Reading Choices

Mark Pottenger


In thinking about what books (and parts of books) I like, I’ve reached some conclusions that tie reading choices to religious/philosophical or mental health issues. Why/how anyone picks what they will read and what they actually enjoy reading are tied to personality, personal history, family, beliefs, culture, and no doubt other factors. Initial choices are based on upbringing and training. If a person never tries books outside the boundaries of their upbringing, they may miss out on stories that would please and benefit them greatly.

Due to the nature of the literature I was subjected to in high school, I generally avoid most books described as classics. I know I miss some good reading by doing this, but with thousands of books on hand that I expect to enjoy more I simply don’t allocate time to add more genres to my books to read.

I was almost a non-reader (the only one in my family) until my teens, when I read the Tom Swift Jr. series and then other science fiction. Several years later I also started reading fantasy. I read mostly F&SF until my late 30s, when I first read a romance. Within a few years of that romances were the majority of my reading.

F&SF fit my needs for many years. I was very future-focused, paying very little attention to the past. For many years much of the genre had an attitude of technological optimism. The overall tone of the genre is not as optimistic as it used to be, although there are still plenty of positive books.

I started reading romance at a time when I needed to lighten up and the F&SF I was reading was not helping. There are large subsets of the romance genre that are deliberately humorous, and I have been seeking and reading those books for over a decade now. F&SF is not a humorless genre--quite a few authors include humor in their writing--but the portion that is humorous is much lower than I have found in the romance genre.

There is an analogy sometimes used in self-help material comparing the mind to a garden. What grows in your mental garden depends on the seeds you choose to plant or allow to blow in from the outside, what fertilizer you choose to supply, how much light and water you provide, etc. Ideas and emotions depicted in books are one of the major sources of seeds and nutrients for a mental garden. Other major sources in our culture are TV, movies, radio, newspapers, magazines, etc. I do believe there is a connection between the level of violence in our media and the level in our culture.

The religious/philosophical aspect of the issue comes in with my belief that the mental/emotional world and the physical world are inseparable and subject to reinforcing feedback. (This applies to both positive and negative feelings, so the normal term “positive feedback” would be confusing in this context.) We will tend to experience in the world what we think about strongly and frequently enough. I believe the Biblical version is “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.”

I choose not to fill my mental garden with hatred, violence, depression and a lot of other feelings that I don’t want around me in the physical world. In the romance genre, especially the deliberately humorous subset I focus on, I have found something that fills my non-work time very positively. Not all the romances I read are highly humorous, but with very rare exceptions they do move in a positive direction to a live-happily-ever-after ending. Romance is the only form of literature I know that I can say that about.

I like to focus on the positive. I like to read about people solving problems, not people causing problems or people suffering the effects of problems. Portions of books showing the actions of villains are usually the parts I like least.

My limited ability to enjoy fiction with a lot of text devoted to criminal characters is related to this. The presence of criminal activity in a book consistently lowers my ability to enjoy the book. I can enjoy a book with a reformed or reforming criminal protagonist, but I can think of very few active criminal protagonist stories that I have enjoyed. (The only example that immediately comes to mind is the Jhereg series by Brust, SF with a protagonist who starts as an assassin/gang lord and develops in other directions as the series progresses.) This is why I read very few mysteries. I’ve tried several, but the degree of criminal content inherent in the genre makes them less appealing for me than romances or F&SF.

My focus on the positive and my preference for humor are why romantic suspense is probably the sub-genre of romance I seek out the least. Too much suspense just doesn’t fit my current tastes.

The above is a description of my personal tastes, including some changes over time. I don’t insist that anyone else censor their reading to match my tastes. I don’t claim that people can’t enjoy classics, mysteries or other genres I rarely read or that those genres are valueless or necessarily bad for the readers. I do suggest that everyone should occasionally observe the mental and emotional effects of whatever they choose to read or take in from other media and decide if the input is good for them.

Copyright © 2004 Mark Pottenger

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