[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
Many readers have different gears when reading books. Some books are ones in which you luxuriate and spend time with, others are such a ride that you turn the pages rapidly, carried along through them at warp speed.
We asked this week’s panelists about this phenomenon:
Here’s what they said…
As a fitness professional, I have a hard time comparing books to popcorn and candy. I’m sorry. It goes against my nature. Is it all right if I call them fruits versus vegetables? Fruit is yummy, quick to eat and always fun. Vegetables can be yummy, are a bit more work to eat but you know they’re extremely good for you.
I always read because I want to be entertained and I admit I don’t always read because I want to learn something, or broaden my mind. Sometimes, I really just want to have fun and read an entertaining book. That’s when I turn to the fruit.
The fruit books I grab for a quick, fun read are urban fantasy. Give me a Kim Harrison, Kelley Armstrong, Diana Rowland, Kat Richardson, Kevin Hearne (the list goes on and on) and I’ll disappear. I’m not saying that urban fantasy can’t be mind expanding or explore important issues, when they’re well done they certainly do that, but I don’t need to rethink my entire life to read them.
I’d also list horror books under this category, though it depends on the author. Some of those are a mix of fruits and vegetables with a side of bloody dip.
My vegetable books tend to be fantasy that take after the Tolkien mold. These are the stories I want to dive fully into, to be immersed in the world the author has created and linger there, enjoying every aspect of the characters, the setting and the story.
I’m interested to see other people’s responses on the books they savor, because I know I need more vegetables in my reading diet.
I distinctly remember doing a Popular Fiction course as part of my BA and being one of only three people in a 20-strong tutorial who admitted to regularly reading ‘popular fiction’. That was pretty weird. Equally disconcerting was the lecturer’s assertion that popular fiction was a product to be consumed, with the distinction that literature (a term the older me eyes suspiciously and asks “whatever the hell does that mean?”) was something one appreciated; and consumption was to be condemned. This is, of course, nonsense; I definitely consume Pride and Prejudice and any performance of Hamlet I can get my hands on, for instance, according to that lecturer’s taxonomy.
This distinction between savoring and devouring is a more interesting one to consider. For me, the distinction does not come from size; I zoomed through both Patrick Rothfuss novels, door-stoppers that they are, while Raphael Carter’s short story “Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation by KN Sirsi and Sandra Botkin” required slow, careful, reading. In this case the speed was partly thanks to the style, since Carter is writing the story as a science article. So perhaps one generalisation to make on savor vs devour is to compare books making some profound statement on society that requires wrestling with vs those holding entertainment as their highest goal. Here, I could compare Ursula le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed, both of which need to be savored to get the full impact (and I adore them), with Gail Carriger’s Alexis Tarabotti novels – which I also adore, and definitely devoured. For me the really important point to stress is that devouring does not make Carriger’s novels any less worthy, or less well written, than le Guin – which was my long-ago lecturer’s problem. Entertaining an audience is a laudable goal, and goodness knows it’s not easy to write a genuinely entertaining novel that I am willing to sacrifice my time and sleep for. I devoured Carriger’s novels because I was desperate to find out what she would do next to her characters, and how she would get them out of (or into) the next pickle; the speed of the action itself helped to dictate the speed of my reading. Le Guin’s novels, on the other hand, have plots that move at a compelling but less frenetic pace, so it’s not quite so necessary to turn the page and rescue her characters from direst peril.
Of course, this distinction doesn’t always hold up. Bernard Beckett’s Genesis is essentially a PhD student retelling history to her examiners – the pace is definitely not frenetic and Beckett is making some rather profound statements about society – but I genuinely could not put it down and devoured it in one sitting because I had to know what was coming up next. Perhaps this is a better distinction; books that leave me in an agony of not-knowing, vs those that benefit from contemplation. Any of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan books, vs China Miéville’s Embassytown or Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time. Of course, other readers’ mileage will vary; I read Christopher Priest’s The Islanders in a flurry because I was so caught up in the travel book style, while others will read it more slowly exactly because of that style.
Then there’s the question of a book series: all at once or deliberately spread out? (This does not include books where I’m stupid enough to start a series before it’s finished… looking at you, Isobelle Carmody, Tansy Rayner Roberts, and Holly Black…). I read the entirety of the Vorkosigan books (up to Cryoburn) in seven weeks a few years ago for the same reason as above; I had to know. But I spread out Gwyneth Jones’ Bold as Love sequence over more than a year, because it was an exquisite agony to know that I had such joy to look forward to at some point when I needed it!
On the gripping hand (to steal from Niven and Pournelle), I should point out that I am probably not the best person for figuring out savor vs devour, since as a general rule my approach to reading is “as much as I can cram in to as long as I can get away with”. Devouring is my modus operandi because there are so many books I want to read that it seems like the only feasible option.
Books are like your buddies, and I don’t mean it in a literal “every time I read a book, it’s like I’m with a friend” kind of deal, though that’s true too. I have friends I watch Bears games with because we all get agreeably loud and stupid, and it’s generally a good time until somebody puts someone else into an arm bar and sends that person to the hospital (yeah, you know who you are). And then there are friends that I know I can meet at a pub and have three hour writing sessions with over a glass of scotch.
It’s the same way with books. Some I want to read like I’m watching a marathon of Days of Our Lives and others I just devour because I just need to get to the end and find out what happens. It all depends on what kind of buddy that book is.
There are two reasons why I would speed through a book. Either I just need to know, or I skim through the author mentally masturbating (Um, can I say that here?). That’s the term my wife uses when I get too caught up in a scene and extend it out much longer than it really needs to be.
The one series that does both is Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. Don’t get me wrong. I love me some Jordan and would spread rose petals over the ground he walks on. He’s one of the seminal story tellers of our generation, and the WoT is one of those series that no matter what, after all these years, I needed to get to the Last Battle. That’s why when he passed away, legions of us geeks threw full blown tantrums (or was that just me?), but one thing he does is he loves to bask in his own storytelling. I forget which book but he once spent dozens of pages talking about dresses. I mean, really? Personally, I think he just caught up in his own awesomeness there.
Most of the books/series I savor come from my childhood. I still have very fond memories of the Boxcar Children, Xanth, or The Belgariad. It’s those books that I grew up on, and would always be sad to hit that last page. It’s like saying goodbye to your friends. Hmm, maybe I just needed more friends as a kid. That’s what happens when you grow up as an Asian kid in Nebraska.
I don’t savor many books as an adult. I don’t know what that says about me; maybe I should slow down and smell some flowers or something. The ones I do savor usually stem from a connection I’ve made with the setting as opposed to the character. Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe comes to mind. It was one of those great reads where the theme just resonated with me. Another is N.K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon. In Jemisin’s case, I was just floored with the world and culture she crafted, and wanted to spend as much time there as possible.
CANDY: William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms were all books I ripped through at a clip.
Though quite dissimilar in tenor, one of the things they all have in common is a muscular, fast-paced narrative. Gibson and Bull have a percussive rhythm to their writing, and the pace of their novels is driven sentence to sentence, even word to word. There is something raw and exciting about the way their stories evolve. It’s no surprise to me that Bull is a musician because, despite the pace, she knows exactly how long to hold the silence between beats.
Jemisin’s writing is as sophisticated as the intrigue she weaves into her narrative. Stories of court machination and bids for power aren’t usually particularly interesting to me, but Jemisin’s protagonist, Yeine, is dynamic and she drives the tempo of the book.
Gaiman’s book coasts on plot and memorable world-building, though, I must say, I could never quite set aside the feeling that the writing was rushed, and a couple of clunky phrases threatened to make my ears bleed.
SAVOR: Charles de Lint’s The Wild Wood, Ursula le Guin’s Tehanu, Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, Octavia Butler’s Kindred and Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude are all books I have taken my time savoring, often more than once.
The beauty of de Lint’s book is how quiet it is. The narrative builds and escalates almost without notice. Reading it is a bit like listening to music in a minor key, you don’t expect it to resonate, but it does. The power of this book is in the setting: de Lint gets the woods so right I want to stay in them forever.
Garcia Márquez, on the other hand, is all heat. He builds a narrative with generational sweep so epic, so operatic, you might imagine that is what makes you take your time. But the genius of this book is that Márquez’s story sets your tail feathers on fire but his language compels you honor the moment. His language dances — it dances — and I love losing myself in its rhythm.
Okorafor’s and Butler’s books are big and ambitious and intellectual. I linger with them because they make me dig beneath the surface to figure out the how of the writers’ formidable talents. I admire the economy and honesty with which both authors write about atrocity, and the way their narratives manage to leap and soar beyond it. Plus, their characters are some of the most complex characters in SFF.
In many ways Tehanu is odd choice. It is a slight book, written years after the Earthsea trilogy that preceded it. It is the book of a brilliant writer grappling with the bittersweet nature of aging, and I take my time with it because, while le Guin’s lucid style makes it a fast read, her take is so big-hearted and honest I never want it to end.
My default reading style is to whip through a book as fast as possible (partly so I can give initial impressions and opinions in my reviews). Sometimes it depends on the author’s style. If it’s written fast-paced and action-oriented like, say, many urban fantasies, they tend to default into the “popcorn” book category. Whereas an epic fantasy that’s packed with more environmental detail and internal character musings will encourage a “savory” approach in order to appreciate the full impact of the world.
I’ll sometimes read a book twice, once in each different mode (savor vs. popcorn). The first time through is often my usual speed-read. Then, if it caught me for a particular reason, I may go through it again later more steadily or even reread certain sections a few times to get deeper into the text–at times, this is also to study the author’s writing craft in the hopes of understanding how they pulled off a specific scene so well.
Two books that came out a while ago but have stuck in my mind as particularly “savory” are The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. Doorstopper books, to be sure, but ones that had so much fascinating detail and character development that it was really worth the time to work through it bit by bit, absorbing as you went. More recent ones would include the last few Wheel of Time novels and A Song of Ice and Fire series.
A couple “popcorn” examples would be books from series such as The Dresden Files, Pathfinder Tales, or the Marla Mason novels. Though “popcorn” may be a misnomer, as it might imply these types of books lack a certain substance. Not at all. They can offer just as strong stories and characters as the rest. It’s more to do with the pacing, with cliffhanger chapters, excellent action scenes, and often a driving quest that keep you flipping pages to answer some burning mystery or dilemma.
The books I devour are the ones that immerse me in the same sense of wonderment I had when I first fell in love with reading as a kid. This includes classic children’s and pulp novels like The Hobbit, the Narnia series, Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars and Pellucidar books. To this day, if I have a rough week I’ll grab one of these books and blow through it in a couple of hours on a Saturday. It relieves more stress than a good massage (and the happy endings are more satisfying too!). I also include in this category traditional high fantasy adventure. When I was in junior high and high school I gobbled up everything I could find from David Eddings, Raymond Feist, Katherine Kurtz, Katharine Kerr, and yeah, Terry Goodkind (my friends are going to give me crap about that one). While I don’t get a chance to read these sort of fantasy novels too often anymore, I still have a soft spot in my heart for them and will devour them when I can.
These days, as a high-falutin writer and academic, I tend to read books that need to be savored slowly. The first book I read of this sort was Lord of the Rings, of course. The world, the plot, and the prose were all so complex that it simply wasn’t possible to read quickly. Cyberpunk was a wake-up punch to the face. Author Ahimsa Kerp leant me Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash, which was unlike anything I’d read before, and I immediately dived into William Gibson after that. Tim Powers’ novels, especially The Anubis Gates and Declare, are so interwoven with sci-fi, mythology, history, and folk-lore that I have to go slow and really let it soak in. I’m also a big fan of Magical Realism; the world view is so different from what you see in most genre fiction, and yet it taps into something similar that I can’t quite put my finger on. Most recently, I finished the grand daddy of post-apocalyptic fiction, A Canticle for Leibowitz, which is complex and dense (and believe it or not, very funny). It took me a long time to read, but it was worth every minute of it, and it reinforced something I’ve come to learn recently as an author: you can’t always believe writing teachers. The writing mantra “show, don’t tell” is absolutely wrong when you know how to artfully tell a story.
Whether grand and epic or short and powerful, I tend to savour stories filled with beautiful words. Poetry, whether narrative or abstract, tends to evoke an emotional response that I want to linger over. The same is true of great short fiction, especially flash. The compactness of the story makes me want to reread the material to catch every nuance and clue the author left behind.
I love to revisit character-based stories, because the characters themselves are people that I want to know better. Stories that explore the deeper questions of our existence usually call for at least a second reading, in order to mull over what I’ve read there and consider my answers. Even light-hearted reads that I’ve enjoyed because they made me laugh get another reading, because there simply isn’t enough laughter in the world.
For the most part, I’ll read a book once for plot and, in the case of my favorites, at least a second time to savour the words, thoughts, and characters. That’s why I’ve read Ender’s Game more than once and why – despite not being a fan of the plots – I continually reread Hemingway. His prose is so sparsely beautiful, even when describing ugly situations and characters, that I keep coming back for more.
On the other hand, I devour anything with a fast paced plot and characters that I quickly come to care for. When their fortunes change suddenly, I race through the pages to find out what happens next; when there’s a mystery unravelling with each page, I keep turning to the next one. Almost every book I’ve read from Angry Robot has been a quick read, and I still remember staying up all night to read Gone with the Wind in one sitting. It’s not length but pace that keeps me turning pages as fast as I can.
So, the answer to your questions, in a nutshell, is that as long as a book is well written and interesting, I’ll keep reading it. The pace of the plot determines the pace of my consumption, but my favorites always warrant more than one reading. Like music, familiarity breeds a finer appreciation.
Honestly, I haven’t the foggiest what makes me devour a book like I devour a tasty pie. It makes sense to drown yourself in pie, since pie is so lovely, but books are a sea of disparate elements that magically coalesce into that thing we call a story. Some of those stories never work for us. We read them, we shrug, and we move on (or we toss the book against the wall and complain on Twitter). Whatever it is that makes a book “devour-able” probably can’t be explain in any concrete terms. Loving literature is a subjective experience.
So I’m not going to bother trying to explain why I devoured these books. You’ll just have to take my word for it:
- Harry Potter (the full series) — a “duh” selection
- Sister Mine by Nalo Hopkinson (Midnight Robber too)
- The Xenowealth Saga by Tobias Buckell
- Anything by Brian Francis Slattery or Christopher Barzak
- After the Apocalypse by Maureen McHugh
- Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
- “Call Me Joe” by Poul Anderson
- Stardust by Neil Gaiman
- The Innocent Mage/Awakened Mage series by Karen Miller
- Cell the Stephen King
- Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
- The Legend of Huma by Richard A. Knaak (this book was one of the things that got me into SF/F)
- The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly
And many many many more. Trust me…you don’t want to full list…
The way I read anything has changed over the past few years. Time is at a premium, and I had to get over the guilt I used to feel for abandoning a book part-way through. Once I got past that, though, it became harder for me to find a book I’ll even finish, much less tear through or luxuriate in. When either of those things happen, something important is at work in the pages.
An example of a book I luxuriated in and never wanted to end was Deathless by Catherynne Valente. Valente’s prose is just gorgeous, and I’d reread lines and even entire passages just to experience them again–sometimes even to pick apart the words themselves as I ask myself “How did she do that?!” With a book like that I’m less concerned about turning the pages to find out what happens next—I know I’ll reach the destination, but meanwhile I’m going to enjoy the journey. It’s the way the author carries me into their world and the hearts and minds of their characters that makes me want to stay there forever.
I recently picked up The Terror by Dan Simmons, and it was immediately apparent that it would be a page-turner. The drama and mystery of the situation—two ships trying to find and navigate the Northwest Passage are trapped in the ice for years, while being stalked by an enormous and extremely smart polar bear—is gripping. I can’t wait to turn the page, often at the expense of the prose, which I find myself skimming to get to the next thing that happens. My curiosity over how they will survive this situation (or whether they will at all) drives me to eat this one like candy.
And then there are authors who can do both. I devoured Robert Jackson Bennett’s Mr. Shivers in a single night. The world is immersive, the prose strong but not distracting, and I enjoyed every minute of it. But I found myself savoring Bennett’s The Troupe. As a reader I was happy to take my time with it and stay in his world of magical Vaudevillians, turning the pages without ever skimming them.
I think it’s the author who determines which gear the book is in. As a reader, I’m just along for the ride.
This is a hard question to answer since I’m not sure I completely agree with the choice of the words “savor” or “candy.” I often savor candy, because candy is delicious. Page-turning and a desire to spend forever in the book are also not mutually exclusive to me. Our family trip to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter showed me that I’d love to literally live in a page-turning novel. Plus, they had candy!
So instead I’ll focus on reading speed. Prose style determines how long I “luxuriate” in a book. Complex imagery, dense language, and intricate worldbuilding will take me longer to read than a novel built around snappy dialogue and rapid action sequences. I don’t believe either type of novel is intrisicately superior to the other, any more than I believe quail cooked with truffles is better than homemade birthday cake and ice cream. I enjoy different things at different times.
As for my “savory” favorites, the authors who come to mind are Elizabeth Bear, Sarah Monette, and Catherynne M. Valente. Bear blends fantastic language, fascinating characters, rich themes, and precise plots with tremendous worldbuilding. Whether blending generation spaceships and high fantasy as she does in her Jacob’s Ladder trilogy or adding an intricate magic system to a secondary world made of Central Asian elements in her ongoing Eternal Sky series, Bear always amazes and challenges me as a reader. Sarah Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths series combines complex, ambiguous characters with a layered, troubled world. Her first person narration is amongst the best ever written in literature. Finally, Catherynne M. Valente pushes boundaries of language, ideas, and structure in amazing works such as Palimpsest, Deathless, and The Orphan’s Tales. I never can guess what will happen next in one of her lush novels.
Some of my “candy” favorites include authors like Alex Bledsoe, Jim C. Hines, and Seanan McGuire. As I said above, I believe all of the works are just as important and valuable as the savory ones. Alex Bledsoe’s works have a fantastic, charming voice filled with warmth and humor. His Eddie LaCrosse novels combine the action of classic sword & sorcery with the wit of the best blue-collared noir crime novels. Alex’s The Hum and the Shiver is a modern classic of rural fantasy with its musical storytelling that captures the American South like a Carter Family song or Elvis crooning “Mystery Train.” Speaking of wit and humor, nobody combines those elements with heart and adventure better than Jim C. Hines. Each series of his (Jig the Goblin, Princess Series, and Magic Ex Libris) simply gets better than the last. When I’m going through a tough time in my life, I always grab Jim’s books. He always puts a smile on my face. And finally, nobody writes a page-turner better than Seanan McGuire. Her books make me cackle with glee. Nobody writes smarter, wittier characters. Her three series, Newsflesh (as Mira Grant), October Daye, and InCryptid, move like lightning while still delivering amazing ideas and layered themes. Seanan’s books are constantly entertaining.
Candy books are books that just draw me in and don’t let go until they’re done, books where I just have to have to know what happens next. Often these are books with a mystery slant, so crime or urban fantasy books, but they don’t always have to be. Books like Mike Shepherd’s Kris Longknife books, Julianna Baggott’s Pure series, Daniel Polanski’s Low Town books, and Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles. They all have in common that they have lots of action and are fast reads. Calling them candy, though, has the connotation that they are fluff reads and they aren’t by any means. They can be, but they can also be thoughtful and deep, they just keep me turning pages.
Then there are the books that have to be savoured, books where I find myself rereading passages just to enjoy the beauty of the language or the intricacy of the world building. Or stories where I really don’t want to leave the characters or world behind, because of their richness or I’ve fallen in love with them, so I slow down and parse out my reading so I can spend a little more time with them. They are books that either make me think and shift my perspective or that haunt me, sticking in my mind for different reasons: N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Lauren Beukes’ novels, Steven Erikson’s Malazan books. Or a more recent book is Cassandra Rose Clarke’s The Mad Scientist’s Daughter.
Of course there are also books that are neither sweet nor savoury, but a blending of the two. Books that I don’t want to end, because I love their universe so much and because they stay with me between reading, but books that also speed by because they are so smoothly written and fun and I just want to keep turning pages. These are the books that I’ll reread on a whim when I’m feeling down or ill, because I know they’ll get me out of my slump. They’re books by Mercedes Lackey, who I’ve long held to be my literary chocolate, Ben Aaronovitch’s The Folly series, Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards, and more recently Emma Newman’s Split Worlds, beginning with Between Two Thorns.
But as with anything, I find I have to consume in moderation after two candy books, I crave something savoury, while if I’ve just read a mind-blowing, savoury book, there’s nothing better than a quick, sweet romp of a book to reset my brain. Variety is the spice of life, as they say!
Just like some people binge-watch television, I’m a binge reader. A book only has a couple of chapters — when I’m feeling generous, I’ll give it three chapters — to capture my attention. If it fails to do so, then I’m most likely not going to finish it. There is one exception to this, and that is when I’m having to read a book for review.
Fantasy — with a couple exceptions — normally fails to capture my attention. Whereas, science-fiction is the genre I tend to devour like candy, reading through it in one sitting, at the expense of everything else. Because of this, when it is time for me to read a book, I tend to block out an entire day to devote to the book.
Books that spend a lot of time “painting a picture” are books that fail to capture my attention. Also, books where a lot of time is spent telling me about a character’s personality traits turn me off. I much rather add my own colours to the environment, and learn about a character’s personality through their interactions with other people and their environment. Whenever an author starts to give a lot of details about a character, I feel like I’m being manipulated. I much prefer to make my own judgements about a character or situation. Also, for me, these things rarely have anything to do with the progression of the story. Unless a detail is necessary for the overall development of the plot, I don’t want to know about it.
But stories that allow me to add my own colours, and just give me enough information about characters and situations to make my own decisions about them, plus have a story that is always moving forward are books that cause me to want to devour them, always flipping to the next page because I want to know what happens next.
Finally, stories that cause me to really think and contemplate, or, even better, cause me to rethink a position I may have on something, are the best. I’m the type who prefers to read non-fiction over fiction, so if a work of fiction acts as some sort of educational tool, I’m hooked.
Language versus story.
In my mind, that’s the main difference between books I savor and the books I “eat like candy,” as SF Signal puts it.
There are two things that make me want to savor a book: the poetic language of the novel, and the world painted by those words.
Recently, I’ve had to savor more books than I usually do, because it’s hard to read a book really fast when I’m so busy taking care of my kids. As a result, it takes me longer to finish any book that I start.
But some of those books are the kind of book I meant to savor to begin with. Case in point: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.
The Night Circus came out in late 2011, and although I was interested in the book, I wasn’t yet ready to make a full commitment to it. So I borrowed it from the library, in hardcover, and tried to read it within the 2-week borrowing period. I managed to get through about one-quarter of the book, but it wasn’t just due to the usual travails of life getting in the way. It was also because I was savoring the book, enjoying the author’s vignettes and presentation of her world.
I had to return the book, and then I borrowed it again, in hardcover, and as an ebook, and as a hardcover again, eventually finishing it over a year after I had started reading it.
Here is my review, in full, of the book, once I finished it last October:
“I finally, after over a year, finished The Night Circus. As I was coming to the end of the book, I read more and more slowly, savoring the story and not wanting it to vanish away, either suddenly or in increments. But inevitably, the novel ended, as all novels must.”
Another author whose books I tend to savor more when I read is Ray Bradbury’s. Bradbury’s use of language and metaphor is far beyond my own abilities. When I read his work, I want to get lost in his words, and I desire to puzzle over them, so I end up savoring his stories and novels, even if I intended from the beginning to get through them rapidly.
As for what I speed through, well, it tends to be books I’ve read before. Sometimes I will speed through a new-to-me book: Redshirts by John Scalzi is an example of that. What makes me go through a book quickly tends to be two factors: its readability (and good luck asking me to define that), and how compelling the story is in wanting me to rush to the end. The Night Circus did have a compelling story, just like Redshirts, but in the case of the first book what I wanted was to spend more time with the story before it had to end; in the case of the second, I desperately wanted to know how it would turn out.
For the most part, the books I “eat like candy” nowadays tend to be old Lawrence Block novels. I’ve got all of his Bernie Rhodenbarr novels on my phone now, and I’m constantly re-reading them over and over. I’ve done a lot of that re-reading with Robert A. Heinlein as well, although most of those books I still have only as print. Again, my guess is that “readability” is the key factor here, but again, I have no idea how to define that.
I have always thought that my tendency to speed through some books, while I savor others made me unique. Then I read this question and realized that it must be something that everyone does. Our reasons might all be a bit different but the tendency is there.
The books I read tend to be divided into two camps, and I only figure out what camps they fall into when I’m actually reading the book. I either savor the book and drag it on and long as possible, or I blaze through it. Usually if I’m going to savor a book, it means that it’s probably artistic. While all literature is an art, some books are more lyrical, descriptive and flowing than others. These books remind me of a fine oil paining. The author paints pictures rather than tells a story. I end up so attached to these books that I have a hard time finishing them. It’s not unusual for me to not read the last 100 pages in a book that I intensely love. There are books I’ve owned for years and years that I still haven’t read the ending of. I just can’t seem to make myself part with the stories so I cling to them eternally.
The books that I blast through quickly are a bit more polarizing. I’ve said on my blog a few times that if I read a book in a day, it means I either loved it or hated it. If I blast through a book quickly and I ended up loving it, it means that the book carried me away, but it didn’t quite hit the artistic heights of the books that I want to drag on forever and ever. If I didn’t like the book, but I promised a review on it, I will blast through it quickly so I can write a comprehensive review, but minimize the pain (so to speak).
Regardless of how I read whatever book I’m reading, I always enjoy it to some extent. Even the books I end up not enjoying are still a joy to read. Authors put years of their lives into what they write, and my job as a critic is to devour it and rip it apart in the space of a few days. I can’t honestly do any book the justice it deserves. All I can say is, no matter my reaction is– good, bad or ugly, it is always an adventure. I always respect the author and the time and energy they devote to writing a book that I can yap about in my dusty corner of the internet.
I find the idea of different “reading gears” fascinating, because that’s not how reading works for me at all. When I pick up a book, within a sentence or two I become utterly unconscious of the process of reading the words. I am wholly immersed in the world of the story, experiencing it as if I’m living it. I’m a very fast reader – it takes me about 3 hours to finish a 500-page novel – so I assume that I am in fact reading whole sentences at once, rather than focusing on one word at a time. I find that any attempt to slow myself down leads to frustration and a lesser experience, because then I’m no longer living the story in my head – instead, I become painfully aware of the actual process of reading.
However! While my reading speed never changes, I know exactly what people mean about books to savor. In my case, I do my “savoring” by re-reading. If I love a story, I want to live it again, and again. (I know I truly adored a novel when I finish my first read and then immediately turn back to page one to start again!) For complex novels, I also like to think about them in between reads, teasing out deeper levels of meaning that will enrich my next experience with the book. The classic examples here would be Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, or her House of Niccolo books. Both series have layer upon layer of character motives, connections, and thematic imagery. Every time I read the novels, I discover something new.
But it’s not just complex novels that I want to savor. I’ve got a plethora of comfort reads; books where sinking back into the story feels like being welcomed into the home of an old friend. Diana Wynne Jones’s novels are a prime example; no matter how miserable I might be, a book like Howl’s Moving Castle or Archer’s Goon never fails to lift my mood. The riotous imagination of the plot combined with Jones’s humor and deft character portrayals are irresistible to me. Or take Tad Williams’s Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy: some people find the pace of the story slow, but I love Williams’s attention to detail and the depth with which he portrays both characters and world.
I’m also a sucker for beautiful imagery. Patricia McKillip’s novels, Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale – if I could slow down in reading them, I would, just to live longer in the gorgeous tableaux painted by their prose. Instead, I settle for reading them over and over again.
When I was asked by Paul to participate in this Mind Meld and saw the topic, at first I thought this would be easy. I was so, so wrong. Savory and sweet was the easy part. Those were particularly easy to categorize. The hard part for me was narrowing it down to a few hundred 20 or so for the sake of the Mind Meld post. Before I give you my picks, I’d like to explain what savory vs. sweet (in book speak), means to me. I tend to automatically think of savory books as books that are a little longer in the tooth than others, with large casts of characters, and fairly complex, multi layered storylines. This isn’t always true, but for me, it tends to be more time than not. The sweeties, on the other hand, are more often than not, series installments (usually that I’ve been waiting on for a while and chomping at the bit for since I read the last one), move very quickly, and have lots of action (not always, but usually.) These are books that I plow through faster than a bag of white chocolate M&Ms (yes, these exist.) Keep in mind, I don’t consider the savors to be better than the sweets, they’re just different! I love them all!
Let’s start with the candy. The first series that came to mind for me was the Nice Girls series by Molly Harper. Beginning with Nice Girls Don’t Have Fangs, the series stars Jane Jameson, a children’s librarian that gets fired and ends up being unwittingly turned into a vampire. Think you’re tired of vampires (I am too)? Don’t write this one off! This is such a fun, witty, well-written series that I devoured one after another. It was a bona fide bookbinge of the most shameful shameless sort. Speaking of book binges… Other series that inspires this behavior is the Toby Daye series by Seanan McGuire, Allison Pang’s Abby Sinclair series, the Living With the Dead series by Jesse Petersen, Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty Norville series, and more recently, Chuck Wendig’s Miriam Black books, The Iron Druid series by Kevin Hearne, and the Collector series by Chris F. Holm. There’s more, for certain, but you get the idea.
Now onto the savory dishes. I read Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons when I was a teen, and remember being enthralled for days. Ditto for The Terror (although, for me, it’s very hard to go wrong with anything Dan Simmons writes.) Then of course, there’s Stephen King, with The Stand, Salem’s Lot, and more recently, the wonderful novels Duma Key and Under the Dome. John Connolly never fails to entrance me with his Charlie Parker series, which is crime fiction interwoven with the supernatural, and Mike Carey’s Felix Castor series is complex, and scary, and worthy of shutting out the world, even if it is only for a little bit. Barbara Ashford has created a rich, romantic world to fall into with her Spellcast series about a summer stock theater with a very magical cast, and an otherworldly director. Zoo City by Lauren Beukes is an absorbing and unusual treat and she’s recently outdone herself with the amazing The Shining Girls. The Man From Primrose Lane by James Renner is complex and probably very different from anything you’ve ever read, and you won’t want to miss the upcoming NOS4A2 by Joe Hill. It’s kind of amazeballs and the world fell away while reading it. For another savory treat, try The Broken Ones by Stephen M. Irwin, which is set in a post-apocalyptic Australia. It’s unique, terrifying, and definitely to be savored.
Beautiful prose is the best way to slow my reading pace down. I find it impossible to read authors like Catherynne M. Valente or Janny Wurts quickly. Their prose just begs to be savored, read slowly, read out loud. It invites contemplation. If you don’t take the time to appreciate its elegance, you miss out on part of what makes their novels and stories so special. (At the same time, I believe there’s a real skill to the opposite: prose that doesn’t draw any attention to itself. I admire authors who can write the kind of transparent prose that makes you forget you’re actually holding a book. That’s what makes a book a page turner for me.)
There are other factors. A fascinating character will make you pay attention. A complex, multi-threaded plot forces you to slow down, so the strands don’t get tangled. In speculative fiction specifically, deep, layered world-building in itself can reward a slow, attentive approach. Authors who are able to show those world-building details, rather than spelling them out, force readers to be more “present in the text”, as Chuck Wendig recently put it—and doubly so for authors who imply, rather than show. (Kameron Hurley’s Bel Dame trilogy is an excellent example of this.)
I admire authors who can write the kind of popcorn novel you read through in a few hours. Entertainment isn’t a bad thing—and not as easy to write as it may seem. However, a novel that makes you slow down, contemplate, and even re-read is what really gets me excited.
When I read a collection of short stories, it usually takes me a couple of reading sessions to get through it all. Authors who write in a range of genres are especially likely to make me pause between tales, come up for air, and think about what I’ve just read before I can move on the next one. I may have to walk away from the book entirely to let the experience of the story shake itself out of me, to make sure I don’t bring the wrong perspective to a new piece when I start reading again. Likewise, if I’m studying a text for some reason – a non-fiction book that I hope to get writing advice from, a novel whose author I want to emulate in some way, or a short story that has such a different structure that I can’t help viewing it from many angles – then I’ll slow myself down to make sure I miss as little as possible.
On the other hand, I can usually tear through a novel in a few hours if I’m reading it for entertainment purposes. That’s not to say that I don’t learn something from those books; I’d hope, as an author and editor, that I’m learning from everything that I read. But when a piece of writing stands alone (like a novel, or a story published by itself outside of a collection) I don’t have to pause before going on the next section. I can immerse myself in the world, inhale the scent of it, listen to the sounds building up around me, until I’m walking the same streets as the characters. If the story is good, the world believable, and emotionally interesting things are happening around me, I will keep walking, jogging, running, ’til I’m sprinting toward the end, not wanting to put it down.
Reading an author I’m familiar with also helps me to speed up, since I know the shape of their words and what they mean when they phrase a sentence just so. Though the characters and even worlds may change from book to book, I have a sense of how the stories should sound (in my head) when they’re read, and that makes easier to read quickly, to get through a whole novel in one session. I can’t say that I have a preference for which kind of book I read: a story that I breathe in as a single experience, or a string of smaller moments that affect me over time.
I can say that I am very glad to be able to have both.