Tuesday, May 15, 2007

In Praise of Reading

I love reading mysteries. But I don't limit myself to this genre only. I read current fiction, classic literature, science fiction, history, theology, memoirs -- you name it, I read it. I've even been known to delve into a romance or two, but generally find myself either annoyed or bored if I spend too much time in this reading area. I will make an exception for Mary Stewart, L.M. Montgomery and D.E. Stevenson though.

One of the things I look for in my reading is atmosphere. Lots and lots of atmosphere. What do I mean when I say atmosphere? The entry in A Handbook to Literature by Holman and Harmon (6th ed.) describes it well:
The prevailing tone or mood of a literary work, particularly -- but not exclusively -- when that mood is established in part by setting or landscape. It is, however, not simply setting but rather an emotional aura that helps to establish the reader's expectations and attitudes. Examples are the somber mood established by the description of the prison door in the opening chapter of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, the brooding sense of fatality engendered by the description of Egdon Heath at the beginning of Hardy's The Return of the Native, the sense of "something rotten in the state of Denmark" established by the scene on the battlements at the opening of Hamlet, or the opening stanza of Poe's "The Raven."
The key for me seems to be something that evokes a mood. The moodier the better. I want my reading to move me in some way. Atmosphere is why I read China Mieville, Avram Davidson and Jack Vance. I may not always remember the plot lines of what I read, but I do recall the atmosphere generated by certain authors.

Something else I look for in my reading is a sense of justice. What I like about formulaic mysteries (often synonomous with police procedurals) is the knowledge that all will be righted in the end; justice will be served. Sure, there are bad guys and gals galore, but with a formula mystery you KNOW that they will not win. They will be punished for their badness and the world will once again be set aright. Of course this is a bit of escapism for me; it does not match reality. Just watch the news. This is precisely why I turn off the news sometimes (often these days) and stick my nose into a good mystery. I find this sense of justice in some other genres, but never so reliably as I do in mysteries ... and some days I just need the justice.

A third thing I look for is the "what if" factor. This can often be found in science fiction, or speculative fiction as some people refer to this genre. I love "what if." I love the sense of suspense and the hopefulness that goes with "what if" reading. What if we could really do this or that; what if we could really go there; what if .... The "what ifs" are endless and allow the imagination to run wild. The "what if" literature is probably some of the most closely related to childhood. Perhaps that is why I like it so much; I can let my inner child run free for a few hours.

Well folks, I could go on indefinitely about the topic of reading and what I like to find in those wonderful tomes of bound words -- but I'll leave some for another day and leave you room to think about your own preferences.

What do you look for in your reading?


  1. I have to think about this. I don't think that I am looking for atmosphere specifically. Although... when I was reading this, I immediately thought of Charles Williams' novels. They are absolutely dripping with atmosphere and I do really, really love them.

    I think I love story... the way words get put together... sometimes I just want an escape.

    What else? I'll keep thinking.

  2. Oh goodness, my taste in books is as varied as my taste in music. I don't seem to fall for a single style as often as I do for a particular author.

    I do like some atmosphere, but I think for me, one of the other enormous things is that it usually has to be a character driven piece.

    On the mystery front, I am a lover of Dame Agatha.

    I went through a really rough patch of life where I read many lame romances purely because I didn't want to have to think about anything.

    Sometimes I like realism, but I usually like either a happy ending or a sad ending with purpose.

    I think I could go on forever with this topic, so I will shut up now. :)


  3. atypical, Yes! It is hard to stop on this subject isn't it? I had to cut off my post simply because it was getting too long and rambling. I'm like you ... I look for many different things and like many different types of reads.

  4. Great post! So interesting to think about what makes you like a book and what makes you feel just "blah" about one. It's such a thrill when you start being able to articulate what makes something quality and what makes something garbage (at least in your own mind). By the way, how are you liking "The Glass Castle"?

  5. Janssen,

    The Glass Castle has so far taken me on a whole journey of emotions. I should probably withhold any comment until I finish since I don't know what I think about the book; I'm still in "emotional response mode" to it! I do wonder if the author will offer any insights to her experience or just let it stand as her story. I have enjoyed her comments on desert living and recognize some of the places. Apparently her family lived in Phoenix during the time I was growing up there and that is interesting to think about! It is a very interesting and fast read. If I can straighten out my thoughts on it, I'll write a review post sometime soon.

  6. Did I know you were a D.E. Stevenson fan? What are your favourites?

    I read D.E.S's novels for atmosphere, actually. It's easy enough to create atmosphere when you're writing gothic horror, but her novels have a pure, refreshing atmosphere that is totally unique.

    Normally, though, I read for character. Specifically, I need to feel a strong and immediate attachment to a character in order to get "into" a book. Everything else comes later.

  7. B&P,
    The only one I've read is Vittoria Cottage since I found it on the library shelf here at the university I work at (I must admit I was surprised to see it here!). I enjoyed it very much and want to track down others. I've been having a bit of trouble getting my hands on others of her titles.

  8. I've collected most of mine through library sales and used bookstores. Here are some of my favourites:

    -The Young Clementina
    -Miss Buncle's Book
    -Listening Valley
    -Sarah Morris Remembers
    -Celia's House
    -Mrs. Tim (a diary based initially upon Stevenson's own diaries)
    -Kate Hardy

    They're all good - but I like those ones especially. There are also a couple of books that follow the characters from Vittoria Cottage: Music in the Hills and Shoulder the Sky (also sometimes published under the title Winter and Rough Weather).

  9. Oooh, I love the 'what if' factor; I'm a huge SF fan. I'm also a huge D.E. Stevenson fan, which is why I popped over after reading your comment on B&P's site.

    Your blog is lovely!