Many readers have a certain genre of book, or maybe even a specific series, that they keep coming back to over and over. It’s perfectly normal for readers to have genres they love and others that they don’t. I like to call it the reading comfort zone. It’s fine to have a comfort zone of books that you know you can always go back to. The problem is when you refuse to read books that are even slightly outside your comfort zone.

My Reading Comfort Zone

I admit that I’ve locked myself inside my reading comfort zone from time to time. Fantasy has always been my favorite genre. Fantasy is my comfort zone. I’ve dabbled in science fiction, but sci-fi has never really grabbed me as much as a tale of magic and adventure. The problem I want to solve is my reading suffers from a serious lack of genre diversity. Even within the fantasy genre, my experience is limited to mostly Young Adult heroic fantasy.

Heroic Fantasy

Usually, when people think of a stereotypical fantasy, they think of heroic fantasy. Heroic fantasy books are filled with mighty heroes traipsing around the countryside swinging their swords and casting all sorts of magic spells to defeat their enemies and save the day. They feature heroes going off adventuring to slay horrible monsters or questing for magical items.

I love a good heroic fantasy. Like many people, I’ve read and reread the Harry Potter series or listened to the Jim Dale audiobook version, more than a dozen times. I also have a large collection Dungeons and Dragons based fiction, mostly Dragonlance books by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman and The Legend of Drizzt novels by R. S. Salvatore. While it’s an exaggeration to say I haven’t read any other books besides them, I love both Harry Potter and D&D fiction, and I keep coming back to them time and again.

But those books do not represent the fantasy genre as a whole. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of worlds I have yet to explore. There are fantasy readers out there screaming and waving their pitchforks at me because I need to read more books than Harry Potter and D&D fiction.

I know. I need to step outside my comfort zone, but it’s hard.

If you have a reading comfort zone, like I do, you like to stay inside it because it’s familiar. The characters are similar, or the same in a series. Maybe you don’t want to branch out for fear that you won’t find another book that spoke to you as deeply as the ones in your comfort zone.

I could make excuses and say I’ve been busy with work and school, but the truth is that I haven’t been prioritizing my own reading for years. I’ve avoided branching out into books and series that critics would say are more “adult” or “challenging”.

That ends now.

Stepping Outside My Reading Comfort Zone

Awhile back, I asked my friend Alexandra from the Death of the Author blog to give me a list of novels and comics that she would recommend I read. She gave me a really long list, but she suggested I start with Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. I have loved mythology since I was a kid, so it sounded like a book I’d like from the title, but I became a bit concerned when Alexandra told me this was a very different tale than what I was used to.

Magical Realism

American Gods is a fantasy book, but it is a very different kind of fantasy than what I usually read. American Gods is a magical realism novel. Whereas heroic fantasy has heroes flinging fireballs left and right without blinking an eye, magical realism exists in the liminal space between reality and fantasy. The story has a lot to do with magical events, but the events unfold in a way it’s possible those events aren’t real. Having never read a book where the reality of the magic was put into question, I was a bit nervous about reading American Gods, but I knew I needed to read different books. So, I read it, and recently finished it. It was quite the interesting experience for me. The book challenged me in several ways, but once I got passed my reservations, I devoured the books in a few days.

Challenging YourselfAmerican gods cover

Good books challenge our view of the world. If a book doesn’t challenge you, then it isn’t digging deep enough into the heart of its story. By reading new books you will be challenged to wrestle with the author’s portrayal of the world. Who knows, a great book may even be able to change your entire outlook on life.

American Gods challenged my preconceived notions of what a fantasy novel could be. The book questions what could be classified as a myth or god. Neil Gaiman’s masterful storytelling both enthralled and confused me. Shadow, the main character, confused me while I was reading the book. He both totally accepts that magic and the gods are real and somehow totally denies that anything extraordinary is happening to him. I expected Shadow to be surprised by magic being real when he finds out, then accepting it, and using magic as part of the plot. Or maybe he would totally reject the idea of magic. I expected American Gods to be an urban fantasy novel, a novel set in the “real” world but with magic. I wanted the book to give me straight answers instead of more riddles.

But giving definition and clarity to the magic is not what American Gods sets out to do. Gaiman wants his readers to question the story he’s telling, magic and all. Shadow shows neither surprise that magic exists nor does he really accept that it does. Magic lies in the background, in the shadows (pun intended). It’s an illusion you constantly see out of your eye. You know it’s there, but every time you turn to shine a light on it, it’s gone.

American Gods challenged me in a way none of the YA/heroic fantasy I have read has. This isn’t to say YA and heroic fantasy aren’t amazing and can’t be challenging, but reading American Gods made me uncomfortable in my skin in the best way possible. In the beginning, I kept trying to find proof that the magic and the gods were real, and I raged about why Shadow was so complacent and didn’t marvel at the extraordinary things happening to him. Then I realized near the halfway point that I had to be like Shadow while reading the book. I had to fight every urge in my experience that taught me to explain the magic. It never mattered whether either the gods, the magic, or even the events themselves were ever definitely real.

The point is in believing.

Final Thoughts

We can all benefit from expanding our reading horizons. I enjoyed  American God thoroughly and I would recommend everyone check it out. Because good books challenge their readers, and American Gods is a great book.

What do you think? Do you have a reading comfort zone? Do you want to break out of that comfort zone?

Let me know in the comments.

I can help with that problem. Be on the lookout for a comprehensive list of my book recommendations for those of you who are looking to expand your horizons and challenge yourself. Or if you just want a good read.

Also, I’ll be keeping track of my progress through my own reading list, so you can follow my progress. I’ll be making that happen soon.

Until next time, keep reading!