Saturday, March 27, 2010

the haphazard reader

Growing up, I couldn't get enough of reading.  People often describe themselves as voracious readers--and this was me exactly: ravenous, insatiable, even gluttonous.  Reading was my favorite thing to do, and I hated to stop.  If I had been allowed to do so, I would have read through meals, through social events, until the wee hours of the  morning. 

My parents bought me books.  Other family members bought me books.  I read them all, and when I was finished, I read them all again.  I read through boxes and boxes of old books my grandma got at estate sales and auctions--dusty hardbacks from old people's basements (I also read all these outdated school "readers"--full of strange short stories and poetry and prayers and little morals, on stained yellow paper).  I read encyclopedias and Reader's Digest Condensed Books.  Old science textbooks and Apple paperbacks from the school book orders that I begged my mom to order. 

Sometimes we went to the library, and I remember filling my blue plastic library bag so full of paperbacks that the drawstring cut into my hands.  Because I liked to reread my favorite books so many times (and my favorites were many--A Wrinkle in Time, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, all the Little House books, Nancy Drew, Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself, Harriet the Spy, and so many, many others...), I saved my library trips for the silly romance books or ghost stories or paperbacks I knew I'd read in one sitting, the books I knew I could bear to give back when I was done.

I never once felt like I had too many books, or not enough time to read.  It was the opposite; I was constantly scrounging.  Pilfering.  Scouring shelves. 

It wasn't until college, as an English major, that I started to have any kind of rhyme or reason to what I was reading, and that was only because I had so much assigned reading that it was all I could do to read that.  It was the first time I can remember having too much to read, the first time I felt the real scope of the literary world--the fact that I would actually not be able to read every book.  That I would have to make some decisions, to begin the process of figuring out what makes a book worth my time to read.  It was also nice to have a method to my madness, to focus my explorations of the "canon" and discover some of the brilliant works along the edges of it as well.

Since college, I've fallen back into being a haphazard reader.  I read what falls into my hands, basically.  Free boxes, school book orders (reading MG and YA books has been a constant since I started teaching, which eventually led me to try my hand at writing YA, which has led to a bunch of wonderful things, but that's another post entirely!), book club selections, classics from my school library, gifts from my librarian mother-in-law, paperbacks passed on by my mother, books that arrive in the mail because I somehow got enrolled in some book-of-the-month club.  Random reading.

This is so far from systematic.  I'm not good at being aware of contemporary fiction, reading reviews, making a to-read list, prioritizing.  I'm more likely to wander a bookstore looking for covers and first pages that snag me.  A  little over a year ago, I made a goal to be more intentional about  my reading.  I started a LibraryThing account so I could keep track of what I'm actually reading (I tend to forget), and I vowed to review everything I read, even though when I started I wrote about them in a friends-locked livejournal post marked "Not-A-Review" just to make sure everyone understands that I have no idea what I'm talking about.

I'm getting better.  I have the feed to the NYT Books section in my netvibes homepage, and I try to look at it a bit, even if I don't read everything.  I write down the names of authors I want to remember, and sometimes I even manage to read something by them.  I seek out recommendations from people who share my tastes.

Right now, my focus is on reading books that will somehow inspire or inform my writing.  With my current WIP in mind, I have recently read or am reading: (my thoughts on the books on are linked; I try to be balanced and reasonable about what I write, but I'm not a professional reviewer, so take them as they were intended: notes to help me remember what I've read and to help me reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of books in order to be more intentional about my reading habits.  I know there are a lot of sticky places to step in when you're a writer and you talk honestly about books, especially books in the same genre you are writing in.)
The Lottery by Beth Goobie
at Sarah's suggestion, for the wonderful use of tone.

Some Girls Are, by Courtney Summers,  
because I've heard so many good things about it, and because my WIP shares some themes dealing with bullying.

The God Box, by Alex Sanchez, 
as character research and some insight into conservative Christian viewpoints of homosexuality.

 and The Castle of Crossed Destinies, by Italo Calvino
because the Tarot is a big part of my WIP (not quite finished with this one). 

Right now I'm getting close to the point where I need to make a mental shift from first-drafting this new WIP to working on edits for TDBB, so I'm thinking about reading the copy of On the Road: The Original Scroll that I bought for David for his birthday (assuming he finishes first, that is).  I reread The Dharma Bums while I was working on the first draft, actually trying to read it at the same pace as Anna and Kat did and then flipping through it for the bibliomancy parts like they did as well.  I'm also reading Desolation Angels for the same sort of inspirational reasons, but I've tried to make it through this book before and failed. 

So how do you choose the books you read?  If you're a writer, do you read books that are somewhat similar to yours or avoid them?  Do you read more fiction or nonfiction?  Do you wear out your library card, or are you like me--longing to reread the books you love or even just to see their spines on your shelves?  Do you read one book at a time or three or four at a time, like I do?  Do you write reviews or ratings on a site like LibraryThing or Goodreads?   Do you read books your friends recommend?  Do you read reviews?


george said...

I have no idea how people find time to read. I wish I could go back to myself as a kid and make myself read more, when I had the time... I mean, I read a lot, but I wish I had read more, and better stuff. When I do have a moment or two, I pick books based on greatness, pretty much -- there are so many incredible works of literary art in this language, and I've read such a small percentage of them!

I really wish I could justify the time to read more current books, though, because I'd like to at least try to be a serious book reviewer, but that's hard to do when you never read anything published under ten years old.

elissa said...

haha I know! if only I didn't have to sleep...also, you're in college. You're not supposed to have time to read, I don't think. And you still read more than I do, pretty much.

(and yeah, I wish I had spent a lot of the time I've spent reading crap reading other, better things...but maybe it has helped my writing to see all kinds of writing? I hope so, anyway, 'cause I've read some pretty bad books!)

Kristan said...

Personal recommendations definitely put books at the top of my to-read list. I mean, it's like you said: we only have so much time to read SO MANY BOOKS, and a recommendation (from a friend whose opinion you trust) is a good sign that a book is worth your time.

I do also try to read books that will inspire me for what I'm working on too. I'm not afraid, like so many writers seem to be, of copying or losing my voice or anything like that.

And then I also have this funky deal with my boyfriend that he gets to choose books for me to read too. It used to be every other book I read, but that was too much for me. Now it's just whenever I finish the last book he assigned me, he picks another one, and I read it when I get the chance. He tries to select "books I should have read by now," like 1984 or (currently) the Bible. (Note: choosing the Bible has nothing to do with his or my religious convictions -- or lack thereof. It's simply an undeniably important piece of literature, no matter what way you slice it.)

For ALL books, I go to GoodReads and/or Amazon to check reviews. I take the reviews with a grain of salt, since a lot of people seem to have axes to grind, but anything 3 stars and above passes for me to consider on my own. Below that and I really have to question the quality of said book.

elissa said...

ooh, Kristan, that's an interesting arrangement with the boy. I try to always be reading some "classic" book at the same time as the other books I'm reading...I guess that's kind of the "book you should have read by now" kind of thing.

thanks for commenting! :)

Fa-bio said...

I may to translate all this. I like read young authors. But i prefer the art of photography or film. Maybe i'm a "perezoso".

Nos vemos.