I’ve been on a kick to read “real books” the past couple of months. By that I mean on a kick to sprinkle some quality literature in with completely for-fun books (i.e., romances). I am a smart, relatively well-read person—and by relatively, I’m talking about in comparison to other self-proclaimed readers, not versus the whole of human existence. I can handle big themes, complicated plots and an overload of characters. I’m up for pared-down verse or verbosity. I like a good thriller, a good adventure, a good mystery, a good family drama, and a great combination of all of those. I’m a fan of complicated characters and I absolutely cannot get enough of a gigantic dose of humor.
If you want me to break out some Serious Reader credentials, forget it! I’m not going to satisfy you by listing all of the “classics” I’ve actually read from cover to cover and further prove myself to you by telling you which I love and which I loath. If you need some proof, I’d say pay attention to the way that I write; do you know a single good writer who doesn’t read? I think not, people.
So anyway, a coworker of mine was reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, and I borrowed it from her when she was done, mainly because they made an apparently mediocre film adaptation and I like reading the books before I judge the movies. It’s a slim book and I started it kind of excited. The style and the narrative felt appropriately alien and vaguely off. Between that and the back cover, and the fact that my coworker was like “I’m not going to tell you anything because it’s just… complicated,” I knew it was going to A Mystery.
Puh-LEASE. Any good reader, particularly sci-fi or fantasy readers, could’ve figured this thing out in a heartbeat. It’s rife with ill-disguised foreshadowing (or back-shadowing, since the narrator is revealing past events), there is no real tension or drama, there’s no climax and no resolution, and any theme or moral issue I thought worth pursuing went untouched. Why bother writing a novel on [what the novel was about] if you’re not going to, you know, write about it? I read the whole thing and then I calmly put it down and thought, This is the slow-paced, rather vague/existential/moral dilemma British novel that people choose to fall in love with and make so popular!? I don’t get it!
Undaunted, I moved on to something because I’ve been meaning to get to, one that everyone keeps telling me, “This is totally your type of book, Zoe!” The book: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Full disclosure: I’m only about 90% through it. Doesn’t matter, though, my critique will hold up. (Don’t believe me? I’ll bet you $20 it turns out exactly like I think.) Now, I’m not saying that this is a bad story or book. I’m enjoying learning by inference a little bit about Sweden, a place I know basically nothing about, except their awesome literacy rate. I love watching procedurals, so I like a good mystery, and I have no problem keeping all the characters straight. The writing’s dry and there’s an excess of description, way past the amount required to, say, throw unsuspecting mystery-readers off the trail of the truth. I’m even only mildly annoyed that the tattoo referenced in the title isn’t ever described past the fact that it’s on her shoulder.
I’m now past The Big Reveal in Which the Characters & Reader Learn All! and it just seems like… what else would’ve been going on? There are some fantastic books that have this dreadful feeling of inevitability about them, books where from page three you know this isn’t going to end well or that the truth’s going to suck big-time. This is different from that. I can’t really explain it, and by now I’m really good at blocking out other people’s enthusiasm, so I wouldn’t say that I’m disappointed by how the mystery unraveled. But… I don’t know. I always have this slim, idiotic hope that a book that’s become wildly popular, the kind that’s exploded into everyday people’s consciousness, is mega-special.
Shouldn’t it take some amazingly clever writer with an amazingly well-constructed, well-written story to engage like the entire world? Apparently not so much. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good read, but I’d put it more in the read it on vacation category than the changes my life category. Why oh why do I do this to myself? I’ll end up cynical if I don’t quash this sort of hope!
I should know better. There are several books/series that hit it big with the wider world that are basically totally dependable examples of their genres, but people don’t read them and then say, “Well, now I’m hooked! I want other, cooler, equally or more engaging books like this to read! Give me recommendations!” For instance, I read a lot of historical fiction type stuff (Mary Renault, Colleen McCullough, and Marion Zimmer Bradley, to name a few), and it lead me to alternative histories like Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander Series, and when I kept getting suggestions for this pseudo-England-ish royally messed up series called Game of Thrones, I said, “Why, thank you, lots of friends, I will try that out.” And I did, and guess what? They’re crapping killer! My life would be sadder if I hadn’t read them.
But people read Harry Potter and then they never seem to want to try to dig into the genre to find higher quality series. Why not? There are gajillions of excellent coming-of-age stories that have magic in them, tons of young adult series about a small group of friends solving mysteries or growing up, and hordes of stories about kids learning about good versus evil versus the gray spectrum in between. Try Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea books. People read Twilight and then don’t go back to Anne Rice, don’t read Dracula, don’t try to branch out into something like the Anita Blake series or, I don’t know, books about love triangles, small-town mysteries or… vampire babies. People read The Da Vinci Code and it blows their mind, but they don’t read other fantastic books about art mysteries or occult things; they don’t venture into conspiracy theories.
So what I’m saying is that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is readable and enjoyable, and it makes me want to find other books like it, many of which I’m hoping will be more dynamic, less dry-descriptive, and intricate enough to fool me. But other casual readers get sucked into one story and then seem to put it down and go back to being utterly ambivalent towards books. I guess I’m just lamenting that state of being. Whenever I find one thing that’s interesting, intriguing, exciting or that moves me or makes me devoted to it, I want to find other things like it. I feel like that’s human nature in a way, so why doesn’t it seem to apply to reading? Say what you want about Twilight, it did get a lot of kids reading who most likely hadn’t been before, and that’s a good thing; Harry Potter kept kids reading for a solid decade.
So why aren’t all those nutty, die-hard fans out there hunting madly for other good tales like that to devour?