And much as Wine has played the Infidel
And robbed me of my robe of Honour, well …
I often wonder what the vintners buy
One half so precious as the stuff they sell
Kage Baker was an avid reader. She was one of those kids who is a self-taught reader, first memorizing the full text of her favourite stories and then reciting them until that magic circuit completed itself in the brain: and she could make the connection between the squiggles and the sounds. Books were every bit the magic door all the teacher propaganda claims they can be, for Kage. She spent her childhood in them, always hunting for more worlds to explore. It was because she wanted more that she finally started carving her own doors through the walls of reality.
People always ask writers what they like to read. The simplest answer to this question is, anything they can find the time to read at all – writing is engrossing and time-consuming, and usually the only written word that can be managed is in the cause of research. When Kage was pressed to say what she read when she could read for fun, she always cheerfully responded: “Dead white guys.” Which was, basically, true. She had old fashioned tastes and was not ashamed of them.
Her baby favourites were classic fantasy authors like George MacDonald and Kenneth Grahame and Edward Eager. Bullfinch’s Mythology. Peter Pan. Thorn Smith was a favourite that carried over from childhood to adulthood. When Kage grew older, she graduated to writers of adventure and scope, like Rudyard Kipling and Robert Lewis Stevenson and Patrick O’Brien. A certain amount of derring-do always enthralled her – not so much the person of the hero (though she had a decided weakness for those) but the cut and thrust of a really ripping tale. And God, she loved sea stories!
She loved Shakespeare, too, but once really good movies started being made, she rarely read him anymore – Shakespeare is meant to be watched and heard. Her best-beloved of all the films was the 1935 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; she looked all her life for a way into that wood near Athens.
Even when writing took most of her time, she’d pause for a break with a beloved author. But when your most beloved authors are Dead White Guys, new releases are pretty rare. She didn’t encounter Forester until her 30’s, so Horatio Hornblower kept her company for quite a while. Discovering Patrick O’Brian kept her occupied for most of 2 years. Finally, though, she was reduced to re-reading the old books and waiting for the next Terry Pratchett. Sir Terry continues to illuminate the world, gods keep him forever! Kage would put off a deadline for a new Pratchett novel.
What she didn’t read much of was contemporary science fiction. She’d read it when we were kids – at my insistence, mostly, I adored it and was space-mad from second grade on. She read classic fantasy a lot when it suddenly became available again in the 1960’s – but she was a C.S. Lewis fan rather than a Tolkien adherent (Kage said Tolkien didn’t have enough red and gold in his stories. She was in full agreement with that long-suffering crony of Tolkien’s who was once heard to mutter, “Oh, God, not another fucking elf!”)
She wrote science fiction and fantasy because her ideas did not fit anywhere else. But there were no elves of any habits in her fantasy; rockets were conspicuously absent from her science fiction. She said it was about the stories, not the gadgets. She felt there was a paucity of humanity in both science fiction and fantasy in modern times – but she had grown up on a different vintage, and she tried to match it in her own tales.
By the time she was a full-time writer, Kage only read in her own field when someone sent her a new work – for review, for advice, for a blurb, or just for friendship’s sake. She read science fiction as a duty; sometimes pleasant enough, but still a duty. She went back to Long John Silver when she wanted to be romanced.
Which I guess proves that what the vintner buys for herself is not retailed on to the next drinker. What enchants must be bought for private use and consumed one’s self. The generous vintner, though, will at least pass on recommendations. Which Kage did.
So try one of her cocktails, kids. Some of them are old-fashioned, but they have quite a kick under the fruit spears and paper umbrellas.
Tomorrow: food for thought