Reading with Baggage

It’s impossible to read anything without baggage—preconceived ideas and expectations. When we encounter words like “store,” “study,” or even “street,” our ideas of those places are informed by our experiences and culture…and from the perceived genre of the book. In our minds, a street in a piece of historical fiction will probably not be the same as that in a contemporary novel.

But readers bring far more baggage than that of mere linguistics. We bring expectations of what a book should be like based on what kind of reader we are, and these expectations can influence the sort of welcome we extend to a book.

For example, I recently heard some Georgette Heyer fans tell me that her works should not be judged as historical fiction, but as historical fantasy, which makes sense. Until I changed my expectations, though, I struggled with the knowledge that “this or that was unlikely to happen, given the culture of England at that time.” The historical details themselves were flawless—or at least, good enough to pass my scrutiny—but the characters would say and do things that I could never believe of them. The quantity of slang that her gentlemen say to her ladies and the way her ladies act in such independent ways without the slightest blush are two highly repetitive examples; anyone who disagrees need only read Jane Austen, Maria Edgeworth, or Fanny Burney to see the difference between Georgette Heyer’s time period and her characters.

A reader’s baggage also affects your expectations where description is concerned. Some readers like a lot of description because they are more visual; others can dispense with it entirely, because it simply does nothing for them.

And then there are readers who simply import it. Some friends of mine told me a few weeks ago that, in their opinion, authors don’t have to supply every detail about the worlds they create in their books, even if it involves such things as spaceships or elves and dwarves. They felt that the author could draw upon the work of others to inform the reader of these details, bypassing the task of explaining it themselves.

For example, according to them, Terry Brooks didn’t need to go into detail about the peoples and cultures of The Sword of Shannara precisely because he was following in Tolkien’s footsteps. Tolkien had already helped form the readers’ expectations, so all he had to do was mention the races by name—dwarves, elves, trolls—and we could fill in the needed, pertinent cultural information. The author was only responsible for explaining things when the culture differed from that of his predecessor—when dealing with trolls with a code of honor, for example.

But I disagree. I try to come to my reading with as little baggage as possible, looking for what the author meant for me to read and encounter and trying, as much as lies within my power, to have the experience the author intended me to have. And I am extremely textual in my reading. If the author doesn’t give me a piece of information, I don’t import it from another author. For me, it doesn’t exist; each author’s work is a separate piece, a different world…and the elves of one author may not act like those of another. Until the author indicates that they are the same, I will assume they are different. (Save for when it is quite clear that the different authors are writing for the same world and characters, like in the Star Wars canon.)

But maybe I’m too strict. Maybe my assumption should be that they are guilty of borrowing from another author unless proven innocent…but I don’t like to think that way. I don’t believe we all have to be original, but we all see things differently, and, for me, part of the reading experience is seeing what the author is trying to show me, to see the world through his eyes. When they deny me details to their vision, I can’t just bring in other material or information to “round out” the book, or I’ll miss—or materially alter—what they were trying to show me.

At which point, I’m sure I’ll see something, but it won’t be what that particular author gave to the world. It will be what I gave that particular author.

Copyright 2014 Andrea Lundgren

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