We have a shiny new page at Facebook–the point of this post is to attempt to publish to the page’s timeline to see if it works. That means that this post may very well disappear!
I come from a family of non-readers.
That is really not an overstatement—none of my siblings read anything but the newspaper. My mother has been reading the same book for the last 30 years. She’s still on page 15. I don’t remember my father ever reading a book. A magazine now and then, yes. Books? Never. We had books in our house, but I was about the only one who ever read them.
I’ve never understood this, to be honest. I view books as friends: as a means to adventure, as a way to explore and to learn, a source of fun and support. They challenge me, they excite me, they comfort me, and yes, sometimes they frustrate me (I can’t tell you how many books I reviewed for RT Book Reviews over the years that made sad because I could see how they could be so much better). Like all good friends, they cheer me up when I’m down, smack me down when I get too full of myself, make me laugh, help me to learn more about myself and the world.
So how did I end up the sole reader in a family of non-readers? The woman who took care of me when I was little used to read to me constantly. She also taught me to read when I was three, probably in self-defense since I pestered her non-stop to read to me. Although she wasn’t much of a reader herself, she saw the value in reading and instilled that in me. Plus, I think she liked to read to me. No matter how busy she was with something else, she’d always make the time to read me a story whenever I asked her to. Once I could read simple story books on my own, she’d get me to read them to her. Simple give-and-take, but as I read about pokey little puppies, princesses and princes, wicked queens, and a bear of very little brain, I became completely enchanted with worlds well outside my limited suburban area. To this day, I enjoy nothing more than a book set in another country (or on another planet, or during another time period) for the exact same reason.
It mushroomed from there. By the time I got to grade school I was well past first grade reading level, and oh my! There was a library. A vast room filled with books I’d never read. By the time I was in 4th grade, I’d plowed through all of them, many of them twice (and thus was born my life-long habit of rereading favorite books). My parents gave in to my pleading and started taking me to the town library. I spent my pocket money on books. My memories of childhood summers mostly involve me sitting in the crotch of the peach tree in our backyard, immersed in one book or another.
I solved mysteries with Nancy Drew and The Dana Girls. I learned that my problems were comparatively stupid compared to Anne Frank’s. I cried over Old Yeller. I discovered CS Lewis’ Narnia, although I didn’t much like the books, but I read them anyway because they were different. I made friends with Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple. I realized I don’t much like dwarves and elves after reading Tolkein. I took a book to my high school graduation that I found in the local library and checked out because the title intrigued me. Called Murder Must Advertise, it featured a detective unlike any I’d encountered previously: Lord Peter Wimsey.
I majored in English in college, where I learned to hate Hemingway, respect James Joyce and love, of all authors, Herman Melville. I’ve lived in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Maine, and I have friends all over the world, many of whom I’ve made because of a mutual love of books. I spent years running a discussion list devoted to Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, where I met my co-conspirator on this blog. I’ve made good friends thanks to Lord Peter, Miles Vorkosigan, Ian Rutledge, and other characters.
There have been times in my life where I’ve had nothing—no money, no possessions beyond the bare necessities. But no matter where I’ve gone, I’ve always had my books. They’ve been part of my family forever. At times of great loneliness, they’ve been my friends.
The publishing world is changing. But no matter what form they come in, there will always be books. And if there are always books, and if you’re a reader, you’re never truly alone.
I’m a pretty voracious reader and have been since I was but a wee child; I can still feel the sense of wonder that came along with the first time I was given books of my own (Little Golden Books, Christmas 1979). I’d regularly burn through everything in the bookmobile in the summers and when I lived in Nebraska, I was at A Novel Idea several times a week to get new reading material (it’s been 10 years and I still miss that place, the used bookstore here is a scary firetrap run by a guy with no social skills)–the staff were aces at recommending new things for me to read.
While I’m pretty good at figuring out what sorts of science fiction and fantasy novels I’m likely to enjoy–eight years of reviewing has made it pretty obvious to me what I do and don’t like–I’m a bit more at sea when it comes to the other genre I love: romance. So I rely on recommendations and reviews and it’s pretty challenging sometimes because there’s a lot of really bad romance novels out there.
Romance readers, in general, read a lot. They tend to look for specific things in their reading and will read a lot of problematic and poorly written material in their quest to get to that specific thing (see: Harlequin’s Presents line–there is a reason why they all have such formulaic and cringeworthy titles). It is really interesting to talk to romance readers because they will almost always have a very specific criteria for what they want in a romance–the biggest thing, of course, is the Happily Ever After at the end, but there will also often be specificity around setting, type of hero and heroine, how explicit the sex scenes can or should be, et cetera.
Romance readers also tend to be at the front of the curve when it comes to new ways to find reading material–they were among the earliest adopters of e-readers and the sheer number of small e-presses in romance is astonishing. There are way more small e-presses in romance than there are in SF/F. The success of 50 Shades of Grey is driving some interesting shifts in the romance market, including re-packaging older titles as well as possible renewed interest in the alph-hole here on the part of publishers (please, no), according to this post over at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.
Which is why I think the whole Kindle Serials thing is really interesting.
Amazon has a metric ass-ton of data on their customers. Their recommendation algorithm is reasonably good–it’s always reccing books that I would be interested in if I hadn’t already read them–and I fully expect that they do collect data on the reading patterns in ebooks, too. But I am deeply uncomfortable with the idea of authors tailoring their stories to those datasets.
But here’s the problem – from my single data point perspective. I don’t know what I will like. Only what I have liked. And, despite the algorithms’ best efforts to recommend things I might like, I quite often find that my favorite discoveries are things I never expected to like, that I read or heard by accident, or because someone mentioned them in passing. I find that the story I put down once because it was the wrong day for me to read it, I often pick up again, much later and love, because it is a different day, and I, a different reader.
There is totally an element of serendipity to reading and it’s that element that you can’t get from mining datasets (as someone who works with financial data at her day job, there are sometimes things going on that cannot be captured in a spreadsheet or in a transactional system). A few months ago, I couldn’t find anyone to review K.J. Parker’s Sharps for the August issue of RT Book Reviews and I ended up having to read and review it myself. It turned out that I really, really, really liked it. And I never would have picked it up on my own–serendipity and necessity put me in a position to read it and I’m so glad I did. I’m planning on checking out more of Parker’s work in the future.
At the RT convention this past spring, I picked up Grace Burrowes’s The Virtuoso from the goody bag room–again, on a whim. Turns out that the book is absolutely fantastic and I proceeded to tear my way through the rest of her books shortly thereafter. Those happened to be the right books for me at the right time. Another book I picked up at the same time definitely wasn’t and that’s okay, too. I’m sure it was the right book for someone else.
One of the things I want to do with this blog is revisit old favorites and look at them through new eyes. I am not the same person I was when I read these books for the first time. What I thought was a good book 20 years ago is somewhat different from what I believe now. Reading is a liminal activity and while the printed words may not change, the mind reading them certainly can and does. And there is no algorithm that can account for that experience–which is why I think tailoring stories to what you think the reader wants based on data is ultimately reductive and not likely to be particularly successful.
Serial stories are one thing, serial stories written based on market analysis are something else entirely and, to me, that something else comes up short. I don’t always want to read a story that is just like every other story I’ve read over the last week or month or year (there are times when I do want that, of course–comfort reads are a wonderful thing) and that is guaranteed to hit certain buttons–I often want to be challenged or be made to think by my reading. I want to discover new books and new writers. I treasure that moment when I slide into a story and come up for air three or four hours later–and I even have respect for those stories I bounce off of and can’t engage with because figuring out why something doesn’t work is often as interesting as figuring out how it does.
I’m not sure where I’m going with this–it just feels wrong, somehow, to reduce something so powerful as story to a product shaped by data analysis.
Oh, this is exciting! A brand new blog just waiting for us to fill with words. We’re both recovering professional reviewers who have discovered that we still have a lot we want to say–hence our tagline, “We have things to say about books.” Which is pretty prosaic, but you know, it gets the job done.
What we hope to accomplish here is to talk about books we love (or don’t love) and why. To take a look at what’s going on in publishing and the different genres we’re interested in.
I have a number of rereads planned, including one in which I will be inflicting late Heinlein on myself (the first Heinlein I ever read was To Sail Beyond the Sunset–this explains so much about me). Never fear, I am planning on rereading some books that are actually good, too.
Anyhow, we hope you stick around and join in the conversation. We’d love to have you.