Wednesday, 11 April 2012
Why do we read the books that we do?
The book you're reading right now – why are you reading it? Was it a gift? Is it the latest from a favourite author, or are you re-reading a book you've loved since childhood? Did you like the cover, or did the blurb entice you? Or are you reading The Hunger Games because you want to find out what all the fuss is about?
As readers, we don't often think about why we end up reading our books (publishers do, publishers obsess over why people read books, which may be why it is so damn hard to get it right). But when we do look into the reasons why we're reading a particular title, sometimes an interesting story emerges.
Take Pavane, the book I've just finished. This novel by Keith Roberts is an alternate history of England. Like many alternate histories it is predicated on a single change to the past to force subsequent history down a new path. In Pavane's case that change is the assassination of Queen Elizabeth I, which allows the Catholic Church to reverse the tide of Protestantism sweeping across Europe as well as snuff out the spark of the coming Enlightenment. In consequence, Europe is plunged, if not quite into a new Dark Age, but, we could say, into a Dim Age for the next four hundred years. With the Papacy choking almost all scientific, technological and political progress, England in the Twentieth Century is still a largely medieval country, replete with a guild system as well as a babble of languages which help keep its people divided. The story Pavane tells, through a series of 'measures', is that of a number of individuals who become involved one way or another in the resistance to the stranglehold the church has over England.
Published first in 1966 (the current edition is based on a revised 1968 text), Pavane is part of Gollancz's excellent SF Masterworks series, first seeing print in 2000, I think. I have been aware of it since then and yet why has it taken me until now to read it?
Firstly, I have never really liked the cover. It's not bad. I like the yellow signal tower. But there's something about the landscape and the steam engine trundling up the road that I have never warmed to. There is a not-quite-finished, computer-generated feel to it. Something ersatz that has always put me off. I've bought books with worse covers, but when you're taking a chance on something, when there are other choices, sometimes it is the littlest of things that can decide it for you.*
I agree, this is a poor excuse. But I remember picking this book up and putting it down on more than one occasion. The idea is neat and simple. The book has numerous accolades and champions. On my desk sits a copy of Anthony Burgess's Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English since 1939 – Pavane is in it. And yet.
So what did nudge me over the edge?
It started, I think, with this review of a new US edition by Michael Dirda in the Washington Post on February 29th this year. Then here I by accident came across another (older) mention - a review that is quite critical by Larry Nolan of the always excellent OF blog. Then not long after that Paul McAuley wrote a lovely post about how he as a kid discovered Pavane (thereby showing considerably more wisdom than I ever had, without even the benefit of the intertubes).
Somebody out there was telling me something.
So I bought it. Read it. I greatly enjoyed it (not the cover though, that still irks me).
While I was reading Pavane, I met a very good friend of mine. His first question to me was – what are you reading? Before I could answer he told me he was reading this great book called Pavane. Had I heard of it?
I was curious. Why had he chosen it? It was simple really. For a few years now he's been working his way through the SF classics. Pavane was just the next book on his list.
I am nothing like as systematic in my reading as he is, but Pavane had also been the next book on my list. Only I did not know it until I got to it.
Why do we choose to read the books that we do?
Sometimes, it seems to me, the books reach out and choose us.
* I've subsequently done some checking and discovered the cover is by the great Jim Burns. Either it's just me, or everyone has an off-day.