Window or Mirror: How Did My Reading Scope Get So Narrow?


By Julie Wu

I once visited a woman whose bookshelves—all of them—were filled with Harlequin romances of a certain series.  Each spine was identical to the next, except for the title.  She had, as far as I could see, no other books.  She held a half-read identical book in her hand as she conversed.  It was extraordinary.

But who am I to judge?  The woman had found what she liked and was content to stick with it.  And, come to think of it, just how adventurous a reader am I?  I do read more than one imprint, but in a library or bookstore I make a beeline for “General fiction,” or “Literature” and breeze right by aisles upon aisles of mysteries, thrillers, romances, fantasies, biographies, social science, history, essays, and poetry.  Sometimes I catch myself and backtrack to those sections and wonder, what in the world has happened to me?

When I was young, like most kids and probably like my Harlequin-loving host, I read everything.  I had no favorite section in the library.  Most often I went through phases—in my younger years, nonfiction, Danny Dunn, fairy tales, biblical stories, Greek myths, the Laura Ingalls Wilder books.  As I grew older, the Susan Cooper books, Madeleine L’Engle, Larry Niven, Ben Bova.  I supplemented my highschool classes with Edgar Allen Poe, Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, and Daphne DuMaurier.  I read Sidney Sheldon and Princess Daisy (parts of these last two, ahem), and a biography of General Rommel.  I read out of curiosity, with little regard for what I “should” or “shouldn’t” read.  I just picked up books that looked interesting, or that just happened to be in front of me, and if I enjoyed them, I read more like them.

Because I loved to read, I majored in Literature in college.  Now, books were to be studied, classified, stratified.  I still read a few books for fun during vacations, but mostly I drowned in reading assignments.  Sometimes I was assigned three novels a week, two of them in French.  They were the kind of novels that mattered, that advanced or reinvented the hallowed canon of Literature.  I simply did not have time for mysteries, horror stories, gothic romances, and science fiction, and after a while, I got used to not reading them.

Once I started to write, my scope got even narrower.  I wrote in a style and aesthetic that felt right to me; choosing the way I expressed myself necessitated rejecting other ways as not mine.  When I opened a book, I felt a sense of kinship with writers whose aesthetic was similar to mine, and I felt distanced from those whose writing differed—whether it was more or less high-fallutin’ than mine.  As I worked to improve my writing toward my own ideal I also became judgmental of other writing.  It became hard for me to enjoy reading anything.

Would my reading scope have gotten narrower even if I hadn’t majored in literature or started to write?  It seems possible.  Many adults have a chosen comfort genre that they rarely venture from.  Maybe it’s part of the identity we develop as we grow through adolescence—the types of books we read, the types we don’t identify with.  Maybe it’s part of the closing down of options that occurs with adulthood as we choose where we live, what we do for a living, who we marry, whether or not we have children, and thus reject the alternatives.

But does it have to be so?  This is something I think of as I backtrack from the General Fiction section to mysteries and science fiction.  I can’t, as a responsible marriage partner and parent, simply pick up and move from one part of the world to the next on a whim.  I can no longer try a new career every month or a new partner every few months.  This is the tradeoff I chose (and would happily choose again) to have a stable, happy marriage and family.  But any reading limitations I have are self imposed and I gain nothing from them.

To each his own, of course.  Reading books has different purposes for different people, and if a reader’s only desire from a book is the reassuring escape of a happily ended love story, good for her.  For me, books are a way to keep learning something new.  They are a precious window into other people’s lives.  I don’t want to  limit myself to reading books by people who are basically like me.  I am still that same person who loved Agatha Christie and Ben Bova, who would pick up any book and let it take me places far away from my current self.  I can make myself put aside all the technical aspects of writing that I have learned and all my notions of what makes one book “better” than the other.  I can, through a book, recall what it is like to be a child, reading without judgment, without worrying about what other people think.   I can put my carefully constructed identity and my writer ego on hold.  I can read with curiosity and an open mind.  I can wander the aisles, open up a book, and just enjoy the ride.




  1. So true. I remember the days I loved Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear, and Anne McCaffery’s Dragonriders of Pern. I can barely get myself to read the things i need to check out for my kids, and haven’t yet read Hunger Games.

    We say it’s because we don’t have time, and that’s probably about right. But what would happen if they led back to a heart-racing gotta-turn-the-page flashlight-under-the-covers gotta-know-what-happens-next experience with reading?

    Wish I still had my old dragon riders books.

    • Julie Wu says:

      Nichole, it’s so easy to forget what made us love reading in the first place, and so exciting to read a book that helps us remember!

      Thanks so much for commenting!

  2. I have tried to break out a little this year — interspersing books that I’d normally pass by with the ones I veer toward. And mostly, I’ve been pleasantly (not) surprised. There’s nothing wrong with having a comfort zone, it’s when it’s a complacent zone that it can be a problem.

    Thanks for the reminder, Julie!

    • Julie Wu says:

      Thank you, Amy! It’s always fun to stretch that comfort zone, and I find that genres other than mine have a lot to teach me.

      Looking forward to The Glass Wives!

  3. Dell Smith says:

    Julie, I never thought about it quite like this. But I think my scope has narrowed a bit in one way, but expanded in others. I used to read more classics. Now I read more Latin authors. I used to read books by male and female authors, although I find myself gravitating toward male writers more often than not. I read mysteries, but I used to read horror. Why? Not sure.

    Your story about what you stopped reading in college reminds me of what happened to me and movies. I went to film school in the 80s and for years after I was a total film snob, watching only old and new classics. It took a good decade before I again found the joy in watching stuff blow up and Indiana Jones running from a giant rock.

    Great post!

    • Julie Wu says:

      That’s so interesting, Dell. I never went to film school, but it wasn’t until after college that I started watching action movies. I couldn’t believe how exciting they were. I do love (some) arty flims, but there’s something very elemental about action movies, thrillers, etc. that Merchant Ivory just can’t match.

      Thanks so much!

  4. Ann MG says:

    I don’t think it’s just reading: we go the same places, eat the same menu, maintain the same haircut. . . .

    It’s one of the things I’ve loved about finding communities of readers on the Internet. I get to be in conversations that start, “Ooh, ooh, ooh, have you heard of –?” from people who are bringing me to all kinds of new interesting places.

    • Julie Wu says:

      Ann, you’re completely right. It’s so easy to get into a rut in so many facets of our lives. I’ve actually found that meeting other writers also introduces me to books I wouldn’t have normally read. I love it!

      Thanks so much for your comment!

  5. I admit I steer away from some genres, but generally, I think I read fairly widely. In the past, however, I read mostly mysteries. Nowadays, I lean elsewhere, but it’s fun to dip into other waters now and then.

    • Julie Wu says:

      Thanks for your comment, Priscille! I think we all have our tastes and our genres we can’t stomach, whether that is horror or “literary” fiction. I also think there’s nothing wrong with reading solely in one genre for a time or even forever, but boy, what an eye opener when you venture outside!

  6. I’ve been discovering how relaxing it is for me to read prose–I’m a poet–because I’m not constantly asking myself, “What did I learn from this?” I’ve been reading a lot of fiction and non-fiction this summer and enjoying it immensely. I would love to bring that attitude into my reading of poetry, but I don’t know if that’s possible. I’m always evaluating what the poet is doing, and, if it’s working, how II might bring that into my own writing.

  7. Alice says:

    Reading one genre is like only eating roast potatoes, there is no nutritional value. Sure you love them, you enjoy them, but what is healthy about the same thing over and over again?

    I’m not saying a well enjoyed genre should be avoided if you become over exposed, this wouldn’t be any good either, being deprived from what makes you happy, however, I think it is always healthy to explore or seek out new things. You could love it, you could hate it, but it will only expand your mind – teach you something new.

    I was in a similar position a while back, when I found I was only reading one type of story (Historical Fiction, splitting time between the past and the present), now I ensure that I mix this with novels I wouldn’t think to read normally, that I assume I probably won’t like – most of the time I am surprised.