1) My brain very rarely shuts up.
It puts puzzle pieces together, notes contradictions, notes typos, notices connections with other books, rolls its eyes at dialogue and phrasing I’ve seen before, argues with the premises, and analyzes my own emotional reactions. I very rarely read a book non-critically anymore. This is partly due to my training as an English major. I’ve seen some people mourn this. I don’t understand why. I would rather read awake.
2) I hear the words in my head.
Which is one reason it’s so annoying for me to read a book peppered! with! exclamation points! and pieces of non-punctuation like !?!. I hear them all in my head, and it seems like the book is shouting at me.
3) The same hearing makes me notice when sentences don’t flow or poetry doesn’t scan or dialogue doesn’t sound natural.
So my brain re-edits them, dropping words or shoving them around so that they sound better. This is why I try not to quote directly unless I have the book open in front of me or know it really well; there’s too much chance I’ll give my nice re-edited version instead of what the book actually says.
4) On the other hand, if I’ve read a book more than once, my memory for things other than precise wording is very good.
I’ll know the major plot points, major characters, the “feeling” (a combination of pacing and structure), scenes I like and approximately where in the book they occur, and some of the details of setting. Occasionally, this is a problem. I’d like to remember the critical article I read two years ago, and only once, better than the Robert Jordan book I read two times ten years ago.
5) The things I love most in any book:
- an authorial conception of characters “vast and warm and sympathetic,” in that there’s a sense the author can laugh at their foibles, values them, imagines them as beings with rich inner lives even if she doesn’t detail those lives, and does not take them entirely seriously. (For me, Kay does this a lot, and it’s one reason I really like his writing. Martin doesn’t do it with every character, because he uses some stock types, but his use of characters like Samwell Tarly, who would be reduced to comic relief in other books just because he’s fat, is really, really nice).
- intellectual rigor! Lots of puzzles to solve, trails to follow, information flickering under the surface. This is one of the only times my mind actually shuts up, because it’s busy chasing things.
- emotional height and breadth and depth, books that drag my heart and soul through a meat grinder. (For me, Kay and Martin, again). Yes, light reading has its place. I don’t care. I can always disengage from a light book. I prefer books I can’t disengage from, especially because they’re so rare.
6) The things I hate most in any book:
- an authorial conception of some secondary characters as just there to reward the main character, or admire her, or tell me how much I’m supposed to love her, or make me feel sorry for her by tormenting her. ARGH. The author has conceived the story around her protagonist alone and does not keep in mind that, hello, other people often have no reason to think she’s the center of the universe, or behave that way. Sure, three people might fall in love with the main character. But I better see their reasons for doing that. If it’s just because of the authorial love of her character, it drives me up the fucking wall.
- authorial preaching. Yes, I have a scale for where I think it crosses the line from a character preaching to the author using the character as a mouthpiece. No, it’s not 100% accurate. But one damn good sign is when the preachy character stuns the other into silence with her arguments. Come on. This other person holds deep beliefs on the opposing side, and yet can’t find holes in the preachy one’s arguments? There speaks the author who holds the same position and cannot see a hole because she’s in the middle of that argument.
- visual descriptions that are supposed to substitute for characterization. Here’s the only place I think my face-blindness really impacts my readings. Guess what? I literally cannot visualize your heroine’s pretty, pretty face. Let me hear her voice, see her actions, know what decisions she makes. That will cut more ice with me than thousands of descriptions of “cool green eyes” and “cascades of hair like waterfalls of night.”
- characters that cannot be surpassed. There is no person better in the world than them at X, no person that cannot be awed by them. There is always someone not awed by your protagonist. Here I am.
- the whole story hinging on some scientific fact that is simply wrong.
- big blocks of badly-written exposition. Hence why I like books that make me chase things and work hard to figure out mysteries. BBoBWE are boring to me.
- people being valued solely because of what they’re born with. This applies to skin color, genitalia, magic, and destiny, among other things. I run away like a cat on fire from “feminist” fantasy that spouts that “women are more gentle and loving and connected to nature” crap.
- rushed endings.
7) I keep taking the techniques of writing apart in my head as I read.
“So that’s how he made me sympathize with that character/how she wrote that so I could hear the sounds.” I like understanding the “how.”
8) I really don’t notice style all that much.
Except for the excesses: purple prose, overly ornate description, said bookisms, repeated words (and I’m not talking about the same phrase repeated twice over fifty pages, but about things like “He turned his back on her. “Let’s go back,” he said”). Thus, stories written for style’s sake alone, or which have only the style to offer because the actual story is nonsensical or insipid, do not appeal to me. I get bored, and wander away. Thus the reason I will read no more Patricia McKillip, and why, as much as I ordinarily like LeGuin, I really disliked two of her short stories in Tales from Earthsea. Why should language be able to save a story in which everything else falls down? The same primacy isn’t often granted to setting, characterization, plot twists, or the like.