling blog posts that don’t successfully argue something start).  The thing is, you see, I want to read about doing the dishes, and, with a few exceptions, almost all of the books I enjoy are what you could call some variant of realist.  They lack any sort of fantastic or supernatural element.  Sometimes they take place in an earlier time or a foreign country.  I read and greatly enjoyed City of Thieves, which took place during the siege of Leningrad and lacked dishwashing of any sort.  I read Cryptonomicon, which partially takes place during World War II, and thought it was an interesting book, if ultimately overwritten and repetitive.  And Stoner is probably the best novel I’ve read this year, and it takes place from (roughly) 1910-1955.  But looking back on my reading of the past year, a certain sameness is apparent:  I read a lot of books that take place in the present (relatively speaking) and a lot of books about people in similar circumstances to me.

I’m apparently a woefully parochial reader.  In this respect, I think I’m probably a typical American (though I read more female authors than most male Americans, so…ta).  When the Nobel Prize was awarded to Romanian author Herta Müller, the general reaction in America was “Who?”  According to The Millions, “[O]nly a handful [of her books] are anywhere close to being in print ,” so that’s maybe not entirely our fault, though it cannot be denied that Americans don’t read enough foreign authors.  But at another level, Müller has something else going against her.  She writes what seem like political novels to me, and in the end, I’m not all that interested in reading something with an overt political message.  Maybe if it’s encased in a very funny or very sad story, but I can’t see myself reading something that feels like it has an overt agenda in play.  Maybe I’m wrong about her work (I’m certainly coming from a place of ignorance).  I also tend to avoid “the novel of ideas,” whatever that might be.  Philosophical novels have never been much of a pleasure for me, so I try to avoid them.  Yet I know others who love them.  And that’s sort of what I’m interested in with this post.

I must, at some level, want to see myself in the books I read.  But maybe that’s not it.  Maybe I’m actually kind of interested in day to day life.  Those things that most people would say are “boring,” or whatever.  Raking leaves, washing dishes, picking up Thai food.  So a book set deep within the domestic world — a world of marriages and work and crappy weekends that go by too fast — has real appeal to me.  A book like Then We Came to the End or William H. Gass’ In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.  Gass’ book, maybe more than any other I’ve read, manages to dig out the beauty of the humdrum life most of lead, and it’s that beauty, that transcendence, that whatever that can bring me to tears.  In many ways, Stoner does this, too, and in a more overt way.  Stoner is a book concerned with a man’s life — his marriage, his friendships, his affairs and his work (primarily, I think, his work).  It’s the best thing I’ve read all year.

But not everyone wants to read about these things.  I’m long past being shocked when my taste isn’t shared by others, but when someone has an entirely different reason for reading?  That still surprises me.  I can understand the desire to escape or to be transported.  I think I probably indulge in a bit of that with my online reading habits.  I think it’s also the appeal of narrative gaming, and maybe of sports, too.  But I’ve never considered that my reason for reading.  It isn’t what I look for in a book, and it can be a deterrent (if the book sounds at all magical, I’m not likely to read it).  Please don’t confuse this with a rant against genre or with some sort of literary snobbishness (I’m probably guilty of that anyway, but not in this case).  I don’t think the books I read are better than any other kind of book (or, I do, but I suspect it’s all about preference in the end).

I suppose this is no different from people who enjoy romance or a sub-genre of romance, or political thrillers, or gigantic books with difficult prose, etc.  We all have our literary predilections, but something about this divide (those who want to read about their own lives, or something like it, vs those who want something they’ll never experience) feels fundamental to me.  Which side are you on?  Is it ridiculous to see a divide here?  How do you choose what your next book will be and how much do you make your decision based on the subject matter of the book?

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    { 6 comments… read them below or add one }

    kbuxton 10.09.09 at 2:09 pm

    Does this have anything to do with why so few SF or Fantasy authors do events at Vromans? 😉

    Actually I’ve been just trying to figure out why so few of them come through LA in general. I lived in Portland and Seattle and both seem to be stops for all of the SF writers on book tour, and few of them seem to show up down here.

    Patrick 10.09.09 at 2:20 pm

    Ha! No, I don’t have any influence over which authors we book. My guess is that when we’ve had those events in the past, they haven’t done well. I would think that a lot of sf/fantasy authors probably get sent to specialty shops, but that’s just a guess.

    Kati 10.10.09 at 7:56 pm

    I added The Land of Green Plums to my Goodreads list of books to read on Oct. 6th and, as a consequence, am insufferably proud that I became interested in reading her right before she won the Nobel.

    On another note, I don’t think I have a specific kind of book I like to read. War and Peace, The God of Small Things, Regeneration, Zazie in the Metro, Dune, Anne of Green Gables, and The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao are all in wildly different categories, but I love them all because they are brilliantly realized stories.

    Sarah McCoy 10.13.09 at 2:30 pm

    You’ve totally peaked my interest, Patrick. You wrote, “if the book sounds at all magical, I’m not likely to read it.” Interesting.

    In your opinion, can the magical exist in the ordinary? And I’m not just talking magical realism in the GG Marquez kind of way. There are elements of life that… well, are simply unexplainable. Moments of, dare I say, magic. Some call it divine, some call it happenstance, some call it supernatural (think Tom Cruise-Area 51). Whatever you call them, they happen–big and small–every day.

    So what about novelist who sprinkle their realistic doing-the-dishes-walking-the-dog-eating-an-In-N-Out-Burger-on-the-couch tales with extraordinariness? I’m curious what your take is on them. Yes, the domestic world of “work and crappy weekends” does communalize the reader with the characters and author, but, at least for me, I’ve got to have a spark more. Something transporting, magical– if not in content then in spirit.



    Patrick 10.15.09 at 1:01 pm

    I think what I’m talking about here is the blatantly supernatural. That tends to turn me off as a reader. That being said, I think Vonnegut and, for a more contemporary reference, Joe Meno do a good job of putting extraordinary moments into stories of the ordinary. Meno’s The Great Perhaps is probably the best example I can think of of a book doing this.

    I’m not sure about the divine. I think maybe I enjoy the transcendent, which might be the same thing you’re talking about. That’s what I was trying to get at with the Gass reference, that a moment, maybe say, eating dinner alone, could become something life changing, that there could be an epiphany there. But see, I think that’s sort of regular daily life transcending kind of thing.

    I realize I’m not explaining myself very well here. The post really came out of a realization on my part that many of the books that people love that I don’t involve some sort of “magic,” and then from there, I started thinking a lot about “novels of ideas,” like Houellebecq’s Elementary Particles, and how I rarely care for those either. And the more I thought about it, I just realized that I have to see the world around me reflected back at me. And that struck me as sort of sad, but also sort of interesting, since I know that other people want exactly the opposite.

    Sarah McCoy 10.16.09 at 9:09 am


    Thanks for responding. I guess we’re caught up in the semantics, eh? Magical = extraordinary = ordinary + transcendence. When you refer to the “magical,” you mean the wands and toad legs of say, Harry Potter. Correct? Understandable.

    I agree with you. I, too, need to identify some shadow of myself in a novel in order to fully connect with the fictional dreamscape. “Novel of ideas” often leave me feeling like I didn’t get something–like I wasn’t smart enough to understand the author’s onion-layered message. Remember those pixel images that were all the rage in 90s? Stare at them hard enough and a scene was supposed to pop out. Nope. Never saw it. Not once. That’s how I feel about novels where the big idea surpasses the characters and actions.

    I like to see my world reflected, but is it bush-league to want to see it just a tiny bit better, more hopeful, than the true mirrored image? Again, I agree with you, yet I see the enticement in reading novels that transport entirely: Tolkien, Lewis, Marquez, etc. I believe the search for utopia is ingrained in our humanity. All we need do is look at our last presidential election. We dream of a better reality. We hope for it. And we certainly love to read about characters who find it, if only for a brief turn of a page.

    Thanks for another great post. You never fail to make me reevaluate my own reading and writing!


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