Les deux Magots painting by Houmeau
Les deux Magots painting by Houmeau

“In the morning I walked down the Boulevard to the rue Soufflot for coffee and brioche. It was a fine morning. The horse-chestnut trees in the Luxembourg gardens were in bloom. There was the pleasant early-morning feeling of a hot day. I read the papers with the coffee and then smoked a cigarette. The flower-women were coming up from the market and arranging their daily stock.” – Ernest Hemingway

I was talking books with my roller skating friend, Dee, (I know – isn’t she awesome? She likes books AND roller skating) and I told her about the latest book I quit on.  She asked what made me put it down – the characters, the setting, or the plot?  Then she said, “Setting is a big deal for me.  I don’t want to read a book that’s set in a place I don’t want to be.”

Whoa.  That seems so obvious now – when you immerse yourself in a book, you are there, wherever it is set, so why would you voluntarily go someplace you don’t want to be?  She dislikes dystopia, “Huh-uh, no end of the world for me, thanks,” and I am right there with her.

After she said that – “I don’t want to read a book that’s set in a place I don’t want to be” – I thought about how many of my book choices have been based on setting.  I wanted to go someplace cold, so I grabbed The Tricking of Freya, set in Iceland.  I wanted the jungle, so I read Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder.  I wanted the South, so I read The Color Purple.  Likewise, many of my favorite books become beloved because they transport me to a place I want to be – the red earth of Georgia in Gone With the Wind, among fragrant blooms in The Language of Flowers, by an Alpine stream so cold you can chill wine in it in summer in The Sun Also Rises.

Have I ever quit on a book based on its setting, though?  Not that I can recall.  But that’s probably because I never started it.  I often won’t pick a book up if I’m not interested in the place where the story unfolds. A post-apocalyptic future. Space. Even though dystopia is a hugely popular, and I have read a few dystopian novels that I very much enjoyed (Ready Player One, The Forever War, The Hunger Games, The Giver), it takes a lot of convincing to make me give them a try.  I don’t like bleakness and destruction and all that.  That being said, dystopian fiction makes me think about things I wouldn’t otherwise think of, about our future instead of our past.  What will rise out of our destruction?  Are my friends who are preparing for the zombie apocalypse – stockpiling antibiotics, amassing survival gear – maybe onto something?  I wrote several pages in my journal about memories and dreams, and gathering wisdom from them, after I read The Giver.  After The Age of Miracles, I spent days thinking about the ripple effect, how changes in our solar system – in the case of Miracles, a lengthening of the day to 50, 60 hours – would have tremendous implications for our survival, from something as seemingly mundane as school and work schedules to issues as large as world food supplies.

But still, despite all that learning and thinking, when I read I like to curl up in bed and immerse myself in a setting I want to experience – Newfoundland winters, or summer in Appalachia.  If I can’t travel to Paris, or feel what life was like for a pioneer on the prairie, I want to read a gifted writer’s rendering of the scenery, the culture, domestic life, the storms.  I want to feel snowflakes on my skin, or smell rain on warm wheat, or hear the clink of cups at an outdoor cafe.

In other words, like Dee, I want to read a book that takes me to a place I want to be.

What about you?  Does setting play into the reading material you choose?

*Originally published September 1, 2013 on my Butterfly Mind blog, this essay opened my eyes to my love of setting. Though I did not realize it at the time, I think Andrea Reads America was conceived in the writing of this post.

4 thoughts on “Dystopia – to go or not to go?

  1. Yes, I agree with you. The setting is a reason for me to read a book. The vastness of Russia interests me, so I read Russian books, the bigger the better (I love *War and Peace*). Certain time periods are fascinating to me, such as late 19th and early 20th centuries. And I have a strange draw toward books about boarding schools. I’ve never been in a boarding school, and I don’t think I’d have liked to live at a boarding school, but they fascinate me none-the-less. One of my favorites is *A Separate Peace* by John Knowles.

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    1. I have never read any of the Russian greats, and I’ve been feeling their pull lately. I keep hearing about the passion and emotion and the depth of understanding about the human condition. You’ve given me yet another push in that direction. Though I might need to start with something more approachable than War and Peace. Any suggestions? Also, I love boarding school books too, though I’ve never been to boarding school. Maybe that’s why we like them? I remember A Separate Peace from high school – and ooh, it’s set in New Hampshire. I’m adding that to my title spreadsheet – maybe I’ll revisit that book when I get to NH. Thanks Amy!

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      1. Tolstoy’s short novel, Family Happiness, is very good and much less intimidating than War and Peace.

        I’ve been reading some of John Knowles’ lesser-known books. I recently read *Peace Breaks Out,* which takes place in the same school as *A Separate Peace,* except it takes place after WWII.

        I enjoy reading your commentaries on each state’s books!

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