Holding Out for a Hero

I read a lot of everything. Fiction, nonfiction, science fiction, mystery fiction, romance fiction. I watch even more fiction because by the time I want to relax, I am often too tired to read.

I’m also reaching the age where “life’s too short” is more than a cliché. It’s also true. About twenty years ago, I read an essay by Lewis Shiner (or maybe James Patrick Kelly?) in Asimov’s. One of those two men had actually done the math on how fast they read, how many books they read per week, and how many books they had left to read if they lived an average lifespan.

I read the damn essay and even though I just searched for it on Google, I can’t find it. But the thing has never left my brain.

The idea that there are a finite number of books I will be able to read in my lifetime makes me panic. I mean, seriously panic. The number of books I want to read is infinite. Here’s a warning to whoever outlives me: There will be dozens of half-read books in my house after I die, and even more unread books in my to-be-read pile.

I will be greatly disappointed that I never got to them. I may even haunt the bookshelves of my own home because I was unable to read everything on those shelves. In fact, I plan to haunt those bookshelves—and maybe even sit down in a ghostly manner and do my best to read everything I can.

Since Lew or Jim or somebody infected me with that horrid idea of finite books, I have become a bit more circumspect in what I read. If I can only read 2,000 more books in my lifetime, then do I really want to read . . . x . . .?

Now, I don’t mean I’ve become more critical (although I might have). I don’t even mean that I’m starting more books and tossing them (although I might be). I actually spend a bit more time thinking about what I buy and why I buy it.

Even though I love noir fiction—dark, bleak, reflective of society—I don’t really want to read it at the novel length. The news is too harsh for that. Sometimes my life is too harsh for that.

So I have (mostly) relegated noir fiction to the short stories I read.

In short fiction, I’ve pretty much jettisoned the beautifully written story that goes absolutely nowhere—the thing someone wrote to impress me with their craft, not with their storytelling. And I don’t even approach novels that do that (never have, except in English class).

What am I looking for in my leisure reading? The same thing I look for in my leisure viewing.

I want heroes. Heroes, heroines. People who might be totally despicable, but they find that shred of human decency, that thing that makes them rise above the crowd and do the right thing, if only for a moment, whatever that right thing might be.

I read (and enjoyed) a British mystery series until the protagonist (I can’t call him a hero any longer) who always struggled with doing the right thing in a difficult world (World War II, mostly) slept with his sister. And never regretted it. Never apologized for it. Didn’t even think it was wrong.

I am not kidding. I rocketed out of that series so fast that you could probably see the little puffs of dust behind me. I gave the books to the used bookstore down the hill, and every time I see the author’s name, I feel betrayed.

I had believed in that character. I thought he was grappling with being a good person, not a creepy idiot. Ugh.

I have to dig through a lot of science fiction books to find real heroes. I don’t mind downer short stories—I’ve written more than my share—but I don’t want to read novels in which our protagonist starts out as bad as Darth Vader and then slips further into darkness.

Life’s too short.

What taught me about my bias, though, was television. All those critically acclaimed shows about horrid people don’t hold me at all. I usually watch one episode on the recommendation of some friend, find that no one is trying to do the right thing (although they do bad things in interesting ways), and I don’t watch the next show.

I watch stuff that the critics and the trendy TV watchers think are stupid. Things like Flash and Arrow and NCIS and Agents of Shield. I don’t watch because the worlds are black and white. (In Arrow, they’re awfully gray.) I watch because everyone is trying to be the best person possible. I don’t care if they fail.

I care that they try.

Not everything I watch or read is action-oriented. I love stories about people who flaunt an unjust law so that they can challenge it in court, people who stand up for what they believe in (especially in anti-discrimination areas), people who discover they have more courage than they ever believed when facing a bad judge or a discriminatory employer.

I like everyday heroes almost more than I like action-movie heroes.

But I like heroes. That try-fail-or-succeed cycle in the middle of a story that I want to spend time with usually involves figuring out how to help others in an uncertain world.

So I am weeding down my reading choices. No more stories about characters who just give up or “interesting” people who have addiction issues or “fascinating” characters who sell drugs to children.

I’ll read about someone who did something bad and is fighting for redemption, but I’m done reading (deliberately) about people who have done something bad, and want to do more bad—at least if those people are the protagonists of the novel or the TV show I’m watching.

Life’s too short.

When it comes to story, I’ll hold out for a hero, every single time.

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4 thoughts on “Holding Out for a Hero

  1. Mike Stern

    Good for you! I started doing things like this a few years back. Our culture and our literature requires heroes, since we can get the alternative at any time by reading or viewing the news.

    I’m also discarding cliche literature – the stuff that has been done before by better authors. Not that I really hate cliches, understand. It’s just that if a cliche story or idea gets used, then the writing absolutely has to be better than in a story that has some originality.

  2. Lorraine Rovig

    Yes! Thank you for articulating so perfectly my thoughts. I too am now a “senior” and life truly is too short for reading unsatisfying books, watching movies about unredeemed humans; glorifying the worst parts of our natures. I too demand a hero or heroine “trying to do the right thing.” I find the current “Captain America” movies so satisfying because he does this, not because he is an action hero.

    On a slight tangent from your essay, I have long thought the reason so many of the Victorian men and women we can admire were so brave in so many new endeavors was because of what they read – new books showcasing their time period’s heroic tales; such as those by best-selling author, Charles Dickens, for example. Our own parents and grandparents in their generations had their time period’s books, movies, and myths full of heroes–King Arthur’s tales, Gene Stratten Porter’s novels, tales of Tarzan (the first is copyright 1912 and in the last, #22, c1947, he fights WWII!), Zane Grey’s books (one novel is distrustful of the Japanese in California), Cowboy and Indian movies, Buck Rogers and Superman comics, so many tales with moral heroes. (I do notice several “hero-stories” of the past have racial or other discriminatory biases that do not feature what we today would call heroes doing the right thing.) Now I watch the new “hero myths” of the several different generations that come after my Baby Boomer group, and I admit I judge whether I approve. I deplore the glorification of killing in online role-playing games like “War Craft”; I LOVE the fact that the Harry Potter series took over the reading world for all age groups with its excellent heroes. It has been said “you are what you eat” but I think there is truth in “you are what you read.”

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