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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Has Modern Media Condemned Good Books?

When I first read Dorothy Sayers' "The Nine Tailors", I was a third of the way through the book when I tossed it aside and said, "If I hear one more thing about change ringing, I'll scream!"

Change Ringing is the act of ringing church bells in sound patterns, and it seems like a pretty big deal in England if my recent viewing of Midsummer Murders is any indication. In "The Nine Tailors", the bell ringers are preparing for a record-setting Christmas Eve performance, though I gave up long before that Holy midnight.

A few years passed, and I learned to love Lord Peter Wimsey. Once again, I sat down with a copy of "The Nine Tailors" and gave it another go. This time, something wonderful happened. An entire world opened up before my eager eyes. By the time I reached that ominous third-way mark, I could feel the December cold in my bones and see the moonlight and shadows peppering a flat country covered in snow, making for a truly Silent Night.

My muscles ached at the thought of the Herculean strength required to ring bells for hours straight, and as the last chime echoed through the early morning, the chill I felt could only be followed up by murder. It was.

Why did the second read satisfy? In the interval between reads, I like to think that I grew up, and part of growing up is learning that anticipation is often much more satisfying than the quick rush of the payoff.

Now that instant gratification is available via the Internet, and movies and television shows rely on unceasing action while they skim over character and setting, too many people have forgotten the pleasure of immersing oneself in a good story.

I recently read Anthony Edward's "The Second Shot". The narrator is long-winded and verbose, not to mention a stuffy prig. After a few pages I paused. Would I be able to read an entire novel of this voice? I'm happy to say I gave it a few more pages. The payoff was delicious and it could never have worked without setting up an unpleasant image of the narrator, and I'm grateful I took the time to allow the author to work his magic. I would have missed out on a gem.

Writers are often told to get the murder in as soon as possible or the reader won't bother with the book. I wonder if Agatha Christie's "Ten Little Indians" would have been so successful if she had not been allowed to introduce us to the characters on their way to that ominous island? Or if we hadn't seen the reactions of each household as they read the morning paper in "Murder Must Advertise"?

Are nuances a thing of the past? Does everything have to be spelled out in black and white? And will characters be allowed to develop in subtle ways? Or must readers be beaten over the head. And is it for our benefit as writers or for their benefit as readers? It's certainly easier to get on with a scene than to take the time to dig deeper.

I had someone complain to me that Poirot wasn't any fun because he "told" you everything at the end of the book. I took one of her books and read through it. While Poirot certainly did give a summation at the end of the story, EVERY SINGLE clue was laid out in the book. It was a lesson in subtlety and excellence.

This episode happened quite a few years ago. Does that mean that there have always been lazy readers, but that the market now consciously caters to them? Are we in danger of training entire audiences to avoid deep thought and subsist on a diet of candy bars instead of living fully on balanced meals? A candy bar can be perfectly wonderful as long as that's not the only thing I'm putting into my body.

I'd love hear other opinions.

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