Monday, April 18, 2005

Book Shame

Doing that little meme last night made me think about my reading choices. I was an avid reader growing up. Honestly, because I was a "latch-key" kid and could not go outside after school to play until my mom got home, I read a LOT. The library was my friend. I could only check out 3 books at a time from the school library, so when I was seven, my mom took me to the Ft. Gatlin branch of the Orange County Library -- housed conveniently in a shopping center on the road between where I lived with my mom and my dad's apartment -- and I got my first library card. It was orange cardboard with the little metal piece imprinted with numbers and I could check out *6* books at a time. I went every weekend to drop off the old books and pick up the new ones. Long before I should have, the librarians got to know me and let me check out as many books as I could carry. I'd just stack them up on the desk as I went. I quickly cleared the children's section of what interested me and moved on to the "YA" (young adult aka teen) books. There were not as many then as now.

By the time I hit 5th grade, my mom had remarried and we had moved. My new school did not have as good a library as my old school and I soon ran through what they had to offer. There was one wall of fiction, about 4 cases wide, then one fullheight case and one half height case were turned to make a corner. On a half height case on the OTHER side of this make-shift wall was the Science Fiction section. My life was changed when I picked up Andre Norton's "Forerunner Foray". Oh, I'd read some close to SF stuff before that -- Lloyd Alexander's "Time Cat" comes to mind. But this? This was the real thing. I'd not imagined stuff like this before. Oh, I'd tried to read "Left Hand of Darkness" in third grade but got nowhere. Much too advanced for me then (notions about politics - gender and social -- were tough for a third grader). I'd read a lot of mythology and fairytales, so I was primed. But now I was really intrigued.

Also at that time, a local station began showing 'Star Trek' reruns in the afternoon. Destiny came for me.

So, I've had a lifelong love of sf, fantasy, mystery -- all those "genre" books. I avoided westerns and romances, but I nibbled my way through so much else. Oh, I still read the occasional "classic" -- for school, although sometimes just because I was interested -- and some mainstream fiction, but my tastes were set. Now, at the Ft. Gatlin library, they kept a paper grocery sack behind the counter for me (the big ones, that actually held groceries...I wax nostalgic here) because I would check out 20-30 books at a time. Most of their SF was in paperbacks, with maybe 100 hardcover library editions in the collection. I went through it before I was out of 6th grade. I also started ordering books through school -- remember the "Scholastic Books" thing where you could buy books cheap from a special program? I loved that. That's where my allowance went once a month.

That's also when I discovered used book stores. Near my dad's apartment was another shopping center with a grocery store and a bar, a drug store and a used book store. Dad would get groceries and go down for a beer while I combed those cardboard flats. They were cheap and my dad rarely refused to buy me anything (weekend dads, you know how it works) and I think, somewhere in his soul, the idea that he was buying me books instead of toys (although I got those, too -- my collection of Barbie fashions was enviable) gave him a virtuous glow.

I moved again when I started jr. high, and my new school was the former highschool. The library was a highschool library, not a scaled down, cleaned up, purified collection for the 12-14 set. And it had a sizeable SF section, oh rapture, oh joy. I still visited the Ft. Gatlin branch about once a month. Now I was reading Heinlein and Bradbury and...oh, just scads of books. I don't even remember a lot of them, I read so much so fast.

When I moved into highschool, suddenly my reading seemed to slow down. You see, in 9th grade I read "Dune", and suddenly everything I checked out was a big, meaty novel. I'd check out just as many books, but I couldn't read them all before due date. I was devastated. What was wrong with me? It was a personal shame to return books unread. I was a junior before it occured to me that the page count per book had tripled. Finishing off 6-8 books of 200 pages each in 2 weeks was no great feat. On a good rainy weekend I could do that. But step up the size and speed dropped. (I tried reading Michner's "Hawaii" about then, but lost interest as soon as people showed up).

My reading continued to slow as I got older and developed a life. I stopped going to the library when I found I was returning more books unread than read. If I wanted a book, I'd buy it, learning the ins and outs of many used book stores around my area, even making weekend trips with like minded friends to other towns to comb their used racks. That was when I started stockpiling books. I rarely stepped foot into a Waldens (about all there was in Florida for new books at the time). Buying new was anathema to my soul. I could wait because it would show up in the stacks sooner or later for 1/4 the cover price. When I found it, I'd buy it and store it for when I had time to read.

Then, time marched on and Barnes and Noble sent me a catalog. Then QBBC hooked me. Then, after many years, Amazon. I could indulge every book whim. And then the huge bookstores -- B&N, Borders -- showed up. And, of course, I moved to a town with a good local indie bookstore.

My book stockpile has grown considerably. I now have at least 2/5 unread books in my collection, maybe more. It's a shame. I sometimes read a new book when I get it. I sometimes don't read it for many years until one day -- wham -- that's the book I want. And I've begun culling books as I go, since they overflow my shelves onto the floor, even though I actually have a library room in my house (well, I actually store books in 3 rooms, with a few shelves in other rooms...I've got books everywhere except the bathrooms...usually). I now actually go through my books and pull out some for donations or used book sell back. I no longer make regular used bookstore trips unless I'm searching for an old title.

This long narrative has a point, I swear. The history of my reading has now, after 40 years, culminated in a stark realization.

I read trash.

No no no, SF is not trash. I'm not downgrading any genre fiction per se. I mean that, doing the little meme and thinking about what I've read lately and looking at what is on my shelves unread, I've discovered when given a choice between a recognized "good book" and a lesser known, less literary work, I'll go with the second choice most every time. When people start listing their book reading, I find I'm embarrassed. Other people seem to be reading informative, challenging, well reviewed stuff with substance, importance, even staying power. I read stuff with much less stature, as a matter of course. And I feel ashamed.

I won't even mention the amount of erotica I've been reading. It's spring, after all, and I don't hold myself culpable (there's a whole story there, but I'm not telling it here). But, as much as I love the paranormal mysteries and the Regency Romances (yeah, I succumbed to those about 3 years ago, but only 1 author! She's just written about 70 books. I'm set for life there.) I've got so much other stuff I SHOULD be reading, stuff just sitting there staring at me.

I keep a short case just for books I haven't read yet. It's much too small and no longer holds everything, but here's what's on just the bottom shelf.

Kate Remembered -- biography of Katherine Hepburn
A Hunger for Home -- analysis of Louisa May Alcott and Little Women
Young Medieval Women
Number 10 (ok, I don't know if this is a worthy read, but the cover flap got me)
In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction
Color: A Natural History of the Palette
Darwin's Radio
The Life of the World to Come
Revenge of a Middle-Aged Woman
Despair
Kitchen (Banana Yoshimoto -- I guess it's Japanese chick lit)
Angels and Demons (Early Dan Brown that I read halfway and lost interest in)
Lady Chatterley's Lover
The Cats of Moon Cottage
And a John Crowly Omnibus of Beasts, Engine Summer, and Little, Big

That's ONE SHELF of the case. And I'm looking at the next Laurel K. Hamilton, an author for whom I've lost respect, in a series I'm reading as much to poke at its shortcomings as for the story itself (which, honestly, involves a fairly interesting political plot, a neat mythical social structure, a decent main character, and lots and lots and LOTS of mediocre kinky soft erotica that actually I skip through quickly, as it is all pretty much the same except for people and occasionally conversation. Oh, and violence, usually with lots of blood.)

So I'm ashamed. My reading choices do not live up to my own standards, even though I know I'm gonna read that Hamilton book anyway, and fairly soon. I'm not even gonna tell you what's on the TOP shelf, or what's piling around in various other places.

Sheesh. Now I have to go read something.

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