What do you like to see when you open a menu? Perhaps you are attracted to a dish that is described in elaborate language, seasoned with exotic terminology, and served like art on a plate. Or maybe you prefer a more humble bill of fare and don’t mind how sloppy it looks so long as it tastes delicious.
This is sometimes how I view reading books. I would put literary classics in the fancy meal category and more lighthearted material in the messy takeaway category. Both can appeal for different reasons but, like the food they represent, both offer widely different reading experiences.
For me, Middlemarch by George Eliot is an example of a fancy meal. Reading it requires the equivalent effort which one would put into getting dressed up, employing impeccable table manners, and paying attention to every detail of the meal’s creation. The book is a mammoth work, featuring a large cast of characters in a fictitious 19th century English town, and is commonly mentioned in lists of books to read before you die.
Unfortunately, I only made it through a fifth of it before giving up. What prompted me to do this? To be very honest, I didn’t feel I was smart enough for it. It turned out that the author was fond of including ‘big words’ and prone to digress for endless pages on character analysis. While this deep immersion into the English language is appetising to some, my preferences lean more towards the advancement of plot and the interaction of characters through dialogue. My main problem with such a laborious style is that I chiefly read at bedtime, which is when I am least disposed to apply myself to the challenge. I’ll be so tired that my eyes will glaze over and I’ll end up reading the same sentence over and over, endeavouring to absorb its meaning. Adding complexity to fatigue is just a recipe for disaster.
So, after consigning Middlemarch to my Tried-and-Failed list, I found myself craving something more to my taste. I’d heard of an author called Lisa Kleypas who writes both contemporary and historical romance and decided to sample her work, going for the historical side of things, as you might expect. And I’m pleased to say that she was definitely more my cup of tea (if I drank tea – which I don’t…).
She is a prolific writer and I had an abundance of series to choose from, but I settled on Book 1 of the Hathaways Series, a set of five books where each volume focuses on one of the five Hathaway siblings. I made it through the entirety of Mine Till Midnight in the length of time it took me to get through 20% of Middlemarch (yes, it is a shorter book but my speed of reading rapidly increased too) and I am already a third of the way into Book 2, Seduce Me At Sunrise.
As the titles may suggest, this is much fluffier reading material. Lisa Kleypas is candyfloss to George Eliot’s crème brûlée. But I LOVE candyfloss and I’m not ashamed to admit it. Even though Kleypas’s books may not be worthy of the Man Booker Prize, she knows how to spin a good tale. And the quality of her writing is a cut above many of the other authors in the historical romance genre. The circumstances in Seduce Me At Sunrise are a little more bodice-ripping than I would like but I am always compelled to pursue a book with a decent love story. I can’t deny that Kleypas holds my attention with more mastery than Eliot; I can appreciate the delicacy of the latter’s words but I’d rather sink my teeth into the former’s juicier meat.
It makes me wonder whether my brain has somehow become dumbed down over the years because I used to be able to manage the heavy texts a lot better. However, I think it may simply be that I prioritise my comforts more now. I probably could have pushed myself to finish Middlemarch but I wouldn’t have enjoyed it the way I am guzzling through the Hathaways Series. In the end, instead of the literary equivalent of a sumptuous repast, I’d rather curl up on the couch in my PJs with a finger-licking takeaway.