We Can Eat Too Much Sugar

The Girl With The Dragon TattooCall it airport fiction, call it mass market fiction, or call it trash, the reading equivalent of quick-fix, craving-inducing simple carbohydrates are something we all secretly or not-so-secretly love. You know the ones. The Dan Brown bestsellers and the books that need not be named by the Mormon mom turned author that have tweens and adults alike aflutter.

But before you pooh pooh such ‘lowbrow’ reading matter that’s the literary likeness of riding the sugar high, please consider that, as with simple carbohydrates, which have been blamed for all manner of societal and waist-measurement evils, such reading matter not only has its place in our reading diet, it can do us some good.

We can eat too much sugar, but we can never consume too many books. Any reading is good reading, be it reading the sides of cereal boxes, determining epic fails on signs (those are a whole other blog in themselves), conquering such tomes as Ulysses, or devouring page-turners such as Twilight and The Da Vinci Code.

Because we all know what happens with simple carbohydrates. We eat them. We eat them fast. They make us high and happy. Then they’re burnt up by our bodies (ok, or stored, but let’s not go there) and leave us hungering for more.

It’s the hungering for more is where the door opens for us to consume some more substantial books and to continue to expand our reading tastes. Seriously. Why do we always make each other feel as though our reading habits must be something like a cross between eating only wholemeal and raw health foods (which are fine, but never as tasty) and taking medicine?

Hands up who did further research into the Illuminati and Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper off the back of Dan Brown’s breakout bestseller? Hands up who ventured into unfamiliar reading territory to explore vampires and werewolves courtesy of Twilight? And hands up who is, like me, now firmly entrenched in Team Edward, although almost willing to have a foot in both camps based purely on the extraordinariness of Taylor Lautner’s abdominal muscles that were flexed at every available opportunity in the film adaptation of New Moon?

We’ve all been on crazy, carbohydrate-free diets and we know that they make us unhappy. We also know they end in a massive carbohydrate binge. The question is why we can’t use carbohydrates as part of—or a door to opening ourselves up to—a balanced literary diet? Because here’s the thing. I finally read the first book in the mass market series that has arguably stepped up to fill the post-Brown, post-Meyer void: Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

I found it less than ordinary. And that’s actually a good thing.

The book (and indeed the Millennium trilogy) has been a runaway bestseller, with relative non-readers around the world picking it up, enjoying it, and recommending it to others. The funny thing is, the book is slow. Interminably slow. I’m a voracious reader and I struggled with the first 300-odd pages of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. I mean, sheesh, for a journalist who would have spent his life abiding by the inverted pyramid—or the rule that all the important information must be up front to draw readers in—Larsson completely inverted the inverted pyramid.

I think I could have skipped the first half of the book and been no worse off for it. I skimmed half the details about the Vanger family, which Larsson made far too large, with the various members blurring into similarity meh-ness. And the Lisbeth Salander character, the girl who sports the title’s tattoo, was unnecessarily (and boringly) difficult (I actually groaned when she stormed off for being complimented on having a photographic memory, then returned to the house when she was invited back in a pointless, irrelevant scene designed to demonstrate her different-ness). She’s a pale, caricatured character when you compare her with a strong, troubled, but interesting female such as Lucy Farinelli from Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta series.

Yet in spite of these flaws, people—and, in my experience, most surprisingly non-readers—are enjoying The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and recommending it to others. Which is an excellent. If they are prepared to read through the 300-odd pages that should have been cut and put up with characters that either don’t enhance the narrative or that simply don’t quite work, they’re prepared to take a step up from simple carbohydrates to some more complex ones.

Indeed, rather than pooh poohing people’s enjoyment of white bread-like reads, we should be celebrating and encouraging their starting-somewhere simple carbohydrate-book diet.

The Book Burglar Meets The Book Thief

Considering the similarity of themes, titles, and habits (that is, a girl who steals books), it’s somewhat surprising that I hadn’t, until recently, read The Book Thief.

I know, I know. Given that it’s sold bucket loads in Australia, I must have been one of the only Australians not to have read it. But judging a book by its cover, I found the cover pretty bland. I’m naturally suspicious of any book that’s on the Top 100 Books list of the tried-to-pull-a-swifty-on-the-publishing-industry Angus & Robertson retail chain. And a book about a little German girl who steals books during WWII sounded slightly too Anne Frank-derivative and a lot heavier than I could enthuse myself to read.

But I finally succumbed over the Christmas period (mostly to enable me to comment intelligently on it when people pointed out the similarity between its protagonist’s and my own penchant for snatching books) and am pretty pleased I did.

The whole death-as-omniscient-narrator thing grated in the too-slow beginning, but thousands-of-people-can’t-be-wrong logic and Markus Zusak’s unusual turn of phrase kept me reading—as much to try to determine just how he came up with such clever constructions with such a lightness of touch.

Which is where he won me over.

I mightn’t think it’s the best book ever (to be fair to it, my expectations were sky high given the preceding hype) and I might have thought the narrative mechanisms and structures were at times a little twee, but I was impressed by Zusak’s ability to imbue life into (and help me see myself in) a small girl inexplicably driven to acquire books—even when she lacked the literacy skills to read them.

Above and beyond that, I owe Zusak a debt of gratitude for helping explain and justify my almost-physical need to commandeer books. I might not be a young orphan in Nazi Germany who needs books to help make sense of and develop a sense of security in the world, but the book-loving, book-hoarding compulsion transcends countries, languages, and borders. I now understand how a writer in Sydney could craft a story about Nazi Germany based on tales he heard growing up and why the story, which is as much about a love of books as it is about humanity, is selling well.

He might be a grown man writing about a young girl, but methinks that in creating that character, Zusak was channelling (and maybe publicly confessing and embracing) his inner book thief.

Beg, Borrow, Or Steal (But Mostly Only From Family)

Fahrenheit 451It’s dangerous to allow family members to spend any length of time in my room, because any visit invariably leads to the same thing: a casual perusal of my bookshelf followed by an indignant ‘Hey! That’s my book!’

Indeed, I’ve earned something of a reputation among my family for only buying them books I want to read, reading the books before I hand them over, and then feigning innocence when they notice their books on my bookshelf later on. They christened me ‘The Book Burglar’ long before Markus Zusak’s novel of a similar name was penned, but I refuse to apologise for my voracious book appetite and my love of looking after books.

It should be noted that the only people I steal from are my immediate family and that it’s technically not stealing if I paid for the book in the first place. Besides, I’m pretty sure that book thieving runs in the family. Case in point: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I’ve heard that the book’s a classic, a must-read up there with Orwell’s Animal Farm and Huxley’s Brave New World, but I wouldn’t know. My brand, spanking new copy disappeared from my bookshelf before I’d even cracked the spine.

Two years since it disappeared, it’s become something of a bone of contention with my brother (AKA Prime Suspect #1), with the issue raising its ugly head around gift-giving birthdays and Christmas. Ever the peacemaker, my mother maintains that the book’s just slipped down behind something and will turn up. My sister considers it book thief karma. My brother staunchly maintains his innocence (some would say too staunchly). And my insomniac father tries to stay out of it—I’ve awoken at least twice in the wee hours of the morning in recent times to see him sifting through my bookshelf for reading material to consume the hours he can’t sleep. He knows that he’s Prime Suspect #2.

Whether or not I ever get to read Fahrenheit 451 remains to be seen (I refuse to purchase the same book twice and there’s currently no one in my family game to buy it lest they be accused of the crime), but I maintain that book thieving is genetic and if I’m guilty of book theft, so too are my guilty-until-proven-otherwise Fahrenheit 451-thieving family.

But surely I’m not alone in this passion for books? Surely there are others so passionate about books and reading they’re prepared to beg, borrow, or steal (from family members only) to satiate their reading appetite? C’mon. Which books have you commandeered for your bookshelf? Which books have been commandeered from yours? And do you know the whereabouts of my Fahrenheit 451?