Friday, September 28, 2007

"Why Should I Read...?" Gets a Makeover

I have been pleasantly suprised by the amount of traffic and favourable comment occasioned by my ramblings. It's rather unfortunate that my list of ten books is rapidly drawing to a conclusion. I'm re-reading one of them now, and finding to my dismay that it no longer exerts the fascination it compelled in my youth. Our tastes change, since clearly the book itself (which for now shall remain nameless) does not. This in itself is a valuable insight. Several years ago I came to read The Lord of the Rings for the umpteenth time, and realised to my horror that while I could still admire the book, I no longer loved it. For a fantasy writer this is a shocking admission, and my fifteen-year old self would disown me for it. But when I come to look back at my own fantasy writing, it's a journey of trying to put the things into fantasy which I wanted to see but never found in Tolkien: credible female characters, wit, nuanced characterisation. That's not a criticism of Tolkien--he did not set out to do those things. The revelation for me as a writer is that I was reacting against Tolkien in my fiction long before I realised I no longer enjoyed reading him.

The artificiality of "Why Should I Read...?" is that it fixes my ten favourites at a point in time. As readers and writers we develop. Some of our old friends come with us, some fall away, and sometimes, by the happiest chance, we make new ones (The Time Traveler's Wife, for instance).

With this in mind, I will be extending "Why Should I Read...?" for some time beyond its initial span. Twenty books now seems a trivial objective, and for the time being I am aiming to expand my list to include 50 books, and in some cases I will relax my "one book per writer" rule. This will require me to re-read a number of books which are certain to feature on my list, a toil I endure for the sake of my readership.

And, tempting as it is, I have no plans to begin "Why Shouldn't I Read...?", a review of the ten books I have considered most irritating or over-rated. Such speculations have no place in the corn-fed sunshine world of ::Acquired Taste -- although I would as an aside note that you can learn as much from a book you hate as a book you love.

Next on our list at "Why Should I Read...?" is Charles Palliser's The Quincunx, an extraordinary book which at once a Dickensian homage, an intricately-carved puzzle, a deconstruction of the Victorian novel and--most of all--a rattling good yearn.


David Isaak said...

I agree that you can learn a lot from books you despise--but only if you can manage to read them!

Case in point: The Da Vinci Code. Can't make it through even ten pages. The prose is simply too bad.

In the case of Tolkein, I can still read him quite easily, but I have to apply different standards. It's like reading Gilgamesh or Beowulf--it's a myth or a tale rather than a novel.

Tim Stretton said...

You're right about Tolkien, of course. Essentially he's not writing a novel at all.

What has always surprised me is that his legion of imitators has not realised it: they've latched on to the dreary inessentials of dwarves, elves and quests, in most cases adding nothing to the original.