At this time of year there are loads of lists of favorite books from the previous year, and of titles anticipated for this one. I’ve generally not read most of the former, nor do I tend to immediately stuff the latter onto my already groaning TBR list.
I just do not keep up with the very most current releases. Over my six years of blogging I’ve been doing fewer and fewer reviews of new releases, as I felt too much stress and guilt associated with review copies. And usually I’m fine with that, but just now with the excitement associated with these “best of the year” lists, I feel a bit left out. Is there something the matter with me? Should I be trying to stay more up-to-the-minute with my book choices?
Like most people I crave novelty, but me, “new” is any book that has newly come across my radar, whether it’s one month old or 100 years old. I feel very contemporary if I read a book released within the last decade. And I confess that I actually like to give the hot new titles a year or more to settle, to prove their worth. By then, they seem to take their place more comfortably within the plethora of other books clamoring for attention.
How do you feel about reading current releases? Are they your jam, or are you indifferent? Am I missing something by not reading them?
How do I know a book is going to be good? Well, I can tell you what does not necessarily help:
A description that sounds good
A blurb by an author I like
Reviews that make it sound great
I’m always getting sucked in by these marketing ploys, but even when they are from trustworthy sources, people who usually like the same kinds of books as I do, I’ve been sorely disappointed. And even when I’ve read and enjoyed other books by the same author, I can get a huge letdown.
Almost nothing can reliably tell me whether I will like a book, it seems, except for actually reading it. If after about 50 pages my interest is still not sparked, I now tend to drop the book and move on to other things.
There have been a few times when after pressing myself further my opinion turned around, but that is rare. Usually, if the style or subject matter grates on me from the beginning, or if I feel hopelessly befuddled or bored, it’s a sign that things are not going to get much better — for me, anyway.
What are your go-to ways of telling whether a book is going to be worth your time?
With the ever-proliferating number of books out there, it’s hardly surprising that some titles are similar or identical. What I do find surprising is that some of these books are not separated by years or genres, but are published close together, making confusion quite likely. One would think publishers and authors would take more care to make their books stand out and be different from the crowd. But perhaps it’s a way to get their books read, jumping on the bandwagon of someone else’s publicity? Perhaps uniqueness is not a value in the publishing world? Who knows what goes on in those inscrutable minds?
In a special category of confusion verging on the infuriating is the titling trend “X of Y and Z” which I already wrote about here. Recent examples in addition to my original list include Worlds of Ink and Shadow, Gods of Jade and Shadow, Whispers of Shadow and Flame, House of Ash and Brimstone, House of Salt and Sorrows … I simply cannot understand why there are so many of these, and I wish the trend would stop!
But aside from that, there are some other titles that are especially hard for me to keep straight — thus today’s topic, and the examples below. Do you have the same experience? What titles do you find most confusing — and does it bother you, too?
Pretty Little Liars by Sara Shepard (2006) Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty (2014)
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruis Zafón (2001) The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (2007)
One Day by David Nicholls (2009) One Day by Gene Weingarten (2019)
Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (2016) A Murder of Magpies by Judith Flanders (2014)
The Great Library, series by Rachel Caine (started 2015) The Invisible Library, series by Geraldine Cogman (started 2015)
As I keep track of my reading, I have to make some decisions as to what makes it onto my list of completed books. Does it count if I skim or skip a substantial portion? What if I stop reading partway through and then take it up again — should I start over from the beginning? What about reading aloud, where there are often interruptions — my husband reads one night instead, or my son takes the book and reads part of it on his own? How about collections of essays, poetry, short stories and such, where sometimes there are pieces that just don’t speak to me and that I don’t want to spend time reading?
When there are are substantial gaps like these, I usually don’t count those books as “read.” To do so would make me feel guilty, as though I were perpetrating some deception. But am I being too strict? Do I have to read every single word of a book in order to put it on my list? Do you have a rule of thumb in these cases — a percentage, or a page count that you could skip and still consider that you’ve read the book?
Then there are format questions. Some people seem not to consider audiobooks as “real reading,” which I think is nonsense. Yes, a voice actor has taken over some of the activity that normally goes on in your head, but you still have to pay attention and take in the words. The book comes alive in your imagination through listening, just as much as when you process it by reading. Still, it is a somewhat different activity, even if we don’t have a different word for it in our language.
E-books raise questions for me as well. Of course this is just another way of taking in words on a page, so it’s certainly “reading” from that point of view, but after completing an e-book — especially a complex and many-layered one, like Awakenings — I often feel as though I haven’t really grasped it. When only one fragment is available to me at at time, the whole seems to slip beyond my reach. Can I truly say that I have “read” it, that I have gradually come into possession of that wholeness which is the book?
Trifling questions, perhaps, yet they nag at me. What are your thoughts? How do you decide which books to count as “read”?
I used to be nostalgic for my childhood reading, when every new discovery was so fresh and exciting and the worlds on the page seemed vividly real. I still look back with fondness to that particular magic, but lately I’ve grown to also appreciate being a more mature reader. I understand more, I have more connections to make with both literature and life, and the excitement of learning still never grows old.
This question came to mind as I’ve been reading The Lord of the Rings to my son. It was never really meant as a children’s book, though I think lots of us do come to it in the middle grade years. And though as a fantasy lover I dutifully read it a few times, I have to admit I was somewhat baffled. Now, I can see better what Tolkien was doing, his strengths and weaknesses, perceiving the echo of ancient sagas and also his innovations. I’m less thrown by his sometimes confusing or archaic writing style, and I certainly enjoy the story more thereby.
Reading as I grow older doesn’t lose any of its savor, but just seems to get richer and deeper — especially when taking on such complex, many-layered works. It’s satisfying to contemplate how reading has enriched my mental life, and to know that there is still much more room to grow.
If you are a reader of a certain age, how has your reading experience changed? Do you also think it’s gotten better?
All books, in a sense, exist in order to bring forth pictures in the mind. But should those pictures be specifically embodied in a visual medium? When are illustrations helpful, and when are they distracting or disturbing? Is it better for readers to make their own images? Or can a good collaboration between author and illustrator create a result that is more than the sum of its parts?
When I reread the Oz books as a picture-less electronic text, I was struck by how different this experience was from reading them as a child. The images by John R. Neill, who illustrated all but the first of the original series, had made a deep impression on me. Full of life and vivid character, they contribute a piquancy that Baum’s text sometimes lacks, in its pallid or generic descriptions. I’m quite sure that this visual element was as important to me as the words for making Oz seem a real and attractive place.
We expect children’s books to be illustrated, but what about books for adults? We’re being increasingly shaped by visual media, and every time I go to the bookstore I see a mind-boggling array of visually stunning volumes. But novels still are seldom illustrated, nor are works of philosophy or science or history usually given an artistic, interpretive treatment.
There are some specialist publishers that do this, The Folio Society being the main one that I know of. I always get a kick out of seeing Folio do illustrated versions of unexpected works like Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, or The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud — even if I wouldn’t buy them myself, I think it’s an interesting experiment to make.
The books I’m more drawn to are the narratives, and here I often have mixed feelings. I am usually not coming at them afresh, but looking at a text that I already know and judging whether the pictures give the same impression as the reading experience. Not whether they match pictures in my head — I don’t visualize characters or settings so specifically. But the words give me certain feelings; do the pictures evoke the same feelings? Or do they go in another direction, that jars against my vaguely but often strongly held impressions?
I may like some aspect of the artist’s vision, but not be completely satisfied. One case in point is the Folio edition of The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies (you are all reading Robertson Davies, aren’t you?) I love the idea of combining characters and incidents from the book, saints and figures from the Tarot. That was brilliant, and the artist did not shrink from portraying the chthonic emotion, the archetypal mythic currents that Davies seeks to expose beneath the prim moral exterior of Canadian provincial life. But I find his style too aggressively ugly overall, and thought there should have been some element of beauty and mystery as well. To me, that was an important element of the trilogy too. (I do love the cover, which is perfect.)
It’s rather like the problem of translation: a work translated into another language can never be the same as the original, but it can strive to give a similar experience, based on the particular conventions and associations in the second language. Is it archaic, formal, wild, deliberate, transgressive, prissy, melodious, laconic, flippant? These qualities can be conveyed using the tools available in another language — which may be quite different from those in the first, but still reach toward a similar effect.
So in the “language” of art one can try to strive after such similarity of effect. Opinions will differ about the success of such projects, because each reader has a somewhat different experience of a text. And there can be multiple treatments that are satisfying in different ways, too. I don’t think there’s any definitive or right answer to the question of how to represent a book’s contents, but it’s a rather fascinating question.
How do you feel about illustrated books? Are you attracted by them, or do you prefer your text unadorned? Are there some illustrations you find more successful than others?
Reading is one thing, but remembering is something else. I love the experience of reading while I’m in it, but sometimes I wish the results were not so ephemeral. There are so many times a title is called to mind and I think “I know I read that — but I don’t remember anything about it!” It’s only after several rereadings, usually, that much begins to stick.
One of the things I appreciate about blogging is that it helps me to cement my memory of a book; the process of writing a post makes me reflect in a more conscious way than usual. And I have a written record in case I want to go back and jog my memory.
But the ones that don’t make it onto the blog — even the ones I really liked at the time — soon dissipate into faint wisps of recollection, along with all the other books from the past. When I’m asked for recommendations, or something rings a bell and I think “Didn’t I read a book like that?” it’s lost in the vast uncatalogued archive of my brain and I can seldom dredge up the details.
What could I do? Some possibilities are:
Read every book at least twice (unless I already know it’s not worth remembering)
Keep a reading journal – including thoughts and significant passages as well as title and author
Take at least brief notes on each book read, maybe just one sentence
Be less distracted when reading; don’t do other things at the same time, read one book at a time
Re-reading everything is not practical because it takes up too much time that I’d like to give to other books, and journaling and note-taking are cumbersome. I hate interrupting the flow of reading to think about it, and it’s unlikely I will ever manage to carry a notebook and pen around with me everywhere along with my book.
Perhaps I could discipline myself to at least record a few thoughts once I’ve finished the book. For some reason I have great resistance to this as well — the books I have something to say about usually end up in blog posts, and I don’t like pressuring myself when such thoughts don’t spring naturally to mind. But maybe I would get used to it after a while. Same thing with reading in a less distracted, fragmented way — it doesn’t come naturally, though I’m sure it would be good for me.
Do you have a better system for remembering what you read? Any ideas to help me out? My aging memory may be a lost cause, but I do wish I could find a way to make it stronger in this department.
Since reading is not part of my job, nor am I currently in school, I don’t really have to read anything. But maybe because reading is and has always been a major avenue of self-development, we in the bookish community often carry a heavy sense of obligation. We feel as though there are books we ought to be reading, because they form the basis of a good education, or they delve into important topics, or they have been declared Great by Those in the Know.
But why is it that many of these books tend to be depressing? In general, it seems that gloom is considered more serious and worth spending your time on than joy. Self-improvement (in the conventional view) consists largely of facing hard facts and becoming habituated to disappointment. To do otherwise is to remain in a carefree, childish state, incapable of coping with real life.
There’s something in that. A reading diet of P.G. Wodehouse and Georgette Heyer, while delightful, would leave one ill-equipped to handle certain necessary realities. But can a book be serious and uplifting? Is there hope to be found in the dark?
Depression doesn’t have to do with facing the darkness. It means getting stuck in the darkness and seeing no way out. If one has even a little bit of leverage — a spark of humor, a glimpse of a better world, a flash of curiosity as to how we got into this mess and how we can emerge from it — then the quicksand hasn’t fully taken hold.
And so certain books that initially appeared daunting or grim to me have become some of my favorites, because they give the hope that grows from knowledge rather than blithe insensibility. They may make me feel angry, or sad, or appalled — but also energized by the challenge of grasping such difficult content. My view of the world has expanded, with shadows giving richness and nuance, and that’s a good thing.
However, sometimes I’m not in the mood, or I don’t have the strength to manage depressing topics and stories. I need restorative, up-building books at those times, and that’s all right. In time, when I’m feeling stronger, I can confront them again.
Meanwhile, books that wallow in pure nastiness, or seem determined to grind human endeavor to a fine gray powder, are always unappealing to me. And I’ve decided that I don’t have to read them, no matter how “great” they may be. I’ll spend my time in other ways.
Are there books you feel you ought to be reading, but don’t want to? How do you deal with that?
Well, I’ve read all of Robertson Davies’s novels, and as much of his nonfiction as I could get my hands on, and even his published diaries and letters and a biography … you could call me a fan. I agree with Nancy Pearl that he deserves more attention, and I’ve been surprised at the lack of coverage he gets within our usually literate book blogging community. I’ve been thinking for some time about doing a Robertson Davies Reading Week, to celebrate one of my favorite writers, and help introduce him to some new readers.
When should it happen? I’m thinking maybe in August, to celebrate his birthday — or perhaps earlier in the summer. It will be a pretty free-form event, with posts focusing on various books and the chance to share thoughts about whatever you may have been reading yourself.
I have some bloggers in mind to ask for guest posts, but if you’d like to volunteer, please let me know. In the meantime, go to your local bookstore or library and get whatever RD material you can. You can read my post about Tempest Tostto learn more about why I think he’s so great.
Who would like to join me? Let’s give Nancy one less thing to be depressed about!
As I mentioned recently on my other blog, Entering the Enchanted Castle, I’m going through a big transition in my life. My husband got a job in Switzerland and has just moved there to start working, while I plan to follow with our son when the school year ends.
It’s been six years since our last move and I well remember what an ordeal that was. Now, I’m facing doing all that packing up, clearing out and hefting stuff again, this time overseas. I’m tempted to get rid of as much as possible and keep only the truly essential — but what is that? Particularly when it comes to books, it’s hard for me to know what I will need or want in the future.
It won’t be so easy for me to find English-language reading material, so I definitely want to bring along some to sustain me. Compact and multi-volume collections get the most words into the least amount of space, like my Library of America editions of Willa Cather, Ursula K. Le Guin, John Steinbeck, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Thornton Wilder. I could happily read from those for some time. The Complete Earthsea and Robertson Davies’s three-volume trilogies (the Deptford, Salterton and Cornish trilogies) will definitely come along too.
Another consideration: in the last few years I have overcome my resistance to e-books and it can’t be denied they are incredibly convenient for traveling. I hate spending money on them, but I’m tempted to buy some of the Delphi Classics collections to have a large, inexpensive supply of classic literature, which is always worth reading. And I wonder if I can get a library membership or e-book subscription that will keep me connected to a good assortment of books. (I know there’s Kindle Unlimited, but I am resisting the Amazon behemoth as much as possible.)
I’ve spent a lot of time and money building up hardcover collections of my favorite authors, but now when I look at them I just think how bulky and heavy they are. Will I really read them again? Will the joy of possessing them outweigh the hassle of moving them? Wouldn’t e-books from the library be easier?
Then there are books that are not just for reading, but for helping me make and do things: cookbooks, knitting books, travel books and so forth. The internet has made finding this kind of instruction much easier, so although I still love paging through these books, I don’t use them as often as I once did. Which of these are truly essential? What information do I really need on paper, and what can I trust to be kept in my head, or in some more lightweight form?
It all makes for some hard decisions, but I hope I’ll come to a solution I can live with. Have you ever had to move your books and decide what to keep? How did you make those decisions?