How have your reading preferences changed over your lifetime? Can you see some sort of growth or development in the choices you've made?
I once heard Leif Enger relate the inspiration for an integral part of his novel, Peace Like a River. His four-year-old son, John had wanted to know how the book was progressing. Enger answered it was going well, and was then confronted with a boy of four's next most logical question: "Got any cowboys in there yet?"
Thus the birth of Sunny Sundown, the epic poem woven throughout the novel.
It starts in childhood, doesn't it? This hope that the new book will be filled with beloved heroes and thrilling surprises. Think of the the time you were nestled on a soft lap, waiting to be both dazzled and comforted with a new - or familiar - mix of character, setting and plot. Do you remember the first thing you hoped for, in those earliest days?
Will there be magic? For me, the burning question was, "Will you crack the lid of my little life wide open and show me that the things in my hands, that my hands themselves can do wondrous things?" And so the grownup person reads to us Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson.
Will there be cowboys? We get a little older, and we want more. We want to see ourselves in heroes larger than life, handsome, beautiful, brave, and always triumphant over the bad guys. Our parents read to us an illustrated copy of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan. We take the book into bed with us, and we pour ourselves into its pages.
Will there be wonderful settings, unforgettable characters? Somewhere along the line we start wanting to travel - not to Neverland, but to real places we've never been. And for the trip, we want a best friend, someone so like us we wonder if the author's been talking to our grandparents. We pick up Lucy Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables and imagine we've found our kindred spirit.
Will there be nuance and complexity and importance? We enter high school and we think we know so much. We've learned life can be dark, that good doesn't always triumph, and if we're really intense, we feel ready to take on the important things. I was intense. My son is more balanced, so I'll have to tell you what I read at this stage: Franny and Zooey by J.D. Sallinger.
Can we just lighten up already? We grow up. We have kids of our own, and jobs, and bills. Life is heavy enough, thanks, so let's just read something light, shall we? We choose a story that will make us laugh, will move us to tears - but only the kind we cry at weddings, never funerals. Something like Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.
Will there be nuance and complexity and importance? Okay, maybe the kids start school. We start to watch the news again. Sooner or later, we're up for a bit more oomph. We don't mind shedding tears over the genuinely tragic, we don't mind fleshing out the deeper issues. Maybe we read The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.
Will there be wonderful settings, unforgettable characters? We catch on that settings don't have to be beautiful or even foreign to be compelling, and that characters can be heart-breakingly complex and still be our best friends. In fact, by their complexity they actually enter into our lives and change it forever. We read, perhaps, Leaving Ruin by Jeff Berryman.
Will there be cowboys? Can it be? Can a story take us on a steeplechase, and also plumb the depths of human experience? Can a novel be fun, and convicting and deeply affecting all at once? We read Enger's Peace Like a River and we know it can.
Will there be magic? Here we are again, back where we began. We know there is something more than the characters we meet, the places we travel, the issues we probe. It's hidden in all of these things, but we can't quite name it. We want so badly to touch that deeper world that shimmers in the air of our triumphs and heartaches. How can ink on a page, a story written by humans help us find it? It's a mystery, dear readers, but may I suggest, perhaps, River Rising by Athol Dickson?
I can tell I'm already in trouble here. The guys are going to gag at Anne of Green Gables and make cracks about canned testosterone. Some Jane Austin groupie is going to think I've implied Pride and Prejudice lacks nuance and complexity. (Not a bit of it.) Still others are going to tell me they progressed quite differently through the literary world. Oh please, do tell. We want to know the books that have mattered to you, and when, and why. We're writers, after all, and for us this is valuable information. We covet your thoughts.