Charlie Chaplin and friends in "Sunnyside" (1919).
I don't read fiction much anymore. My reasons for this are embarrassing and somewhat pathetic, but I'll admit them anyway. First, I write my own fiction and I have such a deep fear of plagiarism, that I'm worried that something I read will sink into my spongey brain, I'll put it into what I'm writing and then next thing you know, I'm sued for plagiarism and mortified for life. I've never had this happen to me, but I guess the plagiarism scandals of the past few years have become my equivalent of the tales that keep you up in the middle of the night, buried under the blankets. Ghosteys, monsters, Kaiser Soze, plagiarism lawsuits. This is what terrifies me. The other reason is that I worry that reading successful, accomplished authors--mostly contemporary ones--will discourage me so much I'll just give up. You could certainly argue that reading great fiction will make me a better writer, but I read a lot up until recently and still read the occasional author from the 19th century literary canon. And it's not like you can't find great prose in nonfiction. So instead I shrink away from those who I know have outpaced me. Yes, this does show that I am sadly insecure. Yes, I should be embarrassed. But it's the truth nonetheless.
A few years ago, though, I let my guard down. I love reading about magicians, especially in the 19th and early 20th century (this is all the fault of Jim Steinmeyer's history Hiding the Elephant), so when I saw the novel Carter Beats the Devil, a fictionalized account of a real (though somewhat obscure) magician in the 1900s, I had to give it a try. Well, it turned out to be one of those books that made me miss my train stop, which is pretty high praise indeed. I also developed an enormous crush on the book's main character (note to the world: if you are going to fall in love with someone in a book, make sure it is a fictional person; doing this with a real person can only lead to humiliation and heartbreak). I loved the book, and recommended it to a number of people who also fell for it.
As I've noted before, I'm an incredibly loyal reader. If I like one book by an author, I'll probably read everything else he or she writes. So I was, then, incredibly excited when someone mentioned to me that the author of Carter, Glen David Gold, had a new book coming out (apparently I wasn't the only one waiting--there were 27 people on the NYPL's reservation list before the book was even published). When my copy of Sunnyside became available, I rushed up to the library, took it home and read it as fast as possible. And now, here I am.