I talk about books a lot. The book industry is filled with ‘talking about books’. It’s not unexpected; it’s not at all unwarranted. It’s even required by my job. I have to tell booksellers about new titles all day, every day. But I have started noticing the differences in the way we talk about books. What we feel is important to impart has become interesting. When my friends and/or booksellers reverse the roles and start telling me about what they’ve been reading, it has made me take note of the way I describe books to people.
This will become one of a pair of posts on talking about books. It’s about how I’ve noticed how I hate on the books I love. It’s a fascinating behaviour I’ve noticed in myself. But more on that later. For now, let’s talk about how we talk about books.
The place to start, I suppose is how I generally describe books to people. There’s often a subconscious assessment of what types of things the person I’m speaking to likes, then comparisons take place. By this I mean I usually start with genre as a (slightly restraining but annoyingly useful) point of reference. But more important to me is how it made me feel as I read it. Saying something is fantasy is one thing, but as fantasy can stretch from Margo Lanagan to Stephanie Meyer, from J.K. Rowling to novelisations of computer games and everything in between, you can see that it’s not necessarily a helpful distinction. Some people lump magic realism or sci-fi in with it (rightly or wrongly is up to you). This is why I tend to move quickly onto how a book made me feel (if I started with genre at all).
It’s so fun! Oh, it’s wonderful. It’s beautifully tragic. It’s fascinating. It’s delightful.
It left me smiling. It made me cry (quite a feat, if you know me). It floored me. It moved me to the very core of my being. (This last one is almost never uttered, and not usually worded quite so pretentiously.)
I then compare it to things that you may have already read. It’s like Ursula K. Le Guin but set in Victorian London (I just made that one up, but I want to read it now!) It’s like Wonder, but about a transgender teenager (Again! Where’s that book?). But my favourites are the ones that are unlike anything you’ve ever read before. There’s no point in hunting for similar books or authors because it’s an experience all on its own.
I think this is what I’m most interested in, how much of an experience reading something will be. If I’m going to read it I don’t necessarily want to know what happens. I like to be taken by surprise. Sometimes the premise is needed to convince me to read something, but I’m also just as happy to read something simply because someone with similar tastes tells me I must.
So the differences, you ask? I’ve noticed that another style of book-talk is to describe the plot in a loose and interesting way. I think this is a perfectly good way to describe books because it has worked on me many a time. And for lots of people, it’s the events in books that make them interesting. This is only half the case for me. Events come and go, words may fade, but how you felt says with you. I’m always left with a feeling at the end of a book and it’s that feeling I remember. I’ve got books on my shelf that I can’t remember the plot of, but I know I loved it. I know it’s wonderful. Which is not to say I don’t like action or plot driven novels, but they aren’t always the ones that end up being kept.
But this sometimes makes me wonder if I’m not being effective in describing books. Do you want more of what happens mixed in with my gushing and blending? Have I left you with a feeling but no idea of what it’s about?
To loop round to genre, where we began, I could say that I prefer reading fantasy, but I would hate to miss out on something wonderful because I’ve limited myself. When someone says ‘I don’t read fantasy’ it breaks my heart. I would never say ‘I don’t read realism,’ because that cuts me off from so many wonderful books. In fact, magic realism has become a particular favourite of mine because it blurs the lines. Line blurring is a wonderful thing.
So, how do you talk about books? When you’ve just read something and you want your friend to read it, what do you tell them about it? And, how do you ideally want them to tell you about books? I’m curious.