How I Developed ‘Low Tastes’ in Reading

For many years I was a reading snob. Certain kinds of books were just beneath my notice. What can I say? I couldn’t help it. I majored in English literature.

Initially, I just read everything I could get my hands on adventure, romance, historical fiction. As a teenager, I worked as a ‘page” in a library, ‘carding’ returned books and shelving them. (In those days, you could actually tell who had borrowed that book before you by their signatures on the card in the pocket inside the cover.) I carted home huge piles of books, the maximum allowable. I read all the 19th century British novels I could find and then 20th century Americans. I would choose an author like Bernard Shaw and just strip-mine his work and then I would move on to biographies about him. Clearly, there was either no television in those days or there was nothing good on.

Eventually, I was too busy balancing motherhood and teaching to read that much and anyway television got better. I still bought the latest work by Margaret Atwood or Margaret Lawrence or Robertson Davies and Alice Munroe. I was a great Can Lit supporter. (That’s Canadian Literature to the rest of the world.) Atwood had written a book called Survival in which she said that the central theme in all Canadian novels was survival. She could be right, I thought, and I was getting tired of that grimness. Anyway reading had become more of a special event than an obsession, mostly carried out in the half hour before I put my head down to sleep.

The ‘best’ novels began to pall, mainly because I was teaching them. Over and over and over. I knew 1984 and Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Lord of the Flies and Catcher in the Rye by heart. Reading David Copperfield or Jane Eyre or even beloved Wuthering Heights began to have as much appeal for me as water boarding. And so I took my first step down that slippery slope. I started reading fantasy.

I blame J.R.R. Tolkein. One summer when I commuted to a job marking exam papers, an exercise in brain torture if ever there was one, I buried myself in The Fellowship of the Ring before the train left the station and stayed mercifully oblivious until I got off. The really wonderful thing about this book was that it was the first book in a trilogy. Besides the best reviewers approved of Tolkein and his buddy, C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy, beginning with Out of the Silent Planet and the Narnia books.

Having given myself permission to read fantasy, I carried on. I read all the books by Carlos Castaneda who vowed that his teachings of don Juan were strictly factual. I entertained the idea that with the requisite spiritual training, I too could fly across canyons. It was a close as a person of my generation got to L.S.D. Eventually, I took up Ursula K. Le Guin who wrote several series and inevitably Harry Potter. I am tempted to blame that on grandchildren, but it wouldn’t be true. Then J.K. Rowland stopped writing.

For a time, I belonged to a book club, five women who met at each others’ houses once a month and talked about a given book. We read The Kiterunner and Saturday, Reading Lolita in Tehran and Ravelstein. We read Booker prize winners, spare, mannered tomes like On Chesil Beach, The Gathering and Banville’s The Sea.  Several members revolted and in response we read In the Company of a Courtesan. In the end, I didn’t want to have my reading assigned to me and I didn’t want to have to go back over the book to find points for discussion. Most of all, I hated the discussion questions that some books now included at the back. True I had taught English but I couldn’t come up with the first thing to say in response to such questions as “Does old age always harden beliefs?”

One day a friend told me she was reading a mystery set in Italy by Donna Leon. This friend was a notorious snob about reading, so I took this as permission granted. I had been reading reviews of mysteries for years, so I knew where to start: P.D. James, Ruth Rendall and Elizabeth George, so called cozy mysteries, set in England, a substantial body of work separately and several years of reading altogether. Then I moved on to Henning Mankell’s Swedish Detective Wallender and Ian Rankin’s Scots Detective Rebus. They were both heavy drinkers, divorced, the father of daughters and singularly morose. Must be the North  Sea influence. It turned out that there were other Swedish detectives – Edwardson’s Eric Winter and Steig Larsson’s computer whizz with the dragon tattoo, as well as Icelandic detectives (Arnaldur Indridason’s), Canadian detectives not to mention American detectives and pathologists.

At a certain point my sister joined me – actually at the cozy mystery stage- and we agree that some are better than others. I like Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch books because they are set in Los Angeles and I recognize the settings, but we agree that his books are not as good as some. Such mysteries or police procedurals are written to formula, but it’s a good formula: a detailed and realistic setting that makes us feel as if we have been there, a puzzle to solve, and clues that make the final outcome believable. The reader can be confident of a certain kind of good read. Then from book to book in a detective series, we follow the detective’s character arc.

It was when we embarked on our current Lee Child marathon that I began to worry. Child’s hero is Jack Reacher, a former U.S. military policeman, in his own words, more of a brawler than a warrior, who travels across the country with nothing but a folding toothbrush, encountering dire situations and resolving them by his own means. Searching for a new Reacher book, I discovered they were not shelved in the mystery section and this was because they were classified as thrillers.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen! And I had to admit, not only that the average mystery caused a little uptick in adrenaline, but also that Lee Child’s books are so positively charged that they are addictive.

Right now I am nearing the end of his second last book, The Affair, set in Mississippi in 1997, earlier than all of the others but one. In it, we learn why he is no longer a serving major, be-medalled though he was.

Is there a reader’s hell supervised by an old-fashioned librarian with a pitchfork just waiting to catch me in my fall?