Why I Read What I Read

As a writer (?!? ) I constantly hear about different methods of promotion. There’s the book signing, the traveling about with a trunk full of books à la Atkins and Jacqueline Susann, there’s the shameless self-promotion and sales to your friends and neighbors à la Cloverine Salve kid peddlers. “Sell twelve cans and earn a premium.”

Some enterprising and (presumably) wealthy authors place ads in various places and others, less wealthy yet hopeful, place the work on free sites in the hope (I suppose) of building up a following.

As a published and hopeful writer who has a following that can be numbered on the fingers of a one-armed man with bad eyesight I began thinking about just what makes people buy certain books. There are those that must be read: “Catcher in the Rye”, “To Kill a Mockingbird”; stuff like that. But what about all the other books? I’ve personally read so many that I’ve completely forgotten most of them. A very few I’ve read so many times I could almost recite them from memory.

Recently I was thinking about just what it is, and has always been, that causes me to pick up a book and read it.

I came to a surprising conclusion.

I’ve never in my many years bought a book because it was “hot”. I’ve never sought out a book because I was told it was good. Okay, in high school I was forced to spend an entire semester learning “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. I failed at the time to appreciate it because Spring was in the air and we were expected to memorize long passages. I was never very good at following instructions.

So in looking back over the years I can confidently tell you exactly how and why I read the books I read, and have always read throughout my life:

I always loved to read. A slightly older uncle helped me read the comic strips in the newspaper when I was five. That was an auspicious start. My earliest reading was, well, two kinds: I loved Big Little books; I bought them when I could and traded and borrowed others. A kindly neighbor woman had a pretty good library of books, mostly Westerns as I recall, and lent some to me. The only title I remember was “Beans, Bannock and a Bed”. Comic books such as Detective Comics were just coming in, soon to kill off the Big Little books, and we loved those. Yeah, I’m that old.

Having learned about the Children’s Room at our library, I began reading fairy tales and all that stuff as well as old editions of Boy’s Life.

One day at the library, I wandered out of the Children’s Room and into the Adult Section. In those days Adult Section meant G-rated grown-up reading. I found an entire row of Charlie Chan books. Wow! That opened an entirely new world to me. I went through them all and then moved on to other detective and mystery novels. That was my first and most abiding literary love.

As time went on, I’d wander through libraries just glancing over the titles until something caught my eye. I read biographies and autobiographies; I read a horrifying autobiography about a prisoner on Devil’s Island long before “Papillon” came out. The part that horrified me was when a brute, on the ship to Cayenne, took a young man and knocked his front teeth out so the little guy could become his sex slave. It still horrifies me.

I read obscure books that probably never sold well. “Me, Detective”, stuff like that. “Why Write a Novel”. These are just titles that leap to mind as I go along. I read stuff by all sorts of writers: Mezz Mezzrow,(“Really The Blues”), people like that. Hey, this guy was way ahead of his time: Back in the thirties he had an inter-racial relationship and did coke and played sax and clarinet in clubs at night. What could be more modern than that?

Tobacco stores sold newspapers, magazines and paperback books and I often bought those, again at random. A cover would just catch my eye.

Many a time I simply found a book lying on a bench or in a waiting room, even alongside the sidewalk. I found “Hondo” on a bench. I found “First Blood” just lying in a gutter as I passed by. I found “Rosemary’s Baby” and “True Grit” in another place at the same time, but we won’t go into that. “Fools’ Parade” was another happy little find.

So the upshot of this is that I either picked up a book because something about it caught my eye, or I simply found the darn thing lying around waiting for me to come along.

Despite everything I read and hear about book signings and promotions and give-aways, etc., down deep I can’t help but feel that most people are pretty much like me: Certain sorts of books attract them, and mostly they come upon books by serendipity. Oh, I know some people do rush out and buy whatever some celebrity is pushing on all the talk shows, something written usually by a ghost, and others rush out and buy something that makes the Times best seller list, not knowing that the list is actually not very accurate at all.

I may never sell a lot of books but hey, I don’t buy a lot of books either. My latest purchases were a biography of Rasputin, and “The Island of the Day Before” by Eco. Both of these in pristine condition with dust covers and cost a buck apiece at a flea market. I’m a fan of Fowles too, and recently ran into a paperback by him. It’s in the queue to be read.

So where am I?  I’m just a guy who reads what falls into his lap, or what is readily (read cheap or freely) available and happens to catch his eye

I not only do not pay any attention to promotions or talk show book peddlers. I’ve never gone to a signing of anyone’s books and I doubt that I’ll ever hold a signing of my own. I’m not good at all in small talk to strangers and my signature is completely illegible.

Today’s bookstores are controlled by the Big Publishers so my books can’t be found in them. You have to go to an on-line site and dig like a miner during the gold rush. You may just find one if you’re very lucky. I write crime novels and everyone knows crime doesn’t pay.

What all this boils down to is that I’m no promoter but from what I realize from my own life and my choices, I’m just as happy not to be one.

Maybe someday some curious person will run into one of my books lying on a park bench and pick it up. Or maybe it will turn up on the web someplace and some kid will start reading.

That’s good enough for me.


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