Reading Tastes

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A Crazy Little Ditty

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Paul Whybrow

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Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
We all have different likes and dislikes in what we read, and, I guess that we all have our secret shame—authors that we like, but which we wouldn't boast about reading. Mine used to be reading James Patterson, but his writing became so production line, formulaic, with hired guns brought in to pen most of the text, that I gave up in disgust. As Truman Capote kind of said of Jack Kerouac "That's not writing, that's typing."

Going back to the 1980s, I devoured a series of Westerns featuring a hero called Edge written by George G. Gilman. These were as easy to read as eating a bag of Doritos and with about as much nutritional content, though still enjoyable.

It's impossible not to browse someone's book shelves, when you visit their home. Hell, I even scrutinise the volumes behind a celebrity whose face appears in a newspaper photograph. The same sort of thing happens with the CDs, vinyl albums and DVDs they own. Film director John Waters declared, "If you go home with somebody, and they don't have books, don't fuck 'em."

That doesn't mean to say that I'd transform into a rutting stag :eek: if someone I fancied owned books that I love, but at least it would show shared interests, and we'd have something to talk about. I wouldn't be so amenable towards someone who adored only Mills & Boon romances, Dan Brown or E.L. James.

I once had a blind date with a woman who appeared wearing a costume that looked like witch's garb, with a long black cloak, tattered purple dress and a pointy hat. I wasn't that fazed, as it's not uncommon to see New Agers and Pagans similarly clothed in Cornwall, especially in places such as Tintagel. I knew a couple of hedge witches, so coped with the conversation that was heavy with alternative beliefs and mystic legends. She kindly invited me back to her place for coffee, and that was when I really started to doubt her sanity.

Everything in her purple and black house had a witchy theme, including the wallpaper and doormat, and she was obsessed with unicorns and dragons. I've nothing against dragons—we have an illustrious member of the Colony in Robinne Weiss who writes about dragons—but I draw the line, when a sitting room has 500 dragons and unicorns watching me. Every horizontal surface had a china figurine or stuffed toy blasting out fire or pointing its horn (!) my way. There were thousands of paperback books and comics on the shelves and in precarious stacks on the floor. To sit down meant weaving through piles of books to the only armchair that didn't have fantasy novels piled on its cushions. My hostess sat atop her reading matter, beaming down at me like a witch who'd enticed a new familiar into her cavern. I fled, as soon as possible. I dare say, that she'd have done well on Mastermind, answering questions on books about dragons and unicorns, as I don't think she read anything else.

Having compatible reading tastes isn't something that most people think about when choosing a partner, but I reckon it's crucial.

Have any of you met someone whose choice of reading matter was lamentable?

Or, going to the opposite extreme, someone whose literary taste was intimidating in its intelligence?

I briefly studied Latin as a teenager at a grammar school, and the Latin master appeared to have time travelled from the Roman Republic, for his study's book shelves contained hundreds of books written in Latin; I was in awe of his linguistic abilities, which included Ancient Greek. He even had a cool name—Mr Breeze! I resurrected my memories of him, in The Perfect Murderer, by making a serial killer keep a chronicle of his victims written in Latin—an effective safety precaution, for it's estimated that there are only 100 people worldwide who speak Latin fluently.

What is your secret shame in reading matter?

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I'm not going to tell you my secret shame in reading material. It's not that much of a secret but I'm not going to spell it out for anyone.

The first thing I look at with anyone, anywhere, is their bookshelf. It's possible I'm a little rude about it. The last person I did it with told me to stop. But then maybe he shouldn't have given me so many shelves to look at. I was perhaps, overwhelmed by the wealth of material for me to nose around in. There are still entire bookcases I've never laid eyeballs on. It's an itch I may never be able to scratch.

I once got involved with someone partly because they liked Frank Herbert and Terry Goodkind. I told myself not much could go wrong with someone who liked to read those two authors. He also liked Salvatore, who I hadn't read. But it turns out, people get different things out of what they read. For me, Frank Herbert's Dune was a metaphysical odyssey. For him, who knows. I suspect it rolled out for him like a film. Which isn't bad. It just leaves so much out. He enjoyed the stuff they did and did to one another. Likewise with Terry Goodkind. When I finally read some Salvatore, I realized -- he reads gamer fiction. Sword quests for boys who don't have time for D&D anymore.

.....and yes it's important to me. I'm a snob and I'm always disappointed when I find out someone I'm interested in isn't as smart as I am or doesn't read.
 
I don't shame easily (not so as any one would notice, at any rate), so there isn't really any secret to what I read, which is a bit of most things, leaning towards the commercial and genre.

Picking up on some of @Amber's comments, I'm probably at the other end of the spectrum when it comes to my partner and reading. That is, reading is not a passion we share (not least because our native languages aren't the same). Our relationship is built on (many) other things.

But as for checking out other people's bookshelves, who likes reading and doesn't do that?
 
"She kindly invited me back to her place for coffee, and that was when I really started to doubt her sanity." made me laugh. How disappointing to read on and learn that you don't doubt the sanity of a woman because she invites you in. That said, I'd like to suggest that opposites can attract and create relationships that endure. Reading tastes, along with tastes in many other things, be damned.
 
I'm not a snob about reading, possibly because when I've travelled to places without libraries or bookshops, I've been thrilled to find old Readers' Digest condensed books, thumbed copies of Valley of the Dolls or Peyton Place, Harry Potter, a pile of Hello magazines. And I read voraciously. Airport blockbusters and Jilly Coopers ease the tedium of delayed flights.

Anyone who reads is acquiring a habit that might lead them on to better and better books. And I've got great respect for genres. Skilful writing works for me no matter what genre it is. My partner devours detective and crime fiction, but dislikes sci-fi or literary. I came late to sci-fi and wish I had time to read more of it. I do read and write in several languages, so global literature is a passion.

And my dirty little secret is that I am drawn to difficult, avant-garde, experimental fiction and poetry that often gets returned unread when I lend it to friends. (Eimear McBride A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, I'm looking at you.) A close friend of mine says she can't understand why I read so many 'misery sandwiches' of confessional prose (Elana Ferrante, Marguerite Duras) and judges me severely for it!
 
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January writing goals.

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A Crazy Little Ditty

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