January 11, 2007
A thought by James Berardinelli

For one day, let me switch from discussing movies to discussing books.

When I read fiction, I place it in one of three categories: filler, page-turner, or immersive. Further explanation is probably useful. "Filler" is something that doesn't intrigue or interest me a lot, but which I keep reading. I am notorious for finishing books once I start them; I have probably stopped mid-way through less than ten books in my life. "Filler" novels, however, often take a long time to get through - a chapter in a doctor's waiting room, a chapter while sitting in a movie theater before the film rolls, a chapter while getting my car's oil changed... "Page turners" are what they claim to be - books with momentum, which I keep reading to get to the end. As novels are defined, these are disposable entertainment, forgotten soon after, but they're fun while being read. I consider them the junk food of the publishing world. "Immersive" books are my "holy grail." To follow the previous metaphor, they are complete, multi-course meals, full of substance and offering satisfaction on many levels. They draw me in and make me want to continue - not just to get to the end, but to spend time with the characters and invest in their situations. It's easy for me to identify an immersive book once I have read a few chapters - I don't want to arrive at the last page because I don't want to leave the characters behind.

My reading is not genre limited. I will read almost anything. In the past, I have displayed a preference for fantasy and mysteries, but those don't define the boundaries of my reading. Lately, though, I have been disappointed by the lack of immersive books. Much of what I read in 2006 fell into either the "page turner" or "filler" categories. I have especially been let down by fantasy, having quit mid-way through one book (Eragon) in disgust and having given up on another series between the second and third books (Rhapsody etc.) because it wasn't grabbing me. I like George R.R. Martin, but he's becoming long-winded. I am a firm believer that if a series goes beyond five volumes, it's too long. I won't even discuss Robert Jordan - no author has been more guilty of milking the golden cow than him. His last two novels have been unreadable.

The last three books I read are Manhunt, The Time Traveler's Wife, and Wild Fire (with a re-read of The Children of Men thrown in there for good measure, shortly before I saw the movie). James L. Swanson's Manhunt is non-fiction (about the assassination of Lincoln and the subsequent hunt for John Wilkes Booth), so it is not subject to categorization. However, I found the book to be a page-turner; it's written more like a narrative than a text book. This is the kind of material that should be mandated for high school reading - it would involve and interest students more than what's currently being offered. I loved Audrey Niffengger's The Time Traveler's Wife, which is a romance thinly disguised as science fiction. It's the first immersive book I have enjoyed since P.D. James' The Lighthouse and Stephen Donaldson's The Runes of the Earth. (Both authors should again publish in 2008. Sadly, that may be James' final novel since she's almost 90 years old.) Finally, Wild Fire, by Nelson DeMille, is a page-turner. Despite a backstory involving global terrorism, this is pretty much a straightforward cop thriller. It's compelling reading but I felt let down by the standard ending, which has the bad guy revealing his entire plot while holding the good guy at gunpoint.

I have moved on to Katherine Kurtz's In the King's Service and Childe Morgan. Neither has gotten glowing reviews, but I have been riveted by some of Kurtz's past books so I decided to give these a try. Presumably, they're the first two books in a trilogy, although the second one is extremely short (about 250 pages - almost unheard of for a fantasy novel when Jordan and Martin are turning out 800 page volumes). It has, however, been tough going getting into In the King's Service.

Maybe it's a product of age and nostalgia, but I can recall a time when I found nearly everything to be immersive. During my first semester at college, when the classes were easy and the workload light, I had a lot of time for reading. (I was not a social butterfly - no surprise there - and my dorm room included a radio but little else.) I explored worlds created by David Eddings, Wilkie Collins, Len Deighton, and Charles Dickens. I re-visited Tolstoy and Winston Graham. And I discovered Kurtz. It should be noted that there was a lot less fantasy available in 1985 than there is today.

For me, there has been no greater disappointment over the years than David Eddings. I loved his The Belgariad. The plot is pure formula, heavily inspired by The Lord of the Rings (which, for the record, I first read in 1978), but that didn't diminish my enjoyment of it. The thing that makes the books come alive are the characters. Despite living their lives against a familiar tapestry, they are real and fresh and likable. There's even a cute romance (something not found in Tolkien). Sadly, after The Belgariad, Eddings went downhill fast. His books have devolved from perfunctory (The Mallorean, a pointless and unnecessary sequel to The Belgariad) to uninspired (two Sparhawk trilogies) to unreadable (everything subsequent). However, at least Eddings fell apart over the course of several series. Robert Jordan has accomplished that within one never-ending story. I got into The Wheel of Time on the strength of its first two volumes as they came out. Since then, it has turned into an endurance contest. The finish line is supposedly in sight and I don't care.

I love reading because of the worlds it opens up. Plus, it's not scheduled - you can read whenever, wherever, for however long. But the fewer and further between I encounter immersive books, the sadder I become. Most best-sellers seem to be flashy and superficial. Finding literature to touch the heart and soul is becoming a rarity. There's a pull toward old favorites. They may not offer the sense of discovery that a new book can, but they provide a sense of comfort that is only available in the familiar. Here's hoping 2007 finds a handful of immersive books passing across my desk. (Suggestions are, as always, welcome - I wouldn't have read The Time Traveler's Wife if not for my wife.)