4/10/2014. SO MANY BOOKS, SO LITTLE TIME
Every few days I receive an email suggesting new novels I might like to read. I hear from Kirkus Reviews, Oprah’s Book Club, the Washington Independent Review of Books, Goodreads, and more. Granted, I asked to be on these mailing lists, but occasionally I find so much information overwhelming. And that doesn’t even count the bestseller lists and reviews. So many good novels are coming out every day that I’ll never be able to read them all. Priorities must be set, but how?
To find out how other people make these decisions, I did a small survey. In fact, it was a very small survey, but it sparked some diverse replies.
At one end of the spectrum I found those I call the structured choosers. These are people whose jobs and associations help them select books to read. Walter Cummins, an author and teacher in the graduate creative writing programs at Fairleigh Dickinson University, said his students and colleagues influence what he reads. “Now that my teaching is entirely in an MFA program where students have to write about fiction that will help them with their own work, I’m guided by their choices of books I hadn’t known before,” he said. “I’m also reading books by colleagues, who are very productive, along with those by the visiting writers who come to our residencies in the States and in England.” Walter’s also a publisher at Serving House Books, so he has the books they evaluate and issue to read, as well.
But what if your job doesn’t require you to read fiction? Some people who like structure find it in book clubs. I’ve never belonged to a book club, but I know people who swear by them. Polley Maltese, an avid reader and former English teacher, told me she belongs to an AAUW book club that reads books focusing on women’s interests. “We recently read Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior as well as Thrity Umrigar’s The Space Between Us,” she said, “and I’m currently reading The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng. All good choices…not really loving The Garden yet, but I won’t give up.” This is one of the biggest advantages of a book club, I think. Members tend to finish reading books they might otherwise give up on, and a lot of novels don’t come into their own until half-way through.
Polley said she also reads book reviews in the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New Yorker, and pays attention to Amazon’s suggestions for her. This strategy takes us away from the structured methods of choosing books to what I call the authorities—the people (and algorithms) whose purpose is to steer us to the books we ought to read. I confess I’m addicted to book reviews. They’re the first thing I read in any publication that comes into my house. I read them and often read the books they praise, but I must also confess that I’m annoyed by the power they have over the reading public. Evaluating any piece of art is so subjective that to take one person’s opinion as total truth is a mistake.
Beyond the structures and the authorities, we find the personal methods. We all have friends who recommend books. Polley said she has a friend who shares her tastes and helps broaden her interests. “I love to go to Barnes and Noble with Milly,” she said. That’s great if you trust your friend’s judgment, as Polley obviously does.
And then there’s the most personal approach to book selection. Everyone in my survey talked about reading a book just because it appealed to them. For Polley, it’s high quality mysteries by authors like Elmore Leonard. Walter said that when he has time for random selections (I can’t imagine when that is), “it’s a matter of impulse, a work available at the moment.”
Perhaps author Peggy Payne, our guest blogger on April 1, described this method best: “I select books the way a child grabs stuff off the shelves in a grocery store. Something catches my eye–because I like the author or I’ve heard/read good things about it or I’ve long had it in mind or I like the first paragraph or I like the cover and the first paragraph or the story revolves around a situation that interests me or it’s from a press I particularly respect, etc. So like the child in the grocery, I wind up with a huge toppled pile. Tends to be good fiction: excellent writing and an intriguing plot.”
So, will any of these methods work for me when I’m facing that huge pile of available novels? Since I’m no longer an editor for a literary magazine (something I did years ago), I’m not required to read any fiction. And although my hat’s off to Walter for all the reading he does, I know I couldn’t keep up with his schedule.
I might join a book club someday, but not now.
I know I’ll go on reading book reviews (addictions are hard to break), but I’ll never let them be my only source of influence. I’m glad nobody in my survey mentioned best-seller lists. To be a slave to best-seller lists is to sell your soul to popular trends.
I’ll listen to the recommendations of friends if their recommendations are mainstream or literary fiction (my favorites). And I’ll make sure to include debut novels in my reading mix.
And that’s the best I can do. Like the mountains I’ll never climb and the grand cities I’ll never visit, I have to accept there are great books I’ll never read.
How do you choose?