On the evolution of reading tastes

I read a lot of books. Like, several hundred a year, between new books and re-reads, both for work and for pleasure. I like books. I like reading. But in the last couple of years, I’ve found myself increasingly impatient with books. I’m quicker to put something down if it’s annoying me, and in recent times, my bar for ‘this is an enjoyable book that I am getting something out of’ feels like it’s gotten much higher. Sometimes I feel like everything I’m reading is garbage, and I find myself asking if books used to be better, or if it’s just me.

It is in fact me, and I’ve decided I need to stop feeling guilty about it, because this isn’t a reflection of a personal failing, but simply a shift in who I am. I was having a conversation with my father last year about how mostly he just re-reads things because he doesn’t much like new books, but what really cemented this for me was Laurie J. Marks’ remarks at Sirens in October, when she talked about how as she’s aged and grown as a reader, her tastes have matured.

This sounds like pretty obvious stuff: Obviously the older you are and the more you read, the more you are exposed to and the more you talk about it, the more your tastes are going to shift. And obviously one consequence of being well-read (by which I don’t mean ‘has read a specific set of established ‘classics of literature’ to fulfill society’s definition of well-read’ but rather ‘has read a lot of books and thought about them’) is that you’ve seen a lot of stories and you are by nature going to feel choosier.

So maybe I am unique in the experience of having struggled with books over the last couple of years, wondering what is wrong, not understanding that I have grown out of some things, like a pair of pants that naggingly doesn’t fit quite right. Is everything terrible? Are editors letting too much slide? What are authors doing? Why is this author I used to like suddenly writing bad books? Why does everything feel formulaic and repetitive? I kept looking for something wrong in the books I was reading, when what I really should have been doing is looking at myself. This came up for me with Still Life With Tornado, a book I really didn’t like, but had to pick apart. Was it bad? Or was it that I’d seen the story a million times and it was very hard for it to be fresh and interesting? Had the author done poorly with an issue that’s been beaten into the ground, or had I just hit my saturation point?

We read books, usually, with the explicit goal of evolving and changing and learning things. We expect to grow as readers. But it was sort of startling to me to realise that I had grown, that you can continue to outgrow books as an adult. There are some genres I’m not reading these days and it’s not because I think they are junk and everyone who reads them is junk. Nor is it because I don’t think people are writing well in these genres, or that there aren’t interesting things going on in those genres. But I do feel like I need a break, like I need to step away for a few years and let things repopulate before dipping back in to see what’s evolving and changing, because I have read so much and I’m just tired of it all. There is nothing new here, for me. 

People often make the mistake of growing out of a genre or class and then assuming that means it is bad. No. It just means that it is not for them anymore. I don’t read chapter books, because I don’t get much out of them — I’ve explored that class of books, I’ve read deeply in it, I’ve derived tons of great experiences from it, and now I am done. I am excited for people who are still digging them and excited about what they have to offer. I want people to keep writing them, and doing cool and experimental things with them, because a new generation of readers needs them, and always will.

Books offer a profound form of introspection and commentary. You have a close, intimate relationship with the subject of the book, but often it also reveals a great deal about you, sometimes bad, sometimes good, sometimes ugly, sometimes beautiful. As we evolve in response to what we read, so too does our taste for the books we consume. Narratives and explorations that I loved historically just don’t do it for me because I’ve hit that saturation point — I’d rather go back and re-read, though I’ve had some jarring experiences re-reading this year as I’ve picked up books that I had clearly matured past. (I don’t like to say aged: You can be nine and maturing out of books just as much as the same can be true at 90; this is not about age, but development as a reader, which is dependent on many factors beyond the calendar.)

It was only a few years ago that I gave myself permission to stop reading bad books, and this, I guess, is just the next shift in that evolution: Of recognising that if a class or genre is irritating me and I’m not getting much out of it, that may be because I’ve matured beyond it, and I should move on to finding things that do enthuse and delight me. Good books will always delight me, but ‘good’ is subjective, and the meaning of ‘good’ has changed a great deal for me recently. I’m okay with that — as long as I am careful about imposing my views on others.

Image: possibilités d’aventure, Le Luxographe, Flickr