by Gail Martin
I write the Chronicles of the Necromancer series (The Summoner, The Blood King and Dark Haven), and as an author, I have the privilege of hearing from a lot of readers. They write to me about my books, their books, and writing/reading in general. Through book signings and conferences, I also get to have conversations with other authors and still more writers, editors and publishers. What has amazed me is how personal the reasons are for why we read and—even more—why we read WHAT we read.
Growing up, I always gravitated toward anything paranormal. I loved ghost stories. Not the made-up kind, but the compilations of oral traditions and people’s real-life experiences with something they couldn’t explain. I loved vampire stories—especially the ones rooted in folklore or the original folktellings that seemed to have a hint of possibility to them. I have been fascinated with cemeteries, not in a morbid way, but because as I walk through them, I try to imagine the stories behind every headstone. When I was in school, I often had time to waste between when school got out and when my mom could pick me up. There was a 100 year-old cemetery with carved gravestones, opulent mausoleums and amazing old flowering trees just up the street. I used to wander around, looking at the markers and making up stories about the people based on the scanty evidence that remained. And while I’ve never personally experienced a haunting, the idea of haunted houses has always fascinated with me.
Put that together with a love of medieval history and an undergraduate degree in history and I guess no one is surprised that I write (and read) epic fantasy complete with magic, ghosts, vampires and haunted castles. But as a reader, it bothered me that so many of the books I read (often but not always written by men) focused a lot on the action but barely touched on the human relationships. I really liked books that had both, and found them in short supply. So that became another “must have” when I decided to write my own series.
So it intrigues me what individual readers choose to focus on when they write to me about my books. I love to find out who their favorite character is and why. I’m amazed at the variety of scenes or plot elements that are favorites. Some people track every move by the map. Others comment on the battle scenes and the military technology. It is really amazing to me how the same book can resonate in so many different ways to different people. And on the occasion when I hear from someone for whom the book didn’t “click,” it intrigues me that the very things that didn’t connect for him are what another reader said were among his/her favorites!
I think our reaction to a book says as much about who we are and where we are in our life as it does about the book itself. When we’re lucky, we read a book that resonates with us because it is just right for where we are at the moment. It fills a need, provides an answer or opens up a vision for us that is in sync with that moment in our life journey. And I’ve found that if I go back years later to re-create the moment, it often falls flat. The book isn’t as magnificent as I remembered it. But the book didn’t change. I did. So it’s very possible to pass up a book at one point in life only to “discover” it later on and be amazed at how “perfect” it is. It’s all about who you are when you read it.
It can also be fun to see how books take on a new meaning depending on the sequence in which you read them. Accidentally reading two books back to back can open up whole new insights. For example, I read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods back to back with Sharyn McCrumb’s St. Dale, which was a happy synchronicity that lent unexpected connections.
That’s one reason why it’s fun when a group reads and discusses a book. In addition to your own insights, you learn how the book looks to people who may be experiencing it at another life phase and through a different lens of experience. It can also make for a spirited discussion just sharing a favorite book with a friend or on a forum board, because there are so many individual ways of looking at things. I’ve even had readers comment on something in the story being meaningful to them that I had really just put in as background!
We often talk about writing as a form of expression. But it’s become clear to me that reading is just as much an individualized way to explore and express our thoughts, feelings, fears, curiosities and unanswered questions. I find that the comments readers make about what they love/hate about any book usually gives me much more insight into the reader than the book. Their comments unintentionally offer a window into the soul on world view, old wounds, insecurities, hopes, fears and dreams. What an amazing thing that a book has the power to change its essence as it is filtered through the consciousness of each human being!
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