Discriminating Taste

In yesterday’s post about not being a literary snob, I made the comment that I’ve become more discriminating as I’ve gotten older.  I said I would explain what I meant by that today, and I will.

When I was in school, I was one of those students who would finish early and use the extra class time to read.  I discovered many of the major sf writers through the anthologies of Robert Silverberg.  The library at the junior high I attended in 7th grade had a number of them.  These were the reprint anthologies he edited in the 60s, not the New Dimensions series.  I doubt those would have been deemed acceptable, or as we would say today, age appropriate.

On the weekends (provided I could talk my father into taking me) I would also go to the mall, where there was a Waldenbooks, or the flea market, which had a couple of used book stalls.  One of them sold paperbacks with the covers torn off for a quarter.  I didn’t realize at the time that these were stolen books, reported to the publisher as having been pulped.

It was through these venues that I discovered the works of Jack Williamson, James H. Schmitz, L. Sprague de Camp, Fritz Leiber, Isaac Asimov, Eric Frank Russell, Poul Anderson, and Silverberg himself, not to mention the juveniles of Robert Heinlein. Fantasy was just entering a boom phase, and before long I was reading that as well.  When I joined the Science Fiction Book Club in 9th grade, I first encountered the writers who made the greatest impression on me:  C. L. Moore, Edmond Hamilton, Fredric Brown, Frederik Pohl, C. M. Kornbluth, Leigh Brackett, and the writer who had the greatest impact on me, Henry Kuttner.  (I’d been reading Ray Bradbury since 5th grade, and Robert E. Howard was still a few years in my future.)  Outside the genre, some of the biggest influences I encountered during high school were Raymond Chandler, Rafael Sabatini, and Humphrey Bogart.

As I got into college and then graduate school, I continued to read widely in the field.  Until I got married, there was usually plenty of time to read a book or two a week plus a variety of short stories and comics.

It was during this phase that I developed some of the attitudes I discussed in yesterday’s post.  I began taking my reading seriously, at times too seriously.  I followed the award nominations and tried to read the titles that got the most buzz. 

After marriage and then parenthood came along, time began to be more and more at a premium.  Books began to pile up faster than previously.  And I realized something.  Reading wasn’t as fun as it used to be.  Or rather, make that what I was reading wasn’t as fun as what I had read when I was younger.

Over the last decade, I’ve reached a decision.  It is very likely I’ve passed the halfway point in my life.  If I haven’t I’m approaching it.  My father’s side of the family tends to live into their 90s and beyond on a regular basis if they take care of themselves.  I may not be at the halfway point yet, but time is slipping away.

Life is too short to read things because You Should or Everyone Is Reading This or It’s Going to be on All the Award Ballots or This Book Has Something Important to Say.  Especially that last one.  There are more good books out there that I haven’t read than I’ll ever be able to.  Unless I get locked into solitary confinement for twenty years with access to the world’s libraries, I’ve come to see the need to be more discriminating.

Not discriminating on  the basis of prejudiced against because of the publisher or the franchise, but discriminating on the basis of is this something I’m going to enjoy as much as I would that pulp over there?  In other words, more selective.  I’m trying to read more to my established tastes than to what certain voices in the field say I need to read.

So what am I trying to focus on?  Well, if you’ve read much of this blog, you know sword and sorcery is a major part of that.  So is epic fantasy, at least during periods when I have plenty of time to block out for reading, i.e., when classes aren’t in session.  As far as science fiction goes, space opera, especially space opera with a hard science bent, but also hard science in general, followed by time travel.  Historical adventure has been growing as a percentage of my reading over the last few years.  Horror is still there, but I’m pretty discriminating about it.  In the mystery field, PIs tend to be what I gravitate to, with police procedurals coming in second.  Cozies I can do without.  I consider noir and crime to be different from mystery, but they also get a lot of my attention.  And of course, I love short fiction of almost any genre. 

You can see the trend here, can’t you?  Adventure in some form.  Sense of wonder.  An exhilaration at being alive.  Optimism coupled with a thread of darkness.  Anyway, those are the things I look for in fiction.  You can keep the books written to promote your agenda or expand my consciousness.  I’ve got a villain to fight, a princess to save, and a monster to slay.

14 thoughts on “Discriminating Taste

  1. The Wasp

    I’ve always been a very anti-franchise sort of person. I read the original Dragon Lance trilogy with decreasing enthusiasm back in the day. I became distressed as the TSR and Star Wars books seemed to overwhelm the shelves in Waldenbooks.
    And part of me still feels that way. Then last year a stupidly long session with TV Tropes and WH40K led me to check out a few titles. They weren’t bad at all. Since then I’ve become more open. I want to check out H A Jones Pathfinder books.

    I find myself increasingly in sync with your last paragraph. After years of reading bleak James Ellroy type crime novels I’m happy to be adding some Agatha Christie to my diet. While she has a sharp and dark view of human actions her books still view justice as possible and needed.

    1. Keith

      I never read the original Dragon Lance books or any of the others along those lines. Heard too many negative things about them. What has really gotten me interested in some of the franchises, Warhammer in particular, is that I’ve read some of the nonfranchise works by the authors working in those universes and have been impressed. That’s probably been the biggest draw. And while I haven’t read Howard’s Pathfinder novels yet (the first one is on the shelf/in the queue), I’ve enjoyed what little I have read to be open to more.

      Christie is one of the classic mystery authors I’ve simply not managed to get to. Need to correct that. And while I enjoyed Ellroy’s earlier works, I eventually gave up on him. Not only was he too bleak, his increasing use of stream of consciousness style narration made his work almost unreadable for me.

      The thing that appeals to me about PIs is that they are often the only character fighting for justice. I think that’s why Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder novels appeal to me so much. As flawed as he is (and in the novels where he’s in the depths of his alcoholism, that’s very flawed), he still tries to bring justice to the situations he’s in.

  2. Anonymous

    “Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.” — Henry David Thoreau

    Bumped into that quote and realized, as I am swiftly growing very gray around the muzzle, that I ought to take a hard look at what I’m reading.
    I worked in a world-class bookstore for fourteen years, then was a buyer for a major chain for eight, so I accumulated a lot of books. A whole lot.
    I looked over my shelves and made a list of the titles that, were I to keel over momentarily, I would fade into oblivion cursing myself for not having read. The books I knew were great, that I meant to read, that I wish I’d already read.
    I probably have well over a thousand unread books, and my list ended up with 20 books on it.
    So far I’ve read three of them, and I mean to keep going at that list for a while.

    John Hocking

    1. Keith

      Thanks for sharing the quote, John. I’d not seen it before, but it’s definitely words to live by. I like your approach. I’ve thought about what books I would most regret not reading were I to die. While I also have thousands, I’m not sure I could limit myself to 20.

      For the rest of the year I’m going to try read more of the things I would read just for fun and fewer things because someone asked me to review them. Easier said than done, considering there’s a publisher (one of my favorites) who has started sending me copies of just about everything they publish.

    1. Keith

      Same here. Adventure and sense of wonder can be (and are) components of great literature. I don’t care what anybody else says.

  3. Tom Doolan

    I think we’re at the same point. Although I wasn’t a voracious reader as youth, I did start enjoying adventure fiction in high school. As a long-time D&D player, I thoroughly enjoyed the Dragonlance Chronicles, and have read the trilogy four times. That being said, I am much more discerning nowadays. I buy a lot of used books. Mainly in the S&S genre, with sprinkles of Mack Bolan and other types of “pulp” fiction. I have given up trying to read what others think I should read. I also get so little time to read these days, so I have to keep it short. If a book is much more than 200 pages, it usually gets a pass from me.

    1. Keith

      I’m with you on the 200 page thing, Tom, although my limit is around 350 at the moment. I’ve passed up some titles I would normally read simply because their length would require a time investment I simply didn’t have. Maybe when classes aren’t in session….

  4. Charles R. Rutledge

    I think you definitely have to narrow it down to the things that are worth your time, difficult though that may be. The last few years I’ve been getting a crash course in the Weird/Horror genre, and I’m always looking for sword & sorcery in the REH mode. (Oddly enough I find most of that in historical fiction.) Now that Robert B. Parker has passed away I’m having a hard time finding good new private eye stuff, but I keep looking. But I’m definitely with you. I want adventure and I want a lot of it.
    Someone asked me the other day if I considered myself a writer of horror, and I told them I consider myself a writer of adventures. There may be horror, but there will be heroes and action and derring-do.

    1. Keith

      Charles, if you find some good new PI stuff, please let me know. In the meantime, I’m dipping into the Nameless Detective volumes I haven’t read and catching up on the classics like the Lew Archer and John Francis Cuddy novels.

      And Howardian S&S is always something I want to read. Since you mention you find it in historicals, have you read Robert Low’s viking novels? In not, start with The Whale Road. Low’s a viking reenactor, so he knows how to make it real. I’ve only read The Whale Road, but it read more like S&S than a lot of fantasy does. He made that world so real that even though there wasn’t any actual supernatural aspect to the story, the characters believed in that sort of thing, and it informed their actions and decisions.

  5. Charles R. Rutledge

    I have read Robert Low, yes. Good stuff indeed. You’ve touched on what I meant about the historical fiction and S&S. Even if there’s no ‘real’ sorcery, belief in the supernatural often makes it seem as if the stories have real magic in them. Many of these books seem much closer to REH’s sensibilities than the current crop of fantasy writers. Not surprising I guess, since Howard was such a fan of historical fiction.

    1. Keith

      I agree completely. I’m finding myself drawn more and more towards historical fiction these days. Just trying to find a way to fit more of it in.


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