on the buying of books

I used to read everything. For years, I always had two books going–a novel and some work of nonfiction. The novels were almost always literary fiction (with the occasional dip into genre fiction); the nonfiction could be anything at all. Plate tectonics, a biography of Isadora Duncan, a history of clocks, the Boer war, a book on beekeeping. Seriously, I’d read anything and I read all the time–two or three books a week. I was basically a book slut.

Over the years, my reading habits have changed. That’s due partly to technology. In 2011, I was given a Nook–the ebook reader developed by Barnes & Noble. I didn’t ask for it and didn’t really want it. I was of the opinion that reading on an electronic device couldn’t be truly satisfying. I believed there was a feel and a scent that belongs to a physical book and it contributes to the reading experience.

Maybe it does. But it doesn’t contribute that much–at least for me. I’ll never go back to reading physical books.

The best thing about e-books is also the worst thing: the ease with which you can buy a book. I absolutely love hearing somebody talk about a book, and being able to buy it and have it in my collection 90 seconds later. I love having all my books with me and easily accessible at any time, wherever I go. I still have a Nook (which, by the way, is terrible tech, but it’s good enough to keep by the bed for late night/early morning reading), but most of my reading is done on a tablet.

Most of my nonfiction reading is now comprised of the weird, interesting, esoteric stuff I can access in online magazines or blogs or websites. The biggest change in my reading habits has been a shift from literary fiction to genre fiction.

This is partly because buying e-books has freed me from the tyranny of cover art. I used to have very strict cover art rules (mostly applied to genre fiction). For example, I would not buy a book with a cover featuring a woman warrior in ‘sexy’ armor. Or a detective in a trench coat. Or a skeleton. Or a goddamn dragon. In fact, I refused to buy a book if it had the word ‘dragon’ in the title.

That changed when a friend whose literary taste I respected, suggested a novel called His Majesty’s Dragon, by Naomi Novik. The title was bad enough, but it also had a dragon on the cover. It was described to me as ‘Jane Austen, but with witty dragons.’ Witty dragons, for fuck’s sake. But buying it online meant I didn’t have to hand the book and my credit card to an actual person, who’d look at me like I was the sort of person who’d buy a book with a dragon on the cover.

The novel turned out to be smart, funny, well-written, full of adventure, completely charming, and the dragon…well, she was witty. Even before I finished reading the novel, I bought the second book in the series (which also had a dragon on the cover).

That novel sort of broke the genre dam. I’ve discovered that the large ideas that drive what I used to think of as ‘serious’ literary fiction also exist in genre fiction–and often in a more accessible form. For example, Novik’s dragon series intelligently examines gender norms, as well as civil rights and liberties–both for women and for dragons. This may sound stupid, but it works.

For the last five years or so, I’ve been reading mostly genre fiction. Now the vast majority of my reading is divided between a metric buttload of genres. Cozy mysteries, hard scifi, detective fiction, mannerpunk, historical fiction, a smattering of fantasy, police procedurals, some urban fantasy, speculative fiction, military scifi, slipstream, almost anything.

But there are exceptions. I’m still reluctant to buy a novel that features elves or dwarves. I’m still skeptical of any novel that deals with magic or the supernatural, unless the writer provides some sort of internally consistent ‘rules’ for how the supernatural stuff works. I’ve written about this before, and I’ll repeat something I said then:

If a writer is only using the supernatural as a convenient way to move the story forward, that writer is not respecting the reader. As far as that goes, the writer isn’t respecting the craft of writing. As goofy as it sounds, ghosts (and the readers of supernatural stories) are better served when the ghosts have rules. It’s really that simple. And by the way, that’s also true for witches, and necromancers, and kitchen boys who inherit magic rings, and vampire librarians, and half-demon private detectives, and travel journalists who find a djinn in an antique bottle, and and and.

I’ve strayed a bit from my point (if you can call it a point–and really, who would be surprised by me straying from it?), which is that e-books have changed what I read. It essentially liberated genre fiction for me; it allowed me to see the great beauty of its flexibility, of its capacity blending ideas and concepts and approaches from different genre forms.

The only problem with e-books is the problem of impulse control. I buy a LOT more books on impulse, which is sometimes a bad idea. I have bought some truly awful novels on impulse. On the other hand, I once bought a novel based entirely on a nine-word blurb (Lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space) and it became one of my favorite books. The cover art was dramatic, but doesn’t do justice to the brilliant and charming complexity of the novel. When I was halfway through Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth, I wanted to recommend it to a friend. So I did a google search for reviews to help me describe it. The review on NPR said the novel “…is too funny to be horror, too gooey to be science fiction, has too many spaceships and autodoors to be fantasy, and has far more bloody dismemberings than your average parlor romance.” That review leaves out the humor, the fencing, and the love story.

I have friends who continue to limit their reading to serious mainstream literary fiction. I actually feel sort of sorry for them. They’ll never get to meet clever dragons during the Napoleonic wars or lesbian necromancers in space, and their world will be the poorer for it.

3 thoughts on “on the buying of books

  1. I’ve been sitting on Gideon The Ninth for at least eighteen months. No fewer than five people have recommended it to me, all of whom did so after I had purchased it, because, as you did, I saw “lesbian necromancers in space” rated 5 stars, and said to myself: fuck yeah that’s absurd I’m all in.
    I’ll crack it open this evening.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I actually had to start it twice. The first time I stopped after a chapter or two because it was so fucking weird. The second time, after being encouraged by others, I kept reading…and the first part began to make sense. Then I was enchanted. Whatever you expect this story to be, it’s not that. Or it IS that, but just not in the way you thought.

      Liked by 2 people

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