Jan 18, 2016
Old People Who Read
My husband started reading in his fifties. My father started even later than that. That isn't me. I can't remember when I didn't have my nose in a book.
Reading is wonderful, but a lifetime of reading leads to a problem: What to read next. When I was a kid, my choices were limited to what books our school library had, though I eventually moved on to reading my mom's mystery novels (MacDonald, Carr, Christie, etc.), and gothics (Stewart, duMaurier, and the like). As a young adult I read historical pot-boilers from Frank Yerby (lots of rape threat) to Rosemary Rodgers (lots of actual rape). I also read a lot of biographies back then, mostly movie stars like David Niven and John Wayne.
Now I'm pretty old, and I've read a lot of stuff. When people gush about the newest prize-winning or best-selling book, I take a look, but often I find it's very similar to something I've already read. Yes, Harry Potter is cool, but have you read The Once and Future King? Unreliable narrators like the one in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time are all the rage, but have you heard of We Have Always Lived in the Castle?
Past reading experience can spoil the "surprise" of many current books, because we've been there before and recognize the territory. And the "ground-breaking" characters aren't so surprising. Yeah the kids in Paper Towns and The Gold Finch feel lost and disconnected from society, but have you read "Paul's Case" by Willa Cather or anything at all by Thomas Hardy?
So what do I read these days? Mostly mysteries, because although they're "genre fiction" and therefore predictable (according to the experts), they present a puzzle to be solved. The characters can be every bit as interesting as those in "literary fiction," and Harlan Coben, Michael Connelly, Laura Lippman, and Sara Paretsky can rope me in as well as any writer can.
I recently finished a "literary" novel and had a familiar response: So? I read hundreds of pages of stuff that was interesting historically, but the story added up to nothing in the end. There was a war. It was tough. Some lived, some died.
If it had been a mystery, they'd have caught the person responsible for all that grief, put him or her in jail, and seen that justice was done. As an old reader almost immune to surprises, that's what I look for these days.
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