Monday, August 13, 2012

On reading: A How To

I am an awful person who does not take seriously book recommendations from people. I have two exceptions: Jodi, the brains behind Minnesota Reads, and the Rock Star Amy Abts, my reading soul-sister whose to-read pile is always uncannily similar to my own. I'm not 100 percent with either of them, but I know them well enough to know when I should take their five-star recs seriously. I also know that if my mom recommends a book, I should bury it in the backyard. I'm never going to want to read about pre-menopausal women living in villages in Ireland or fiction with Jesus metaphors.

I do, however, relish advising people on what to read and sometimes give myself the following tagline: "Reading shit so you don't have to."

A few years ago I remember asking Jodi how she determined what she wanted to read. I don't remember her answer, but I do know at the time I was all judging-book-by-cover mode. I'd walk into a bookstore, dig into the new releases and leave with a stack of five books that I'd selected willy-nilly. That was fine, albeit expensive. These days I prefer a more guided approach -- and the library. But since I wondered that and since I now have a pretty organized system, I decided to pass it along.

Here is everything I can tell you about how to find and keep track of things you want to read.

I subscribe to a lot of book-related sites in my Google Reader. The best of these is Largehearted Boy, a book-music themed site. He posts multiple times a day and usually by the time I wake up there is a curated list of links to author interviews and book-related news (and band interviews and music news) that has cropped up in the past 24 hours. Other regular features include Book Notes, in which an author creates a soundtrack for his/her book, WORD Books of the Week is a compilation of new releases of note according to the staff at a Brooklyn-based bookstore, and Atomic Books Comic Preview, which does the same for new release comic books and graphic novels. This site is a good source for lesser-known titles of note. Stuff that might be released in trade paperback instead of getting a gigantic window display and a huge Oprah sticker on the cover. The majority of the books I read come from something I read on Largehearted Boy.

I receive the New York Times Book Review via email on Friday afternoons. This is hit-or-miss and hugely skim-able. A lot of times the reviews are written by authors I know I like, so I'll read about 1/4 of the review to see if I'm interested in the book. The New Yorker's Briefly Noted section offers a handful of quick hit reviews.

Other good sites include:
Laura Miller's reviews on Salon. She's a once-a-weeker and has more eclectic reading patterns than me.
Page-Turner is the New Yorker's book blog.
Page Views is the New York Daily News book blog, and oddly enough a kid I knew in high school writes about poetry sometimes.
Jacket Copy is the LA Times book blog. I really like Carolyn Kellogg and we usually have similar thoughts on books. If she likes something, I'll read it. If she doesn't, I might take heed.
NPR's book news is here.
The AV Club.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune has a very active book blog.
It's good to know your book bloggers, too. I like Girl Detective. She reads way more than me and a  much more mix of genres, but I totally trust her opinion so she regularly points me in a new direction.
And, of course, Minnesota Reads. I would totally love Minnesota Reads even if I didn't write reviews there.

Speaking of reviews, I make a game of reading them. I ditch out as soon as I see a word that falls into my "disinterest" pile. This is known as the "snooze factor." It's hilarious and a time-saver. Using last week's Briefly Noted section in the New Yorker, it goes like this:

"How Much is Enough?" by Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky: More people in wealthy countries could lead comfortable existences, the Skidelsky's contend, if we did not all life our arms in praise of one lonely virtue: economic Zzzzzz.

"Double Cross" by Ben Macintyre: In the final book of a trilogy Zzzzz.

"Left-Handed" by Jonathan Galassi: Galassi navigates currents of regret and desire in this poetry Zzzz.

(The final book in Briefly Noted was "Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn, which I've read and loved).

It's important to know what you like. For instance, I like coming-of-age, memoirs, graphic novels written by women, things set in the 1980s or 1990s, YA fiction. I tend to read a lot of contemporary novels and like to double back to classics occasionally. I thought I hated historical fiction, but I don't really. I also used to hate thinly-veiled memoirs billed as fiction, but I'm over it. I like strong voices, but not distractingly strong. I like funny, but not over the top funny where it feels like a clarinet should be going apeshit in the background. I like true crime and mysteries, but not the hokey formulaic kinds. I like books set in Los Angeles and books set in New York City. I like magical realism and Japanese horror.

I do not like WWII or WWI. I don't like political non-fiction or self help. I hate it when characters leave where they are to go somewhere else to find something. I hate pretty, overwrought writing and stories about sassy women looking for men with titles written in lipstick font. I hate self-deprecating nonfiction by bloggers, though this is certainly a genre I would be most likely to write.

It's also good to know who you like. I love the gruesome horror of Ryu Murakami and the dreamy fiction of Haruki Murakami. Jennifer Egan won lifetime fandom with her well-imagined, innovative "Goon Squad." Don Delillo rules. Joan Didion is a good teacher, Marcy Dermansky writes delicious plots. Steve Martin writes quiet and lovely novels. Charles Baxter is consistently solid, every third book by Joyce Carol Oates interests me. Sometimes a girl just wants to hunker down with a pile of smut by Dominick Dunne. I will forever read everything written by Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis, though the latter is the creator of the most senselessly wretched moment in all of fiction and has revealed himself to be a nightmare in the age of Twitter. Still, I love a good shitshow.

I also read authors who influence or are influenced by these writers. You can find out the influences on Wikipedia and have a helluva time off-roading from name to name.

I will read "It" books, including "Fifty Shades of Grey" and the Twilight series. I like to have a solid, well-considered argument for why something is stupid instead of just saying "I haven't read it, but I know it's terrible." Sometimes I'm surprised. I didn't hate "The Hunger Games" at all. I didn't, like, buy myself a mockingjay broach. But I liked where Suzanne Collins was going with it.

I started out 2012 making a point to read more books by women. I was coming close to an equal split between men and women without trying, but something Jodi once said about how she is a woman who writes and so she wants to support women who write really stuck with me.

At first this was hard to do, up my tally of women writers. But it's like anything: Looking for blue cars on the highway or combing the front yard for Four-Leaf clovers. After awhile, all I was seeing were women writers. I haven't done the math, but I'd guess that nearly 65-75 percent of what I've read this year has been by women. I see no reason to ever read another book by a man, but I will because I like to diversify.

I read at least two books at a time. Usually one is a novel, one is nonfiction. Ideally I like to have something rolling on my Kindle that I can read at lunch or if I have to wait somewhere for something. If I read a very hefty book, like "Infinite Jest" or "The Executioner's Song," I tend to bust through a bunch of fun easy-readers simultaneously. I'm a bit commitment phobic when it comes to long lit, so it's important to have a side project. I always read before bed for at least an hour.

If a book continues to pop up in conversations or other things I'm reading, I consider it a sign from the moon that I'm supposed to read it. That's how I ended up reading "Brideshead Revisited" and I loved it.

I highlight a lot on Kindle, but in physical books I dog-ear pages that have an interesting thought, sentence or even word on it. It's hilarious to go back and try to figure out why I marked a certain page. With library books, I keep a note card and pencil close by and jot lines and page numbers on it as I read.

Goodreads is one of my favorite websites. I use it to find out if any of my friends have read what I'm reading, and to keep track of what I've read. For instance, I know that right now I've read 60 books this year, seven that were absolute stinkers and 10 that have received the highest star count. I reference Goodreads when I make my Best Of list at the end of the year and when people ask me for book recommendations. This also saves me from buying the same book twice. Goodreads also has a recommendations section which considers what you've read and liked and tries to pair you with other stuff you might like. I have no idea the accuracy level of this system, but I like it in theory.

When I'm dinging around on the internet and come across a mention of a book I might be even remotely interested in reading, I immediately add the book to my Amazon Wish List. I have about 300 books right now divided into two categories: Main Reading and Comic Books. I have a hair trigger with this list. Everything lands on it and I regularly weed it after reading a Kindle Sample, or slogging through a few chapters of a library copy.

In the past few days I've added an upcoming novel by Molly Ringwald (because I saw a bunch of interviews with Ringwald from this past weekend), "Where'd You Go Bernadette" by Maria Semple (because I saw that Jodi has a review of it coming up), "Dora: A Headcase" by Lidia Yuknavitch (because I liked her book "The Chronology of Water") and "Manhattan, When I was Young" by Mary Cantwell because Carole Radziwell references it in her memoir "What Remains"). Sometimes books sit on my Amazon Wish List for years. One thing that terrifies me is knowing that at some point I'll die without having read everything I wanted to read.

I don't always buy the books from Amazon. Sometimes I pull up the list when I'm standing in Barnes & Noble. Sometimes I pull it up at the library. Sometimes I download them to my Kindle, first reading the free sample. My Amazon Wish List has made it so that I will never stare dumbly into space and think: "What should I read next?" Pretty much every genre and mood is covered in that queue.


tamg said...

I may read more, but you take your reading WAY more seriously than I do.

Jodi said...

I get a ton of my To-Read List from Largehearted Boy, especially his Book Notes series. It is simply my favorite thing about the Internet.

Christa said...

I agree. Sometimes the best thing to happen all week in my life is the Atomic Comics and the Word books of the week.

Sproactually said...

I am so old school it ain't funny.

I like to browse the shelves of funny smelling novels in the Library when I fail to find something of the trashy men's novel genre in the new arrivals shelf.

I am cheap and easy reader... sigh.

I would recommend a Abraham Lincoln biography, just to add a little history to the mix, and see how much we have mucked things up.

chuck said...

I love posts like this.

amy a. said...

me too.