Wednesday, July 13, 2011


As you might have noticed if you watch the book tally on the side or are connected to me on Goodreads, I have been plowing through books pretty quickly lately.  This is largely due to the fact that I have fallen behind on my 100-books-a-year goal and have been reading and listening to some very short books.  With a few exceptions, I would lump them all into the "short, shallow, summer-read" category.  Lots of mysteries, some humor, and currently very little nonfiction.

I recently broke down and listened to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo which everyone was reading about 2 years ago.  Generally, I haven't enjoyed books that "everyone" is reading, so I only committed to listening to it as an audio book.  I'm rather glad I did choose the audio version, as I would never have figured out how to pronounce all the Swedish names, AND--this is my favorite part--the reader used different voices for each character and one of them sounded exactly like the Dracula characterizations I've seen.  Even The Count from Sesame Street talks in the same accent.  I kept expecting the character to count and laugh as thunder clapped, or else to hear him finally say "I vant to drink your blood......"  Seriously, I think more Hollywood monsters should read stories.  It just gives an entirely new twist to the book.

I currently have two audio books in progress--something by Jeffrey Deaver and one by Ian Rankin.  They're both parts of serials about ongoing characters, and since I'm usually listening to books while doing something like gardening or canning or cleaning, having at least slightly formulaic books means I don't have to pay attention 100% of the time, so if I have just set the potholder on fire while taking the granola out of the oven--just an example--I don't have to rewind.  Just perhaps soak the potholder.

This is all good, and I enjoy being told stories while I am working, but maybe it's because I'm listening to two rather similar books that this idea has struck me, but I find myself wondering why it is that so many main characters of books--and this may be more predominate in mysteries than other genres--are dysfunctional, anti-social people with few or no friends.  Has anyone else noticed this?  The "brilliant but misunderstood" genius, or the "prickly woman with no friends but a big heart" motif is starting to get on my nerves.  What's so wonderful about not being able to get along with others?  I know people like this in real life--we call them "jerks."  So why are they attractive in books?  Is it because it's hard for some of us to be social, or is it because authors tend to be introverts without social skills, or is it because those of us who have jerks somehow permanently lodged in our lives want to believe that underneath it there's something better?  Or something else entirely?

Personally, I don't have a lot of sympathy with the chronically friendless.  I'm 40, and I firmly believe that if you have reached this stage in life and don't have a lot of friends, it's because you either just moved to a new location, you haven't made the effort, or there is something fundamentally wrong with how you treat people.  I've heard people state how they have "trouble trusting" or people are "too touchy," but so far I've only heard that from people who treat others in such a way that they drive them away or are utterly offensive even to strangers.  Have you ever noticed that if you're out somewhere in public and you smile at someone--the cashier, the waiter, the person behind you in line--they almost always smile back?  I think most people are pretty nice when given a chance, and there's an opportunity for making new friends almost anywhere.  It just takes some effort.  I understand that there are cases like Asperger's Syndrome and other personality disorders that create issues with social relationships, but that's a different thing altogether.  My point is about people who seem to have no such issues and STILL behave badly.  And I prefer to be around people who get being friends--I'm fortunate enough to have a good friend who dates all the way back to kindergarten, so perhaps I'm a bit spoiled in my expectations--but if I don't want to be around people who can't have friends, why are they the main characters of so many books?  Is there something we actually are drawn to in jerks?  Or do we really only want to read about people who have less in life than we do?  Or should I just go back to reading my nice little history books because summer fiction is getting to me??????


Abby said...

I think "quirky" and even damaged characters are more interesting to read about, but that doesn't mean I would want to be friends with someone like that in real life. I watched the "Girl with a..." movies (Swedish version) and enjoyed them, but could not get through even the first book. Try listening to "The Golden Compass" series for pure entertainment - like a radio play.

RobinH said...

I think there are a lot of reasons- here's a few that come to mind, in no particular order:

1. Because it's easier for the writer to keep track of a smaller cast of characters, and for the readers to remember a smaller number of secondary characters. (I can testify from my own experience that this is true- I have to keep a cast of characters list when I'm writing a novel, otherwise the minor characters tend to trade names at random.)

2. There's a long tradition - Sherlock Holmes is a good example- of the solitary genius detective.

3. Yes, writers are often introverts- it's a useful quality for a job that involves staring into a computer monitor by yourself for hours every day. And introverts are more likely to have a few close friends than hordes of casual ones.

4. I think most people have had the experience at some time of being misunderstood or lonely, and giving a character those characteristics is a way to try and make the reader identify with them.

That having been said, I have a lot of trouble reading books where I dislike the characters. I've only read one Ian Rankin, and found his kind of gritty and depressive tone a real downer. I haven't read either of the sequels to Dragon Tattoo- and I don't much care if I never find out how the trilogy ends.

It's actually one of the reasons I've really liked the Donna Andrews Meg Langhorn series (which I think you and or the other Toni recommended to me)- the main character is friendly and sociable, and has a realistic number of friends and family. The newest is due out this month- I already have a reserve in for it at my library.

And speaking of recommendations, if you haven't read them yet, I strongly recommend Steve Hockensmith's mysteries, starting with Holmes on the Range. They're great mysteries, well-researched Westerns, and absolute hilarious. Your only problem might be that you'll be laughing too hard to knit.


You know you've reached a whole new level of gardening when you receive a wholesale catalog.....