The only reason that anyone reads book reviews, ultimately, is to find out whether or not they'll like the book being reviewed. Sometimes, the reviewer needs to expend a lot of words to help the reader make an accurate decision; but sometimes, it's enough to let the book speak for itself. So, the opening of Tom Robbins' Another Roadside Attraction :

The magician's underwear has just been found in a cardboard suitcase floating in a stagnant pond on the outskirts of Miami. However significant that discovery may be -- and there is the possibility that it could alter the destiny of each and every one of us -- it is not the incident with which to begin this report.

In the suitcase with the mystic unmentionables were pages and fragments torn from a journal which John Paul Ziller had kept on one of his trips through Africa. Or was it India? The journal began thusly: "At midnight, the Arab brings me a bowl of white figs. His skin is very golden and I try it on for size. It doesn't keep out mosquitoes. Nor stars. The rodent of ecstasy sings by my bedside." [...] That was the beginning of the journal. But not the beginning of this report.

Having read that, you're now either thinking, "Ooh, that sounds interesting; I'll have to check that out," or "Enh, not for me." And therefore my job here is done.

Or, at least, it would be if I hadn't lied in my first sentence. Because, really, people read book reviews for a lot of reasons, and not just to find out if they'll like a book. So I'm going to talk about the insight I had while reading this book: As I was on page 80 or so, I realized that I still had no idea what the plot of the book was; and that, more importantly, I didn't care.

This came as a bit of a surprise. For a long time, I've imagined that I read books for the plot, that I am mostly concerned with what happens next, and next, and next again. It was only while reading this book that I realized this isn't the case. These days, I read not for plot, nor even character, but for style.

Plot's nice, mind; if it's there I enjoy it, and if it's weak I count it a bit of a fault. But it's not the main thing. A book with a gripping, complex plot written in a dull, prosaic style will not hold my interest as well as stylistically fascinating prose in service of even a pedestrian plot. This is obvious when you look at a list of authors whom I preferentially like these days -- Stephenson, Wolfe, Vance, Brust, Pratchett, Carroll, and Wodehouse are all authors whose books are enjoyable at a purely stylistic level.

The weird thing is, I used to be baffled by people who proclaimed to care more about style than plot. I was convinced, in fact, that they were only pretending to do so in order that they might sound snobbishly intellectual. Heck, I even used to nod approvingly at Asimov's defense of his "transparent" style, and wonder why someone would want to read a book where the prose got in the way of the story. And I haven't the foggiest idea why my preferences have changed over the years, either. Perhaps it's that I've now read enough books that very few plots are really novel, so I'm more concerned with how the tale is told? Perhaps it's because my tastes are becoming more refined and intellectual? Or maybe it's just that I'm becoming a decadent reader, valuing form over content? Hell if I know.

Either way, if you'll permit me to slip back into reviewer mode for a moment, I can say that if you're looking for a stylistically interesting book that's a bit light on the plot, Another Roadside Attraction will likely fit the bill; if you just want the author to get on with the damn story, though, stay away like the plague.


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