Something to Read

That's all we really want in life, isn't it? We look for new books, hoping we'll love them, and we re-read old books, so we can love them better; and we talk about them with other people. We read kids' books, young adult books, mysteries, science fiction, fantasy, horror, and whatever else we can get our hands on, but we have never read anything that could hurt us. Bad books die of their own vices; good books, in this age of information, are unkillable. So let's talk about what we like to read and when we read them. (All of these links take you to other people's pages, for the content of which we can take no credit and accept no blame.)

Kids' books (Peni's opinions)

Kid books are better than grownup books, because kid books have to be interesting on every page. It is impossible for any well-regulated person to outgrow Winnie the Pooh! Paradoxically, when I was six and tried to read Winnie the Pooh I was merely puzzled by it, since it was so different from the movies I'd known all my life. When I was older and understood the difference between book and movie I did better. Pooh is a learning experience, which is not the same as being educational - something adults would do well to remember before they start sneering at the enthusiasms of their children. There is something unpleasantly Owlish about the way older people condescend toward the literature of the young - a false sophisitcation that wishes to distance itself from the honest naiveté of those who haven't had the chance to read much and are learning the conventions of storytelling at the same time that they're figuring out the alphabet and rules of society. Pooh is mature literature that is readily accessible to immature readers; and though this is quite a feat, it is accomplished with regularity in the field.

Even books which are patently inferior as literature, such as the Bobbsey Twins, have their uses for the target audience. Kids binge on such books for reasons, and just because they can't articulate them doesn't mean they're wasting their time. I read mountains of formula fiction between the ages of six and ten, with the result that I have a strong grasp of story structure and know a cliché when I meet one.

I am woefully deficient in the matter of picture books. I don't know anything about art - I don't even know what I like - and it's always been difficult for me to look at the pictures properly when they dominate the page. So this page will be all about text. We must do what we're best at.

My favorite author and the goddess of my idolatry is still Louisa May Alcott. She was an excellent craftswoman, and she taught me at least as much about life as my mother. Often denigrated by critics as being merely didactic, and sentimentalized even by her fans, Alcott's literary legacy is a complex one, in which she endlessly worked out the contradictory forces pushing and pulling us through life - the conflicts between private and public, societal expectations and personal imperatives, one's ideals and one's experience, economic necessity and emotional requirements. Little Women is a book in which one can hold a lifelong dialog with a woman who was there ahead of you, never found all the answers, but never gave up trying. In addition to her many justly-renowned children's books, she wrote "rubbish," or "Jo stories" as some of her fans call them -- thrillers dashed off, ostensibly for money, but with an enthusiasm which demonstrates her repressed taste for the sensational. Madeleine Stern has been responsible for finding and publishing these anonymously-published early works, many of which are more shocking today (due to the reputation of the author and changed ideas about things like drugs) than they were when LMA wrote them. They are not, however, essential juvenile reading. Little Women is.

We all liked series as children. I read Nancy Drew like the other girls, of course, but not all series are so formulaic. One of the great appeals of the series book is that you get to watch the characters grow up, like Laura and Mary in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books; like Betsy, Tacy, Tib and all their friends in Maud Hart Lovelace's series; and like Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's Alice McKinley. Although the sensationalistic nature of series is usually emphasized by their critics, the American domestic novel may be said to be epitomized in the form of series for girls, since the emphasis is on long-term involvement with characters who have experiences analogous to those of the readers - school, dating, family dynamics, and eventually employment and/or marriage, if the series goes on long enough. Such books are especially pleasant experiences for modern children of the mobile society, ruthlessly moved around as they are by the requirements of the adults in their lives, with no say in who divorces, who marries, or who takes which job. You may have to leave all your friends behind, but Alice, Elizabeth, and Pamela are right where they always were.

One of my favorite series I didn't discover until I grew up. Swallows and Amazons and its many sequels have always been fantastically popular in Great Britain, but are hard to find in the U.S. This is a shame, because Arthur Ransome had the rare gift of being able to make good times into fun reading. His sailing, camping, hiking children are wonderfully human and competent. Though the subject matter and the plots are traditional "boy" matters, the girl characters outnumber and frequently outperform the boys, without this prompting any macho insecurity on the parts of the boys. I've read a certain amount of nonsense about these books being patriarchal, imperialistic, or what have you, to which I can only say: We get the books we deserve. If an adult insists on dragging his baggage onto the boat, no one can help him with it.

It is not true that there were no good books for children prior to Alice in Wonderland, but it is true that subsequent authors all owe Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) a huge debt. Nowadays grownups enjoy the Alice books more than kids do (its surrealism makes it a favorite of critics, who can play endless analytical games with the text), but Dodgson is the grandfather of children's fantasy; which is interesting, because the Alice books are not fantasy, but nonsense. Fantasy creates a secondary reality in which metaphors are made flesh; nonsense pulls the rug out from under our primary reality, for both macabre and humorous effects. Children respond well to nonsense, but it takes a mature mind to create it - to judge precisely which piece of reality to turn on its head or carry to absurd extremes for maximum effect. (George MacDonald, who encouraged Dodgson in becoming Carroll, was a genuine fantasist; but his impact on the public face of children's fantasy was much less, because his books are recombinations of Victorian novels and fairy tales - a worthwhile feat, but less original than Carroll's magnum opus.) Like other innovators, Carroll's legacy is muddled by successors who failed because they latched onto the obvious appeal of the books and did not recognize the underlying structure which made it strong. I am happy to say that such imitators tend to fall by the wayside, replaced by authors who know precisely what they're doing.

The Golden Age of children's fantasy occurred, ironically, during the early 20th century, when most people would have told you that the values of scientific rationalism were in the ascendant. (Is it possible that the values of fantasy and scientific rationalism are less incompatible than people assume? Think about it.) The first great American fantasist, who mixed his fantasy with nonsense in a unique body of work that has been mauled, mangled, and badly imitated ad nauseum, was L. Frank Baum of Oz, creator of that great American heroine, Dorothy Gale of Kansas. Baum is an excellent example of the author as non-critic; the moment he attempted to analyze what he was doing, he ceased doing it. When he wasn't watching himself, he created a secondary world that is second to none, convincing despite (because of?) a number of internal inconsistencies from book to book and a fair admixture of nonsense concepts. Though Oz has been criticized for being unrelentingly sunny and optimistic, it is a remarkable fact that when adult writers try to use his material they consistently lose either the verisimilitude or the optimism, yet Baum maintained both effortlessly. The modern concept of reality as "gritty" is obviously inadequate for dealing with Oz.

At approximately the same time that Baum was single-handedly creating American children's fantasy, E. Nesbit was transforming British children's fantasy. Interestingly, she also wrote realistic children's books, which vary in style not one iota from her fantasies - like Baum, and unlike fantasists up to this time, she did not treat magic as a separate or romantic phenomenon, but as something matter-of-fact and practical that could happen to anyone. She brought magic into the everyday world in a way previously associated more with supernatural stories than with fantasy. Her influence is so pervasive in modern fantasy that it looks normal and inevitable, appearing recognizably in works as diverse as C.S. Lewis's Christian-based fantasy of Narnia and Neil Gaiman's horror story Coraline. Yet I can't find a decent webpage on her to save my life. The world is unfair that way.

Young Adult Books (Peni's opinions)

Nesbit's heirs include the woman I consider to be the greatest living author in the English language, Diana Wynne Jones. Here we begin to make the transition from juvenile to young adult fiction - though, like most truly great writers, neither upper nor lower age limits apply to Jones's work. Some are targeted at younger children (The Four Grannies), many are firmly in the Nesbittian tradition, with protagonists and probable intended audiences between eight and twelve (The Ogre Downstairs), most are marketed equally to children and adult fantasy readers (Howl's Moving Castle), and some deal with the maturation issues so directly and ruthlessly (Time of the Ghost, Fire and Hemlock) that YA is the only logical place to stick them. When you're this good, you don't really need a label, except as a convenience to the shelvers.

YA itself has always been a problematical, orphaned genre. I once asked a buyer for B&N how she determined what went into the YA section, and she responded "Trim size." That's about the level of dedication you expect from a megabookstore; but librarians, publishers, and even authors often have trouble pinning it down beyond that, as well. YA fiction as a separate category was officially created in the 50s, when "teen novels" such as Beverly Cleary's Fifteen and Jim Kjelgaard's outdoor stories targeted high school audiences and began to be shelved in their own section. They were envisioned by publishers and librarians as transitional books intended to bridge the gap between juvenile and adult literature, not as books in their own right. Most of these proto-YA books are found in the juvenile section today, while the YA section - scorned and neglected, like modern teens themselves, contain some of the most savagely honest writing you'll ever chicken out of reading. Adult goth fantasy is often pretentious; young adult goth fantasy (Annette Curtis Klause, for example) is sexy, vivid, and real. YA is where you'll find beautifully crafted fantasy and science fiction about people with godlike powers and crippling personal hang-ups (Neal Shusterman The Star Shards triology, The Eyes of Kid Midas), thrillers that genuinely thrill (Nancy Werlin; The Killer's Cousin, Locked Inside, Black Mirror), accurate depictions of the interior life (Simon Says, Elaine Marie Alphin), practical politics (Joan Bauer, Hope Was Here), - everything, in short, on a waffle. All this mixed up with media tie-ins, genre books putatively intended for adults, manga, graphic novels, and even a few traditional teen romances. This is where the good stuff happens, folks!

It's also where the censorship happens. We as a society discourage teen-agers from reading. The antiliterary brigade stands ready to pounce on anything that will encourage someone with a growing brain from learning to use it by reading thoughtful, ambiguous, controversial, or just plain opinionated stuff. The antiliterary brigade hates YA for its virtues. I'll find somewhere else to rant about this, but in the meantime, if you want to know what I'm talking about, read Brent Hartlinger's blog about it. If you just want to keep up with the field, TeenReads can help.

Mysteries (Peni's Opinions)

I have loved mysteries since before I could read. Often criticized by people who use the wrong critical tools to analyze them, mysteries are similar to fantasy in that they exploit the emotional appeal of the unknown and mysterious, but unlike them in that they are, ultimately, rationalist, with all strangeness explained - though not necessarily explained away. The best of them can be emotionally devastating and intellectually tidy at the same time. They were my mainstay when I used to have annual bouts of bronchitis. Give me a mug of tea with honey, a vaporizer, a cat, and a stack of paperback mystery novels, and I may not be comfortable, but I'll survive.

Stories which can be classed as mysteries are found in the ancient literature, and detectives appear in the works of Poe, Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and even in Louisa May Alcott's anonymous sensation fiction; but I am not here to dispute that the genre, as a genre, truly began with the immortal Sherlock Holmes. I would much rather go to dinner with Watson than with Holmes, but the detective is there to solve problems, not to schmooze cozily. During my bronchitis binges, I prefer the company of Golden Age detectives, solving puzzles in a never-never-land of country houses and people with no real work to do. Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie between them are responsible for the five greatest mysteries of all time: Gaudy Night, Nine Tailors, And Then There Were None, Murder on the Orient Express, and Death on the Nile. John Dickson Carr also pleases me obscurely, his dark and feverish stories fitting in nicely with the vaporizer and the tea. My favorite modern mystery writers are Tony Hillerman, justly famous for his mysteries set among the Navajo, and Ellis Peters, whose stories about 12th-century monk Brother Cadfael leave me feeling oddly peaceful and serene, despite the amount of mayhem that goes forward in them. I actually prefer Cadfael to Chesterton's classic Father Brown.

Science Fiction (Peni's Opinions)

It has been said that the golden age of science fiction is about 12. This is probably why we like it! It's common to bewail the dearth of new science fiction written particularly for children and young adults, in the tradition of Robert A. Heinlein (whom Peni finds unreadable, but whose influence on the genre is not to be denied or regretted) and Sylvia Louise Engdahl (whom Peni loves despite her mysticism); but many great science fiction authors, such as Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula K. LeGuin, and H.G. Wells, are equally accessible to middle school children and adults. Others, such as my favorite Lois McMaster Bujold, or the inimitable Douglas Adams, may not qualify as great in the literary, but are well-written, and sure are fun to read. Compared to Miles Vorkosigan and Arthur Dent, none of us has any troubles! If you want star-spanning adventure, like the Lensmen series by EE. "Doc" Smith; serious socially relevant literature like Walter Miller's classic Canticle for Liebowitz; worlds to explore backwards and forwards like Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover; or just ideas to play with, you can't do better than go to the science fiction section.

Science fiction is also the place where the rationalist and mystical traditions of Western society play out in literary form. The first science fiction novel, after all, is generally considered to be Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, created out of the Sturm und Drang of the Romantic period of English letters, when emotional rebellion against rationalist philosophy drove the pen. C.S. Lewis used science fiction imagery to explore his religious ideas in his Space Trilogy, and Madeline L'Engle did the same in A Wrinkle in Time. Science fiction appeals as strongly to the religious reader as to the athiest, in a society that assumes an irreducible dichotomy between reason and faith.

That would be another trait that makes it suitable for growing minds!

Legend has it that "Sturgeon's Law" originated with a dissing of science fiction. Apparently, a rude person having a conversation with Theodore Sturgeon, on learning that he wrote science fiction, remarked: "You know, I've read science fiction, and 90% of it is crud." To which Sturgeon replied: "Ninety percent of everything is crud." This is a snappy comeback, not a scientifically determined law, but it works reasonably well as a guide to life, especially with the corrollaries "No two people share the same 10% noncrud" and "There is such a thing as good crud."

You can keep up with what's going on in the world of science fiction by reading Locus

Fantasy (Peni's and Damon's Opinions)

Tolkien. Well, you have to start with Tolkien, don't you? He's the one who started it all for our generation. Some might say he's got a lot to answer for, with all those imitators out there -- but it's not his fault people caught world-builder disease from him without catching his skill in philology or his originality of vision. Like Dodgson, Tolkien's virtues are subtle enough that many people - fans, detractors, and imitators - have seized on obvious, inessential elements and missed (at least, on the conscious level) the important stuff. For example, the Ring is an external evil that must be destroyed, Sauron an external evil who must be defeated - but the struggles that matter are internal ones, and this feature is notably lacking in imitation works. Frodo is defeated, not triumphant. The hobbits return to a world that has changed while they were trying to protect it. The battles and the politics are all a huge red herring, distracting Sauron from the danger he could crush in a moment if he knew it was creeping up on his flank, and all any individual in the book (except maybe Gandalf) can do is the best he can do, plodding on from day to thankless day, without any real hope or prospect of success. Heroism isn't about swooping in and saving the day. It's about getting up in the morning whether it makes any sense to do so or not.

There were plenty of fantasists before Tolkien, and even at it's greatest extent the glut of heroic fantasy never overwhelmed the bookstores' carrying capacity sufficiently to squeeze out quality altogether. In fact, Tolkien did us all a favor. His success in the 60s and 70s motivated publishers to dust off and republish older fantasists like James Branch Cabell (a fantasist for those who hate Tolkien), Lord Dunsany, George MacDonald, William Morris, Clark Ashton Smith, and Thomas Burnett Swann. It created the climate in which people like Tom Dietz (a good Georgia boy!), Damon's particular favorite Michael Moorcock, and master of Low Fantasy Lawrence Watt-Evans could flourish. Okay, so bad Robert E. Howard imitators could also flourish; but hacks have to eat, too.

We read a lot of fantasy, good, bad, and indifferent. As with science fiction, it bridges the generations. Many of the children who enjoy Peni's books also read Piers Anthony's Xanth series and Brian Jacques's books about the intelligent medieval animals of Redwall. Most people start reading L. Sprague deCamp in high school. Esther Friesner, Terry Pratchett, and Tom Holt are funny even if you don't normally read fantasy; but you'll laugh harder if you know the conventions they're playing with. (Pratchett's Small Gods, by the way, is in Peni's opinion the only great agnostic novel she's ever read.) There are exceptions: Steven Brust's pastiches of nineteenth century adventure fiction (The Phoenix Guards and Five Hundred Years After) take some skill and patience to read, which few people under 20 will have accumulated; and the first time Peni tried to read Roger Zelazny, in high school, it gave her a headache. To be fair, she was trying to start with the fourth book in the complicated Amber series, and she liked it much better ten years later.

If all you want is a good time, Robert Asprin and Nick Pollotta can set you up. Peni thinks they are undisciplined stylists, but Damon doesn't care. He says of these authors: "Definitely read the Mythadventures books, but don't stop there. And if you want a pre-X-Files vision of weirdness in the FBI, read Pollotta's three Bureau 13 books." You'll have to poke around in used book stores for Bureau 13, but hey, you're doing that anyway, right?

Horror (Damon's Opinions)

"Why do you read that weird stuff?" Did your mother ever ask you that? Mine did. The broad category "weird stuff" seemed to apply to certain types of fantasy and SF, comics, MAD magazine, and --especially -- horror. That a child of hers should enjoy reading about demons, vampires, werewolves, witchcraft, or even the more mundane torture and murders in some of the less-fantastic horror stories, was a source of frequent concern. My reading material was never actually censored, however, and each of us read what we liked. My mother reads a lot, too, and I never know what she sees in her favorites, either. Classic horror writers like Ambrose Bierce, Algernon Blackwood, Sheridan LeFanu, Edgar Allen Poe, and H. P. Lovecraft give modern practitioners of the genre some big shoes to fill. Many have chosen to push the envelope of the genre, and in recent decades we've been able to enjoy a new incarnation of the antihero: the monster as protagonist. Anne Rice's Lestat, Fred Saberhagen's Dracula and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's Saint-Germain are three of the better-known examples of the vampire "hero" in literature, a formula so successful it's even bled over (pun intentional) into that most creatively moribund of media, television. Others have done commendable jobs making the damned, cursed, weird, or undead more interesting than horrifying: Tanya Huff's five Vicki Nelson books, Laurell K. Hamilton's (earlier; the later ones are porn more than horror, sorry) Anita Blake books, Mercedes Lackey's three Diana Tregarde books and single Jennifer Talldeer novel and P.N. Elrod's two interconnected series featuring Jack Fleming and Jonathan Barrett are some of the really good ones. Think horror isn't what it used to be? Maybe not. There's still plenty of horrifying stuff out there though. If you aren't looking to sympathize with the creatures of the night, and just want a good, strong chill, read Dean Koontz, Robert R. McCammon, or Michael Slade. If you have lots of time to kill, you might want to try Dan Simmons or Brian Lumley. (Feminists beware! There's a misogynistic streak in Lumley's books.)

Whatever Else

We don't want to leave you with the impression that we only read genre fiction. It's true that contemporary mainstream and literary fiction leaves us cold. So much of it doesn't seem meant to be enjoyed. We're both into the classics, however, particularly Victorians. Peni reads and re-reads Dickens, Jane Austen, and the Brontes; Damon greatly admires Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson. It's a shame that once a book becomes a classic, people stop reading it for fun and start reading it because they're supposed to. Nobody ever derived any benefit from a book read that way. Sometimes you want to change your life. Sometimes you just really need a good ghost story. So we suggest you try out books wherever you can get them, and not worry about what you're supposed to read. P.G. Wodehouse is as legitimate a literary taste as Virginia Woolf. There's no point reading one when you're wanting the other.

Time Enough to Read

People often remark that they "don't have time" to read. Well, here's some little tricks that will greatly expand your reading time:

Ride the bus. If that's not practical, you can get those books-on-tape to play in the car; but it's easier to concentrate on the story if you're not watching traffic, and it's easier to find the book you want in print than on tape.

Carry a book in your purse, pocket, or briefcase at all times. Then you can read while waiting for the doctor, standing in line at the grocery store, or whenever.

Leave a book in the bathroom. Don't laugh! Peni got through most of Robert Fraser's Golden Bough this way. It took two years, but she did it.

Learn to read and walk at the same time.

Read while eating. Persuade the people you're eating with to do the same, so you don't feel so rude. Caution: It is better not to do this with first editions, but you should when possible read from cheap, sturdy books anyway.

Don't watch so much TV. Plan your TV viewing for maximum efficiency instead of just watching what's on, and use the extra time to read.

Delete all the videogames from your computer.

Stop coming online so often! (Yeah, right! : P)

Finding Books

BookWire - The First Place to Look for Book Information
Columbia University: Project Bartleby
Kay Vandergrift's Special Interest Page
WWW VL: Literature/World Literature

Literature On-Line

Alex: A Catalog of Electronic Texts on the Internet
Literature Online Shakespeare Homepage - Forget what your English professors said. Shakespeare wrote violent, funny, sad, popular entertainment that's fun to read and that's different every time you see it performed.
Victorian Women Writers Project

This is a long way from all the things we have to say about books, but we have to give you time to scope out the pages we've linked, don't we?

This page was last updated on October 23, 2007, at which time Peni painstakingly went through each and every broken link. Happy reading!

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Mysteries | Science Fiction | Fantasy | Horror | Whatever | Finding Books

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