EPHEMERA: The Four Stages Of Reading

A week or so ago there was an article in the Guardian about the four stages of reading. I’m sure it’s probably something that’s been written about before, but it struck a chord when I read it, and it probably will with the kind of people who read my blog or other book blogs.

The writer identified the four stages as:

1. Free and fluent reader–that stage around the age of seven when you can read unassisted and begin to devour series after series of children’s books. Ponies, spies, detectives, teenagers with educational minor family issues, that kind of thing, Enid Blyton.

2. The seeking out of ‘adult’ (in pretty much the euphemistic way) material; the moment when sex or gore or completely terror in literature is discovered, and you start down the rabbithole. Generally at an earlier age than parents or the people who sit on school library board meetings would like. Say, 11.

3. The late teen period of anguished, intellectual reading for effect. Reading ‘proper’ books because its impressive. In this day and age, that probably translates as a facebook with a list of sufficiently weighty ‘favourite books’. Genre fiction now barely warrents a lip-curl.

4. The final stage of no longer reading to impress, where the Booker list is nothing more than a news article and you read purely for enjoyment.

The article struck a chord because of that last section, and cringing slightly at noting the difference in the two. My reading life has probably followed a roughly similar pattern to this. When I first attended school I was a painfully slow reader, and didn’t start reading properly until I moved schools after a year. Out of nowhere, I took off, and by my fourth year of school was having to venture all the way up to the unknown lands of the Year 6 classroom to get my reading books. I read a lot of spy series. I may have even read some pony series (Animal Ark, anyone?) Detectives seemed to be the forefront of my my reading (Secret Seven, Famous Five, Hardy Boys, Three Investigators, lots of other knock-offs.)

What about the foray into ‘adult’ fiction? A few moments stand out. A lacking in the kind ‘adult’ moments as hooked the Guardian writer, The Lord of the Rings was probably my first one, trawled diligently through when I was nine, which was a giant leap from Timmy and the gang on Kirrin Island. And then there was the box of books my brother gave away and winkingly pointed out that he’d be policing what disappeared from the box because there were a few things in there Mum wouldn’t be happy about. Like Judy Blume’s Forever (my god…) And then, around about 11 or 12, I read Stephen King’s Desperation and had nightmares for a week, and Hollywood Wives by Jackie Collins, in which I skipped from sex scene to sex scene. It probably says something that (living in an internetless and TV-less household) the first porn I ever had I actually wrote myself, using find-and-replace on the names for variety. (Which, side note, reminds me of the grossly inaccurate sex scene in the novelisation of GoldenEye, which confused me anyway, as I’d failed to notice my brother fast-forward through the scene when I watched it aged 8.)

But really, my version of this stage was really about embarking into reading doorwedge thick epic fantasy novels. The Feist novels were introduced to me by the pastor of my parents church, and most of my teenage reading fell into this category. The first fiction I ever wrote of any length was epic fantasy.

But I vividly remember, sometime around fifteen or sixteen perhaps, my aunt saying that surely I was interested in reading some more grown-up books? She was a quite starchy school-teacher type who I believe routinely reads the Booker list, and belongs to a book group of ex-schoolteachers. I didn’t really question her statement at the time–I probably said no, but I did agree in my head that the fantasy fiction I was reading wasn’t grown up.

But around about that time it did actually begin to change. At college I read all sorts of other things–Sandman, Glen Duncan’s novels, The Lovely Bones, The Time Traveller’s Wife, Phil Rickman’s novels; those are the ones that stand out because they remain favourites, but I read a whole lot of other novels around that.

This is probably where I depart from the model a bit, because on paper it doesn’t look like I ‘read for effect’ or to impress people. But going from then on the university my Amazon wishlist–and then my bookshelves–started to fill up with heavygoing books with weighty themes, or from lists of ‘books everyone should have read’ or prizewinners. The thing is, I never read them. They just sat on my shelf, and for me the big lightbulb was when I realised ‘and I’m never going to!’

It feels like a happy place to be in–reading purely for your own enjoyment. I tried reading the Booker list once. There were some good books, but that wasn’t really why I was reading it. I get frequently growled at by my partner for now ‘looking down’ on the fantasy fiction that I cut my reading teeth on. It’s a thorny area–I can see where he’s coming from because quite frequently my attitude towards it does default, and my position of genre fiction now comes down to ‘why should we have genres?’ My probably comes from the readers who read a book simply because it fits a genre, whether it is well-written or not. Feist, Tolkien, Gaiman–all superb writers, but there are plenty of rip-offs who aren’t, and they’re best avoided.

But where can you see the difference the most?

When I was eight I was writing adventure stories about my friends and a dog that never existed solving crimes by the cliffs of Flamborough.

When I was fourteen I was writing an epic fantasy novel about wizards and dragons. I had a map, too. And a prologue.

When I was nineteen I was writing a novel about the interconnectedness of human life, the fragile bonds of family, and the tragedy of watching a life play out without being able to be a part of it.

At twenty-four I am writing (or planning, or imagining, or dreaming about, or nearly finished) a steampunk-detective novel, a gay web-comic, the above literary novel, a YA romance novel, a time-hopping sci-fi-action-historical-fantasy and a semi-mystical Rob-Ryan style picturebook.

How about everyone else? Feel like you recognise yourself in any of this?

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