Sunday, March 3, 2013

What do you read?

March 3, 2013

What do you read?

I’m taking a bit of a side track from some of my usual blog topics today. I have a keen interest in story, but I find I don’t gravitate to short pieces. I don’t have tons of story ideas in folders and files waiting further attention, but I have a goodly handful I hope to commit to as I continue to explore Pevana and the regions and cultures I have found there.  I like short stories; I read them, use them to teach and they figured prominently in my courses of study as an undergrad and later as a graduate student. I still have all the volumes of Lin’s Carter’s early series The Year’s Best Fantasies. In fact, Carter’s collections introduced me to several of my favorite writers: CJ Cherryh and Patricia McKillip. I have been collecting and consuming their long and short fiction the bulk of my reading life. I admire them both for the quality of their prose and for how prolific they have been.  I sense a control to their output, dedication to the craft and professional discipline in how they go about creating their tales.  They are committed in ways I know I will never achieve. I follow Cherryh on her blog, and the scope of the woman’s knowledge and interests is truly impressive. I consider her one of the greatest artificers of our age, and yet she doesn’t eat, sleep and dream the genre. She delves into ancestry, gene history, follows current astronomical developments, finds time to ice skate, cook, go to cons and go blotto with video games and great historical movies. Her blog reminds me of Gatsby’s house, “full of interesting people doing interesting things.” In short, the woman has used to bulk her days to foster and explore all the things that speak to her talents, and I find that truly inspiring.

I think many of us share similar experiences. I still feel energized by being in the classroom, and that will likely always be a first focus for “what I have to say.”  One of the nicest, surprising by-products of becoming a published author is how much more authority I bring to the classroom. I have always been the “word guy” throughout my career; that oddball who actually knows the MLA style manual, the comma-counter, king of symbolism, and reading quiz Nazi.  These last few years have really spiced up the interactions in class, and even though I know the odd brave kid will ask about “the books” in order to deflect me away from the topic at hand, the talks that ensue usually create sublime communicative moments. My students surprise and impress me in those moments. Digressions can be fruitful. One habit I have developed over my career is to always bring a personal book to school. I don’t feel quite right if the bag doesn’t have that balancing presence. Along with my Fitzgerald and Lee or Orwell and Kafka, I have to have my current down-time favorite. I steal a few minutes every day during lunch or prep to read a page or two. I find it helps me. I have also been fortunate enough to turn a few kids each year on to the joys of some pretty great books.

My question for those of you who read this blog and my writer friends and associates is simply this: What do you read? I write fantasy because it suits my temperament and skills. I love science fiction, but I doubt my technical knowledge and language command. I fear sounding false, so I stick to swords and spears and bowls of stirrabout. I have always been intrigued by Roman Britain and the “dark” years after Rome withdrew. Arthur, Ambrosius, Uther and the rest of the real or mythical cast periodically claim me. I blame Suitcliff for that. I was fortunate as a young man to find a great library in my junior high school that stocked all of her novels. I recall looking for a refuge from the hormonal soup that was my school and developed a fondness for heather choked hills and heroes that spoke to me from the shadows of the past: The Lantern Bearers, Dawn Wind, The Sword at Sunset, The Eagle of the Ninth. Great stuff. I have enjoyed collecting her works as an adult.

Rome’s history intrigued me. We tend to extol its engineering virtues, but Gibbon gives a different perspective. I’ve actually read some Tacitus. As a kid I lived in Germany, and woven amongst the long drives in the country were snippets of Wagner, references to the Holy Roman Empire and all that it wasn’t. A visit to Waterloo sent me careening down the Napoleonic Era and a lifelong love affair with Forester’s Hornblower Saga and later an addiction to Cornwell’s Sharpe novels. Much later down the time line a colleague introduced me to Shelby Foote and his epic Civil War tomes…and my sense of the sentence has never been the same.  Historians like Tuchman, Ambrose and their like have punctuated my reading life. I just finished The Age of Wonder, an examination of the scientific advancements that took place between the years 1770 and 1830 and the relationship between the scientists and the romantic poets that shared the world stage during those years. Again, ripping stuff. There are many others, of course, but my intention was just to share a smattering of the different kinds of works that framed my youth and continue to impact my writing. I’ve had a good ride so far. What about you?

And what am I reading now? After seeing the first Hobbit film, LOTR claimed me once again. My sixth grade teacher read the book to my class. I still hear her voice doing Bilbo… Middle Earth claimed me when I was twelve and I have been taking hikes with Frodo almost yearly ever since. And yet this time, I will admit to having a slightly different experience, and I blame my wonderful editor for the insight. I now know the source of all those over the top epic sentences she had me excise or change. Plus, has anybody else noticed how much the dear old Professor used passive voice? But that is a topic for another time.

So, peers and readers, what do you read? What are your favorites that you find yourself revisiting from time to time? I would welcome any additions to my “to be read file.”

Happy reading!

Mark Nelson


Karin Rita Gastreich said...

I am a great fan of history, natural history, and historical fiction.

My list of favorite authors changes a lot; I don't think there is anyone I've followed consistently for more than a few years. I like E.O. Wilson and Giocanda Belli. I have a growing admiration for Phillipa Gregory. Then of course, there are certain literary greats that have a permanent place on the list, such as Tolkien.

More than authors, I think there are particular books that stay alive in my imagination, such as Orson Scott Card's "Ender's Game". I'll probably never read another book by this author, but this one novel was simply unforgettable.

Terri-Lynne said...

I read everything and anything, but my great love will always be fantasy. It is what I read when reading of my own choice (book club, thankfully, dictates other genres, or I would become static.) But for an occasional flash bit, it is what I write exclusively. There was a time I was told that fantasy was "beneath me." Yup, really. Genre fiction gets a bum rap, IMO. I will never forget the day I gave myself permission to write what I love instead of what was expected of me. My dollbabies are responsible for that--one most particularly.

The early days of TH White, Tolkien, Donaldson, Weiss and Hickmann, Anthony, LeGuinn, Eddings gave way to discovering McKillip (OMG McKillip!), Holdstock, Scott Card (though I feel the same way about this author Karin does), DeLint, GGKay, and of course, George Martin and dozens of other authors space doesn't permit me to list. There is such a rich and varied world of fantasy fiction that I could read nothing but it forever and never get bored.

Mark--if Rome's history intrigues, I recommend Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood. It's not exactly Roman history, but England before and after Rome withdrew. Talk about SYMBOLISM! You will love it for the story, and the prose. The man was insanely gifted.