Judging a Reader by Their Books

Reading (Various Books) by (Various Authors) – I promise my next post will fit the format.

There, I thought to myself, now I can participate in this Open Book Study thingy. After months of musing and having read close to a dozen books, I finally felt ready. But why, you might ask, has it taken so long for me to participate. It is an open book study after all and clearly I had been reading, so what was the hold up? Strap in, this is going to get meta.

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t enjoy reading. So when I learned of the Open Book Study I wanted to contribute, but was rather short on free time. But thanks to a pandemic I have had plenty of free time, so I read.  I threw myself into other worlds, places described in such rich detail that I could almost smell the scent of caramel corn on the breeze or imagine the feeling of silk at my fingertips. I traveled back in time – to Victorian England and the war-torn Sudan. I leapt forward in time to a penal colony on the moon. I visited alternate realities set in the past and present where magic or aliens set the backdrop.

But I wasn’t going to tell you about any of it because not all of them fit with the image I would like to curate. Ostensibly, this is anonymous, but I have my doubts.

This is where things start to get tricky and require me to be honest with myself. I didn’t feel like the books I was reading were worthy of the Open Book Study. I read for a variety of reasons, and I enjoyed everything I read – but it wasn’t enough. Or the ones that would have been enough didn’t register for whatever reason. But why were these books good enough for me to read, but not good enough to share? Because they weren’t literature [imagine in a snooty british voice].

Literature: noun

  1. Written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit.


So what have I been reading? I’ll tell you, and some of them would qualify as literature, but many would not. Basically, I was somewhat embarrassed by what I was reading as unworthy or providing a window into me that didn’t necessarily fit with the image that I tend to project. Several books on this list were read specifically as respectable candidates about which I could write. I suppose that while one may be wrong in judging a book by its cover, it might be valid to judge a reader by their books. Even here, vanity and pride constricted me. 

But then I decided perhaps this was the topic on which I should write. Reflecting on what I have read as a whole and what it might say about me.

 I finally finished a book I initially borrowed from the library but didn’t finish before I returned it called Night Circus. It’s about a magical traveling circus and the lives of the people associated with the circus. At the center of the story are Marco and Ceclia who were bound into a magic duel of sorts by two older magicians. The circus is the arena for their competition and the main protagonists don’t initially know what the rules of the competition are nor the identity of their opponent.

Set in the late 1800’s, the author paints vivid pictures of the circus and made me wish it was real. The slowly developing romance between the two protagonists was not nearly as captivating as the circus itself with its various tents with lavish descriptions that were transporting. But it was “chick-lit” so I dismissed it as unworthy of an essay.

A Youtuber reflecting on Night Circus mentioned that it reminded them of The Infernal Devices so I checked out the first book in that series: Clockwork Angel. Like Night Circus, it was set in the late 1800’s, this time in London and featured “Shadow hunters,” vampires, automatons, shape shifters, and magic. Unlike the Night Circus, this was written for teenagers and I almost immediately missed the lush detail and vibrate vocabulary of the former. It was diverting enough, had some cool elements, but it was YA, so I dismissed it.

Next I happened to watch the 2009 film “Dorian Gray” based on the book of similar name by Oscar Wilde. I kind of have a thing for adaptation, so I decided to read the book. Look! A worthy piece of literature. I’m so fancy. And the book was fine. I knew the story already (it was my second time seeing the movie and I might have read it before, I am not sure) and I thought that it might be worth writing about here. But nothing particularly struck me. The next night I watched a modernized gender bent version of the story, a movie called “The Sins of Dorian Gray” from 1983. The movie was pretty awful, but it did have some interesting aspects due to the changes they made.

How about the Paranormal Dating Agency series? [Insert The Scream painting by Edvard Munch] ThAtSoUnDsLiKeAsMuTtYbOok! And it is. The books are ridiculous, but I like them. I think I am currently on book 7 of the series which follows a matchmaker named Gerri. She is a “Shifter” who can transform into a wolf (but is not a werewolf) and comes from a very technologically advanced planet where everyone shifts into some animal or another. There are wolves, bears, tigers, lions, panthers, even dragons. The animal side is sort of like the Id of the Shifter with baser instincts like possessiveness and a desire to protect their “mate.” Typically, the only time they are in their animal form is when there is a threat that the animal is suited to handle, and never used during sexyfuntime.

The men are always very attractive, fit, and ready to commit to their partner for life. The women are always described as a “big girl” possessing “curves and rolls.” Her hair is usually “unruly curls” and her skin is some brownish edible thing such as chocolate, mocha, caramel, or cinnamon. She is a little hesitant to believe that the Shifter Adonis could truly be as into her as he is, since most men she has dated in the past have made her feel inferior because of her weight. She is sassy, confident, has a good job, lives on her own, and has supportive female friends. In the beginning of the book either the human woman or the male Shifter approach Gerri for her matchmaking services. Then there is some drama to do with shifter politics or perhaps a stalker ex and then they get “mated” (Shifter version of married, except no divorce). Very formulaic, characters bordering on interchangeable and not especially relatable, but sometimes that is what you want. And by you, I mean me. So sue me.

*face scrunched shut, cautiously opening one eye to look for your response*

The truth is that I was blushing while writing the above. While I may summon up some semblance of comfortable carnality, inwardly I am clutching my pearls. I wasn’t taught that it was okay to be a sexual being, and I still struggle with feeling comfortable with being one. But now you can see why I might hesitate to add my contributions alongside the works of Søren Kierkegaard and Charlotte Brontë. And I am not not done yet. Are you still there?

This next one took me a while to get through. It started when I watched 2002’s “The Four Feathers” with some friends (remember when we used to be able to do that, watch a movie with friends?). After watching the 2002 version I decided to revisit the 1978 version that I remembered fondly. Seeing the differences between them I found myself wondering about the original and so I found a LibriVox reading of the book. 

In case you are unaware, anyone can volunteer to record themselves reading any book in the public domain, which is then free for all to enjoy. Due to this fact, the story didn’t just have one person reading the whole book.

  • There were at least 5 of them:
    • A woman with no discernible accent, a pleasant voice, and smooth delivery
    • A man with no discernible accent, a pleasant voice and smooth delivery
    • A man with no discernible accent, a flat voice and halting delivery
    • A man with a British accent, older pleasant voice and expressive delivery
    • And then there was Gary…

Gary appeared as a reader in chapter 9 and went on to record most of the remaining 25 chapters. With a thick New York accent and a halting delivery, he stumbled his way through pronouncing names like Feversham and Durrance. It was jarring when he first appeared, but he made me smile and I admired his determination. 

The book itself is quite good. The story focuses on Harry Feversham, the only son of a retired general and a long line of Fevershams who have served in the military. Paralyzed by a fear of cowardice and dishonor in the face of battle, Harry resigns his commission when he learns his unit is being called to active duty. But when  three of his fellow soldiers found out that his resignation was triggered by the call to active duty, they deemed his resignation as cowardice, symbolized by sending him three white feathers. When he receives the feathers in the presence of his fiancé she adds the fourth feather and broke off their engagement. The very thing Harry feared and hoped to avoid has become his reality.

Disgraced and deeply depressed, but feeling that suicide would only add to his cowardice he resolves to follow his unit into the Sudan and make himself of some service to those who had given him the feathers in the hopes that he could perform an act of bravery sufficient to erase his shame.

I also read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein. It was recommended to me maybe 15 years ago and I am a rather different person than I was 15 years ago. The story takes place on the moon, which has been turned into a penal colony, and their struggle for independence with the aid of a sentient computer. The book was well written and engaging, I especially liked the world building which took into account the disproportionate incarceration of men to women, leading to a largely male planet. Characters came from all over the world and had their dialogue written with an accent. They also had their own customs and sayings, I really enjoyed it. That said, it has a strong libertarian bent as a significant part of the book is spent with the planning and politics of revolution.

I am almost done, but I have one more series that I am currently reading: The Captive Prince series. This series started on An Archive Of Our Own which is a place where users can post things they write. A lot of it is fanfiction, but not all. This story started out serialized on this site and gained a significant following, with Kindle and paperback versions of the trilogy taking six slots on Amazon’s top 50 LGBT fantasy fiction works, with the highest at number twelve. Granted, that’s pretty niche, but there is a reason that this book has gotten the attention – it’s really good! The author has a broad and sophisticated vocabulary, and it was a pleasure to read words like assignation, fractious, excoriating, and lassitude. The story takes place in another world where technology has only advanced to something similar to our middle ages – swords and arrows, but no explosives. The story starts when the Prince of Akielos is betrayed by his illegitimate half brother and given as a slave to the Prince of Vere, a rival nation, who’s elder brother he had killed in battle a few years earlier. Since officially the Prince of Akielos is dead, no one suspects his true identity and an uneasy relationship begins to form between the two princes.

If you were expecting something akin to Paranormal Dating Agency, look again. The characters are complex and deep, the world is richly drawn, and the story has just the right amount of intrigue. Upon reflection, this series truly brings together the strongest elements from the previous books. The world building of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, the vivid descriptions from Night Circus, with some of the risqué content found in the Paranormal Dating Agency. There is a fair bit of political intrigue, moves and countermoves, and I am *clap* HERE *clap* FOR *clap* IT ! I have only read the first two books in the trilogy but I will probably finish it tomorrow. 

So what does all of this say about me? If I step back I see that I have diverse tastes including historical fiction, sci-fi, and fantasy. I see that I like movies and adaptation. I see that I am vain and spend more time thinking about what others might think than I care to admit to myself. Particularly when it comes to my sexual side. My instinct is to  judge me, so I expect anyone else to judge me too. I am working on not judging myself, but it is not easy to unlearn decades of sexual repression.

But that’s what I see, what do you see?

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