Sunday, January 13, 2013

Browsing for unknowns (to me) ...

My resolution was to read more in a bubble. I'll never be able to completely avoid the overly blabbed about "It" book, but I want to be more of an explorer than a follower when it comes to reading. In order to do this, I planned to browse bookstores, touch more books, read things by people I've never heard of.

Interestingly enough: At first this seemed super hard and a little frustrating, which was weird. It seemed like it should be super fun. Eventually it was fun, after I found a method.

Based upon my research, here is a list that includes the frustrations/answer to discovering authors you've never read.

It's easiest to find something new to read on a display table or display shelf. But these display tables are engineered in a specific way to highlight certain books.  Like, there are scientists sitting around a conference table somewhere in Seattle crunching author's cred, the aesthetic appeal of the cover, what's trending right now on Twitter and creating the optimal table displays that will be universal to stores around the country, sell bajillions of books and create a Team Character A versus Team Character B division that also sells merch. Like T-shirts. I'm assuming.

Technically, anything I've not heard of should qualify as meeting the terms of my resolution. But if I pull from that display table, I'm doing just what THEY want me to do. See also: Sheep.

Exception: Indie bookstores in a city where you do not live. In this case a display table is just like having the store operator whisper suggestions into your ear.

There is a chain bookstore in my town and that chain regularly does what I am trying to do with its Discover series. Here are up-and-comers to watch. I regularly browse this section. Pulling from this shelf seems a little less sheep-y, but still a little sheep-y.

I like to think that these titles are selected by bookish sorts who sit around and playing "Which 'Harry Potter' character are you?" and trading hummus recipes. I'll even allow the suited social scientists to observe from behind mirrored glass. As long as these picks are originating from people who can carry a stack of books and push up the sleeves of a ratty cardigan at the same time, I'm cool with it.

But. There are a limited number of titles on this shelf. If you increase your parameters to include: 1. Must be written by a woman, and 2. Must not be set in the 1800s, or be otherwise set in a field, things are limited. Also, the changeover doesn't happen that often. Eventually the names start to look familiar even if they aren't really.

I read a lot about books so I have a lot of titles and authors churning in my head. In the new releases section, there is a good chance that I've heard of more than 60 percent of the books and that the rest of them have covers written in lipstick font, are set during a time of war, are 500-plus pages long or otherwise star some divorced dude who returns to his hometown and must take care of his ailing father while avoiding his high school girlfriend when he picks up meds at Walgreens.

Also: These are hardcover, which costs about twice as much as softcover. And since it doesn't really matter what I read, just that it is something I've never heard of, I should probably shoot for something less expensive.

I never stopped to consider whether there should be additional guidelines when I have-assedly made this reading resolution. Like, should the book be relatively current? Something from at least 2010? I do, after all, post reviews on a website. Are Readers of Book Review Blogs interested in pre-2010 books? (I already post plenty of older stuff. But should I do it in a situation where I could just as easily find something more contemporary)?

And, more importantly, am I over thinking my resolution and is it possible that over thinking resolutions is one of the great flaws of resolution making? Last year I vowed to read, every month, something I already owned, something published in 2012, something from the library and a graphic novel. That didn't last into spring.

If you decide to just start at the beginning and walk the aisles dragging your finger along the spines of books, skimming titles and authors, something strange happens. Titles and authors you've already read are the titles and authors that jump out at you. It must be some sort of brain function crucial to survival. Consider this: if you left the bookstore and walked through the mall toward that place that makes hot dogs wrapped in pretzels, and along the way you were drawn to the faces of every single person you passed instead of just noticing people you know, you could go insane.

And so it goes with books.

The trick to this is to plop down in front of a random shelf and limit yourself to a designated space. Set aside enough time to leisurely tug away at spines, read summaries, consider the blurbers, read the first page, check the publication date, fall in love with the cover.

Do not feel like it is cheating if there is a little stamp on the cover that indicates this book was nominated for a big award. It's not your fault you never heard about it. You can't hear about everything.

I'm reading Swimming Home: A Novel by Deborah Levy.


Jodi said...

I think book bloggers & newspaper critics are the only people who care about the recentness of a book. It's that whole wanting to be first thing. Readers only care about good books.

Christa said...

I think you're right because if, say, Jennifer Egan is asked about five books she can't live without I'll add all of those books to my list no matter what year they are from.

Jodi said...

Exactly! And when you think of your favorite books, it's hardly ever something you read last month. It's the stuff that sticks with you and germinates in your head for awhile.

I think the buzz/hype machine is awful. There are books that people talk, write, and tweet about that I'm sick of before they even come out. How is that a good thing?

And the more enmeshed I get in the lit-o-sphere the worse it seems to get. Last week I took a look at The Millions Most Anticipated of 2012 (so, last year) and I'd guess about 1/2 those books were probably forgotten the week after that post went live.

Christa said...

Unfortunately, I'm a sucker for most, best, worst lists. This is why my reading resolution is extra important. If it removes me even once a month, success.