Books are what the reader brings to them.

4 05 2009

Now, THERE’S a loaded statement… “books are what the reader brings to them”. Even I, in my occasional self-absorption, don’t believe that entirely.

Books are *mostly* what the author brings to the reader. It’s the author’s words in print on paper or in pixels on a reading device or in soundwaves on recordings, after all, conveyed TO the reader… not the other way around… right?

I’ve had a few experiences lately, however, which tell me otherwise. And maybe I *am* being a little self-absorbed lately, but please indulge me a little longer, Gentle Readers, while I explore this.

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A few months ago, an author colleague of mine was clearing out her library and gave me copies of RED DRAGON by Thomas Harris and NEVERWHERE by Neil Gaiman.

I had read RED DRAGON before… I had “been meaning to get around to” NEVERWHERE, but “getting around to it” hadn’t happened until KT dropped the books off at my dealer table at 3Pi-Con.

I re-read RED DRAGON last month. I’m reading NEVERWHERE now.

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I first read RED DRAGON during the first summer I lived away from home in 1982; I was doing a work-study at the college library & renting a porch room in a classmate’s apartment. It was a hot, lonely summer in the Bronx for the most part, punctuated by a few bright spots, but most of my memories of that summer revolve around lying on my couch-bed in my sunporch room, listening to city street noises over the whine of the oscillating fan and reading books.

The atmosphere of that time and place seeped into my subconsciousness so much that when I’ve tried to recall the 19-year-old I was, I remember every book I read that summer as being set in New York City.

Those who’ve read RED DRAGON know that only one chapter is set in New York City.

RED DRAGON when read in 1982 frightened the 19-year-old child I was then… a child living essentially alone [my roommate worked nights, so we seldom saw each other], on her own for the first time, all alone in The Big Bad City of eight million.

RED DRAGON when read in 2009 by a forty-something-year-old is a fascinating read, not a frightening one. It has a clever construct of dictating past events in the main character’s life to such a marked degree that the reader thinks that he or she is reading a sequel to a book he or she has already read… a book that doesn’t exist.

The reaction I took away when I finished RED DRAGON last month was satisfaction, not fear. I’m literally a different person than I was when I read it the first time, and thus it’s literally a different book, illustrating my point of “books are what the reader brings to them”.

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NEVERWHERE is a “new” book to me, although I’ve read quite a bit of Neil Gaiman’s other work – AMERICAN GODS, STARDUST, GOOD OMENS [yes, I know that’s only half a Gaiman book], and most of his SANDMAN comics. I’m about two chapters into NEVERWHERE, and although I’m reading it in 2009, I’m already back, emotionally and mentally, to where I was in the early-to-mid-Nineties when it was written.

I remember other things I read back then, and it’s not terribly hard for me to imagine I’m curled up in bed in the townhouse on the cobblestone street where we lived in 1996. I expect to hear Indigo Girls and Melissa Etheridge and Enya and Enigma when I turn on the radio, and I look beside me as I turn the pages and am startled not to see or feel a white cat purring beside me.

Strange, isn’t it, how a book can make one feel.

Stranger yet is how one’s mind can influence the impact of a book.

—pmc2

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