Reading with a Passionate Eye

Sense vs. Sensibility? I’m a Sense girl, all the way.

I am not exactly a fan of passion in my personal life. I mistrust anything that carries me beyond reason or makes me feel out of control. For me, there’s a whiff of the fanatic (the demon-possessed) in fan, and of suffering (the Passion of Christ) in passion. That’s probably why I’ve seldom been really drunk, and never been tempted to try drugs.

I didn’t enjoy falling in love that much. The soaring highs and steep drops. Roller-coasters make me motion sick; falling in love felt kind of queasy, too. I like being in love just fine, though. Some lovers seem to thrive on drama, fights, sobbing, reckless acts, think the best sex is make-up sex. Not me. I like quiet contentment. (In case you’re worried, or you’re my husband, I’m not implying my sex life is dull. There are occasions when being carried beyond reason works just fine for me.)

This is a paradoxical thing for a romance-reader to say, but I’m often not a fan of passionate books, either. I found my way to romance through Austen and Heyer. Many of the romances I enjoy most are traditional Regencies and contemporary comedies. It’s not that I’m unmoved, or wish to be, by my reading. But I find that angsty, dramatic books about larger-than-life people carried away by passion, books which grip and enthrall many other readers, are usually not for me. When I want a more highly emotional reading experience, I turn to a realistic contemporary, like a Harlequin SuperRomance, where the emotions come from regular people’s everyday problems.

I’m not a passionate reader, exactly, either. I love reading. It’s a big part of my professional vocation and of my leisure time. But I’m trained to read analytically, and I do so by temperament too. I don’t think I’ve been uncritically lost in a book since childhood. I had my readerly Romantic fall from Innocence to Experience long ago. Unlike Wordsworth, I don’t mourn “the hour / Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower.” I’m content to give up intense immersion in exchange for the pleasures of critical thinking.

Waiting to pick up my daughter from school today, I meditated on this post as I finished Sheila Simonson’s trad Regency Lady Elizabeth’s Comet. And I came upon this in the hero’s declaration to the heroine:

“I prefer a mature and elevating attachment to the idiocies of calf love. Far more dignified, don’t you think?” He kissed my hair. Thence another interlude–elevated, of course.

This passage is characteristic of the restraint and humour I enjoyed in the book. This is a couple in love, and in lust (though that’s offstage, in the dash), but they aren’t so overpowered by passion that they can’t make jokes. You can see why I enjoyed this book so much. And I enjoyed it more because I was thinking about how the passage worked and why it appealed to me so much right then. For me, that was a perfect reading moment. 

But not for every reader. This is an account of my development as a certain kind of reader, and I don’t expect or require everyone to be like me. I don’t judge readers who are passionate about passionate books–as long as they don’t judge me.

At least, I thought I didn’t, until this week (some of you who move in the same circles of Romancelandia as I do may guess what prompted this post, but that’s not the important part, and I don’t want to rake it up again).

Look, I’m judgmental. You know the Meyers-Briggs personality types? INTJ is me. I find judging fun. I have to admit I can get pretty passionate about it. I judge Sarah Palin to be a wrong-headed idiot, for instance. And I judge anyone who thought she was a good choice for VP to be an idiot. And I enjoy ranting about stuff like that. Um, yeah. The passion I’m most likely to experience? Anger. Oh dear. I’m a fighter, not a lover?

When I’m reading for pleasure, I judge books to be good or bad or indifferent. I like to believe I’m rational, not passionate, about these judgments, and that I’m fine with other readers judging books differently. But sometimes I feel my judgments of taste as Kantian categorical imperatives; I “will that [they] should become a universal law.” How could any right-thinking person disagree with me, after all? Many readers fall into that trap when they feel passionately about a book, and my tendency to do so now and then means that I am more swayed by passion than I’d like to admit.

But taste in books isn’t a moral issue and thus can’t be a Kantian imperative. I believe fiction can have moral (and other) effects on its readers, but those effects are incalculable, unpredictable, vary from reader to reader. A book which profoundly influences me may leave others cold (I’m guessing there’s a dwindling number of Middlemarch lovers out there). I fall into judging other readers when they are most passionate. Because I don’t feel (OK, OK, I don’t want to believe I feel) unreasoning love for books, I judge others who do. (By unreasoning here I don’t mean stupid, I mean that’s its a largely emotional attachment that they can’t or don’t give reasons for).

I last fell in love at 21, more than half my lifetime ago. I last had a completely immersive, unthinking, uncritical reading experience . . . I dunno, but well before that. I realized this week, thanks to some thoughtful conversations with various people, that because of my history, I might just tend, mostly unconsciously and because of my personal history and temperament, to think of readers who are passionate fans of passionate books as being somewhat juvenile.

And you know what? Sometimes they act in ways that confirm my prejudice. Their acts, I feel free to judge. But their tastes? I shouldn’t. I may not understand some people’s tastes, but they’re no less valid than mine. De gustibus non est disputandum (in Latin and everything! must be true).

Now, dear readers, I’d like you to help me challenge my prejudice against reading with passion. Recommend some passion-filled books and/or books about which you are passionate. There are only two rules:

1. You have to be able to be reasonable about your passion. Are you going to go off on me if I don’t share your love? No sale.

2. No books that are so surrounded by passionate buzz and controversy and backlash and back-backlash that I won’t be able to read them with an open mind. You know the books I mean. There are so many of them these days, sadly.

 

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26 Responses to Reading with a Passionate Eye

  1. sonomalass says:

    Hmm, food for thought. I was very passionate when I was younger, and I was an actress for many years, but a roller-coaster of a marriage (with someone whose highs and lows outstripped mine exponentially), put me in a position to really appreciate peace, companionship, and the absence of high drama in my personal life. I’m still pretty passionate about some political and social issues, about injustice, about plagiarism, and about some basic principles in the subject I teach, but compatibility and shared humor (with mutual passion where it matters) are what I want and have at home.

    I’m not HUGE on angsty reading either, and there are some books that other readers are very passionate about that didn’t work for me — too intense, maybe? I know one of those is Flowers from the Storm — I couldn’t finish it. But The Shadow and the Star? Also extremely angsty, and I liked it. I’m the kind of person who has to leave the room when a character on television is about to be extremely humiliated, or when the action in a movie gets too intense, and in a way I think that when reading I can usually be a step removed from the intensity if I need to be. I sometimes cry over the happy endings of romances, though; I actually cry really easily.

    I tend to get passionate about fantasy more than romance, not necessarily because the books are passionate. Mists of Avalon is one of those books for me, as is Connie Willis’ The Domesday Book. Mists is more passionate in content, between those two, and I hope it doesn’t fall into your “passionate buzz and controversy and backlash and back-backlash” category. Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang is another book that stirred me deeply, as was The Red Prophet by Orson Scott Card — he’s an author I can’t read any longer, but some of his books that I read before he outed himself as a raving homophobe were awfully good. Also Voyager, Diana Gabaldon’s third book, and the only book in that series that I really think of as a complete romance (I know that’s got to be on your list, so this isn’t a recommendation). Kage Baker’s In the Garden of Iden is another book that I love passionately, although as with the rest of these books, I wouldn’t expect all other readers to love it as much or judge them if they didn’t, For one thing, I read very quickly, so length isn’t an obstacle for me nor do I necessarily notice the quality of writing as much as people who slowly savor their books.

    • lizmc2 says:

      I loved reading fantasy in my childhood (through high school) but rarely read it as an adult, except for children’s books. I’ve been meaning to try more again, so thanks for the suggestions! I can’t easily do intense films either. Reading definitely mediates things for me.

  2. Merrian says:

    I have no book recommendations but I am thinking about what you are saying as I am forced to reduce my books and need to consider what I might keep – the criteria for keeping is based on meaning/passion. I might be able to share what my version of that is by the time I am done ::grin::

    Like sonomalass I think most of mine will be fantasy because they gave me a place to go when I needed to get away and a sense of agency with this escape. Sometimes I keep books for the memory of that gift even if they don’t offer the same now.

    • lizmc2 says:

      I have been thinking about the “escape” point. I think when a reader has had a totally immersive experience and escaped into a book, it can be hard to understand and tolerate others’ quibbles about it. Because when you are immersed, you don’t really notice plot holes, editing, etc., though you may see them in retrospect. They don’t matter. But another reader may not be able to surrender to the experience because of nagging noticing of those things. Good luck with your reducing! I hang on to some books because they are somehow a symbol of my identity or part of my past (mostly not fiction, though: I mean, I will never try to read Lacan in French again but I just can’t bring myself to get rid of those).

  3. Kaetrin says:

    There are books I love but I’m not really a rabid fangirl about any of them. I guess I’ve experienced enough times that I didn’t love a book others have raved over (Black Silk is one) that I don’t get bothered by someone disagreeing with my opinion.

    Like you, my husband and I enjoy a peaceful relationship. Good, but not drama-filled (at least as between us anyway!). Conversely, I actually like drama and angst in my reading (although not exclusively). What I don’t enjoy in my own personal life, I find a perverse pleasure in in my reading. Risk free I guess.

    I’ll have to give some thought to any recs – it’s too late for me to come up with any tonight. 🙂

    • lizmc2 says:

      How about some angsty m/m romance? I think I have some in my TBR that I’m resisting, and maybe you can give me a push.

      • Kaetrin says:

        You could try Marie Sexton’s Coda series – Strawberries for Dessert is my favourite but it is more delicious when you know the background of the characters (which are introduced in the earlier books). Cole is my absolute favourite. (do I sound too rabid? :D)

        Also, her Between Sinners and Saints is pretty angsty – sexual abuse for one character and conflict with the religious beliefs of his family (Mormons) for the other. I really enjoyed that one.

        KA Mitchell’s No Souvenirs – there is an “Open Water” kind of scenario which I still find compelling and I’ve read the book 5 times.

        You might like One Real Thing by Anah Crowe and Dianne Fox. It was one of my favourites from last year and quite angsty.

        A non m/m book I’ve been talking about with Mandi at Smexy Books lately is Megan Hart’s Broken. Sadie is the devoted wife of Adam. Adam is in an accident and is now quadriplegic and in need of 24/7/365 care. She meets Joe and he tells her about his erotic exploits – she imagines she’s the woman involved. Interesting issues about cheating/adultery arise and the book is really very sad – it is easy to feel for all 3 characters in the story. Really angsty!

        I really enjoyed all of the above books. If you try any, please let me know what you think, good or bad.

        If I come up with any others, I’ll let you know! 🙂

      • Merrian says:

        Sarah Black’s ‘Marathon Cowboys’ was a definite favourite from last year for me

  4. victoriajanssen says:

    Hmmm, I have different kinds of passion for different books. I mean, Lois McMaster Bujold’s books, particularly her Vorkosigan series, reward endless re-reading because they are so very character-based, and her characters go through so much, taking me as reader along with them – those are ones I love to discuss with others. That tends to lead to more passion, I think, the act of sharing.

    I am very passionate about Sarah Smith’s mystery trilogy that begins with THE VANISHED CHILD, but I experience those as deep, immersive pleasures (despite having shared them with several people, we never really talked them over).

    The fantasy novels of Barbara Hambly and Martha Wells – both of those writers have themes that really resonate with me.

    • lizmc2 says:

      Sharing is so important. I think the truly rabid fangirl (well, that’s a nasty way of talking about passion–the vocally passionate admirer and defender, let’s say) is not found in isolation. There are both good and bad sides to sharing that passion, then. But pressing a book you love on someone and having them love it too is such a great feeling! For me, finding online Romancelandia and other book blogs has been so rewarding because the conversations can definitely be passionate, and I don’t have many people in “real life” to share my enjoyment of genre fiction with.

      I have read just a little of the Vorkosigan series but am slowly acquiring them on audio, so that’s on my list.

    • Merrian says:

      What Victoria said re Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series! I met LMB in NZ in 2003 and have an autograph!

  5. The Lymond Chronicles, by Dorothy Dunnett. Love love love love these books, which are superbly intellectual (some might think, pretentiously so, but then I’d have to kill them!) but also emotionally very intense and tempestuous (some might call them ‘melodramatic’–but then they too would have to DIE). Oops. Sounds like I might not be able to stay rational if you weren’t quite so enthusiastic about them! I fell passionately in love with the protagonist when I was an impressionable teenager and much later in life wanted to name my daughter Philippa for reasons that I won’t spell out in case you haven’t already read the series and decide to!

    Generally I too am for sense, rather than sensibility. But thinking of books I do love that are themselves very passionate, there’s Jane Eyre, which I love much more than any Austen (she’s almost too cool for my taste), and The Mill on the Floss. And Gaudy Night–though it does emphasize finding a balance between head and heart.

    • lizmc2 says:

      I do love Jane Eyre, but its more passionate sister, Wuthering Heights? Shudder. And, um, I didn’t really like Mill on the Floss though I do mean to give it another go (I can’t be doing with these unhappy endings, you know).

      Dunnett is actually one of my best immersive reading memories. I read, I think, the first Niccolo book in my early teens and I was so caught up that when my mom called me for dinner I almost shouted back, “No! I’ll miss something!” And then realized it was a book and would wait for me to return. I’m not sure why I never read more, maybe because I couldn’t find more. But I see all the Lymond chronicles are e-available now, so that is going to change!

      I was thinking that romance books that attract the most passionate fans are usually those with wonderful heroes–or the fans cite the heroes as a major reason for their love. Since I am not a reader who falls in love with the hero (it is a very common way of reading romance), those books often don’t work for me. But! I love love love Whimsey. Of course, I first read about him as a teenager, so there is another reason I prejudicially think of such love as juvenile. I don’t seem to have that same experience as a reader now. Wait. Maybe Sirius and Lupin in Harry Potter. But those are children’s books. You see my problem here?

  6. Ros says:

    I am totally an immersive reader. I do like thinking critically about books, but not while I’m reading them. It’s one reason why I’ve mostly stopped writing reviews – I found it was spoiling my enjoyment of reading.

    My irrational pleasures are mostly HPs. Even when I know they’re bad, I love them. Especially anything by Lynne Graham. Total crack for me.

  7. Magdalen says:

    There are books that transport me, but not necessarily to a place I’m quick to revisit. Then there are books that take me someplace I want to go back to over and over again. Is passion the engine for that experience? I’m not sure.

    I was very clear in my application to school: I read to cry (I *love* catharsis more than I love passion, although they’re not mutually exclusive) and I want to learn how to write emotionally transporting romance novels. Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Miller’s Kill mysteries top the list for me: I read the entire series (at that time numbering six books; she’s since published the seventh), put down #6 and picked up #1 and started all over again. I wanted to re-experience that sense of love’s undertow: the current that pulls you away from the safety of shore and into a situation you wouldn’t have chosen but can’t resist. Both of my marriages had that quality, and I wouldn’t have taken away a single gut-wrenching, tearful, exhilarating moment. But as I have NO intention of going through that for a third time (!!), I’ll settle for reading about it in books.

    • lizmc2 says:

      I hope you are successful! Of course, no book moves every reader, but there are some that seem to have discovered the trick of moving a lot of readers. JSF, whose books I really like, falls under the “emotional because about real things happening to real people” category for me. I do find the struggles of her characters very moving.

  8. Another category of books requires critical thinking while reading. I don’t know is there is any point to reading Borges without critical thinking. Yet my reading of “Pierre Menard” feels entirely immersive, as does my aesthetic response to a particularly great sentence in Nabokov, or unusually bracing image in W. G. Sebald. I remember reading The Emigrants back in 1994 or so with a very strong “Ah, yes, this, this is it” sensation. But there was no oppostion – not immersive and therefore uncritical.

    I would argue, too, that Pale Fire, Ficciones, and The Emigrants are passionate books, but I fear I am bending the meaning of the word as it is being used here.

    • lizmc2 says:

      I had a line about “whatever passionate means to you” and clearly shouldn’t have edited it out! Tom, thanks for pointing out that there is more than one kind of passionate, immersive reading. I love close reading and discovering yet another layer of meaning or effect, thinking about why just that word is perfect in that line. I am passionate about sharing that sense of discovery and joy in language in the classroom (sometimes to the mystification of my students!).

      That is a different kind of passion, as you say, from the experience of being caught up in a story, perhaps deeply identifying with its characters, a passionate reading which doesn’t have to engage self-conscious critical thinking. I think genre fiction is more likely to invite or emphasize that swept-out-of-oneself kind of reading, because it tends to be more focused on telling a great story with great characters than on “literary” style, language, etc. And its readers generally seek it out for those things as well.

  9. lizmc2 says:

    This comment system really sucks when you want to engage with a lot of commenters. But I swore I wouldn’t spend money on blogging until I was sure I was going to stick with it, so there it is. Thanks, everyone, for such thought-provoking replies!

  10. Janet W says:

    Do I immerse or do I analyze (not that they’re mutually exclusive, of course). Answer: immerse, followed by rinse/repeat. Because I read so quickly — gulping books down sometimes — if I’m transported by a book, I’ll often re-read it almost immediately, slowing down to savour passages or scenes that were particularly meaningful. My tastes are out there on goodreads for all to see — not that’s complete by any means — but it gives a snapshot.

    Have you read the Malloren books — a Jo Beverley written Georgian series, about a family headed up by the omniscient Marquess of Rothgar. Blanking out on titles, the 1st, 3rd and 4th books moved me emotionally and I’ve re-read them over the years. Books 2 and 5, for whatever reason, seemed to have a distancing between the characters and the reader and I’ve never enjoyed them as much — oh, perhaps passages between Diana and Rothgar, but no.

    There’s a book for every time and place, every mood and whim though so I hate to generalize. I will say that I’m satiated with the conventional and the cliched and when I feel that way, I start to explore different paths, be it re-reading the series I enjoyed as a teenager, or dipping a toe into women’s fiction or trying really (for me) quite outre books — that’s what I’m doing and enjoying now. Mixed in with my usual diet of OOP trads and the best and the brightest of historical writers.

  11. I second the recommendation for Kinsale’s The Shadow and the Star. Although unlike Sonomalass, I actually felt it was *more* intense than Flowers from the Storm (which I also liked).
    My other two favorite Kinsales are The Dream Hunter and For My Lady’s Heart.

    For an intense YA, Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta (it’s contemporary so might work for that reason).

    And intense paranormal series — Shana Abe’s drakon series, starting with The Smoke Thief, although I love Patricia Brigg’s quieter Alpha and Omega series just as much.

    In the trad regency department, since you mentioned liking them, Balogh’s A Christmas Promise felt intense to me, but in a quiet way, so it might appeal.

  12. willaful says:

    The book I’m most passionate about has already been mentioned: Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. It made me want to buy up copies and press them into the hands of strangers. (I settled for numerous Christmas gifts.)

  13. lizmc2 says:

    WHY did I write this? I already have too many books to read! At least some of your suggestions are in my TBR.

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