Recently I pared down my collection of romances by one author, Lucy Walker. (Doesn’t sound like much, but that was 27 paperbacks off my shelf.) Lucy Walker’s romances introduced me to the Australian outback and made me thirst to visit the continent Down Under. But they also gave me a dual impression of life there. On the one hand, it all sounded fascinating. On the other, the chauvinism of the men and the passivity of the women did not make me want to have a romantic encounter with an Australian man. I should note that I encountered as reprints; they were written in the 1950s, when the fashion was for passive women who dated other men as a ploy to make their inarticulate boyfriends jealous enough to finally speak up and propose. I guess I needn’t have worried that the conventions of sheep station life of that era would hold true for my own romantic life years later, but I did get a very strong impression about Australia through these romances.
I haven’t looked at these books for years now, and before giving them to charity I made the deliberate decision not to reread any of them. I’ve figured out why. I have an image in my memory of what those books were like, and I don’t want to disturb that image.
This might explain why even though most of us romance readers have a pile of books we call “keepers,” we want to read new romances. After all, if you think about it, wouldn’t owning a mere five or ten romances do? To experience the pleasures of romance again, you’d just reread them. But that’s not how we behave. We cherish the old stories mostly in memory and we don’t want to mess with those memories. That aversion—that fear of tampering with a perfect memory of a golden moment—pushes us to read new stories to obtain the same dramatic thrills that the old stories gave us.
It’s the fundamental reason why people read genre (or watch series television or go see Iron Man 2). We want more of the same, but not the same. It’s not merely a need for something new and different, although that plays a role, too. It’s a need to protect our prior experiences. This is true in many media, many forms of entertainment. We see a wonderful movie and we do like to rewatch it from time to time, but not too often. We might notice flaws we never saw the first time around. Instead, seeing this wonderful movie propels us to seek out yet another movie that might be wonderful also.
The great British essayist Samuel Johnson said, “A second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience.” Reading a second or third or 500th romance is a case of experience creating hope. We loved the romances we read in the past, and we hope the ones we read in the future will be as good, will impress us, and will make us want to put them on our bookshelves and savor the memories they contain.
Eventually, though, we grow into different people. We can’t connect directly with who we were when we first read the books ageing on our shelves. When that happens, it’s time to move those books along, find them a new home, so they can give some other romance reader a happy experience. Lucy Walker and I are parting company, but I will be visiting Australia later this year, and that’s entirely because I once read her romances.