I am always fascinated by the way in which people choose what to read. There are so many books out there, sometimes it’s just completely overwhelming to me. I’ve written before about telling other people what to read and the hubris involved with that, as well as about how the book reviews I read are failing to really influence the way in which I choose books (expounded upon more in an essay for Full Stop), so I thought I would write an entry sharing some of the ways I make the decisions about what to read.
First of all, I highly recommend the website Goodreads, which I’ve talked about before. The site is invaluable when it comes to reminding me what I want to read, and it makes for a good repository for taking brief notes on what I liked/disliked about books I’ve read in the past. Right now my “to read” shelf on Goodreads runs about 200 books long, which is almost too big to be worth anything, but I still use it. It still has books I added to the list in 2011, but I’m hoping to rectify that this summer.
So, beyond that, here’s a rough list of the way I choose things to read:
- Obligations. If I need to read something for a class or for an essay/article I’m working on, this is the top priority. I also try to write a book review every 2-3 months, and that would fall under this category, although how I decide what to review (when I have a choice) is influenced primarily by #5 below.
- What’s so hot right now. I like talking about books with other people, so I bump books up to the front of my list if it’s something that a lot of people are reading. This got me to read ASoIaF, and it is the reason that I’ll be reading Station Eleven in the near future. What’s hot doesn’t just mean what’s new, though, just whatever is in the ether. It might take the form of looking through past winners of prizes, etc.
- Recommendations. These might be from friends I trust, or from reviews, or just authors who I’ve liked their previous work.
- Research. I usually have a topic or three I’m kicking around in my head, either for my personal life, a future article, or a book. I don’t read many books solely for this purpose–generally it’s a combination of research plus one of the three above–but it’s definitely an influence.
- Considerations. Beyond the above three, I try to make choices in my reading that broaden my horizons and work to counteract my biases. That means that I seek out works in translation and works by minority and female authors. I also try not to get into ruts where I’m reading tons of similar stuff, although that doesn’t happen to me often.
Here’s how it works in practice. A sampling of my summer reading list:
- Blackout by Sarah Hepola – Reviewing for The Rumpus. Chosen because it’s a memoir that’s also about a subject (blacking out while drinking) by a woman. I’m currently working on a book project that’s combination memoir/subject, so this fits several checkboxes. I finished it about a month ago and will hopefully have the review out soon. Spoilers: It was hilarious and smart as hell and wonderful.
- Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner and All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren – Both classics by southern writers. I had only read As I Lay Dying by Faulkner and hadn’t read any of Warren. My loose connection to each: Faulkner’s book is loosely about legacy/genealogy, Warren grew up close to where I grew up.
- The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard and The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter – This is what happens to books people recommend me but then I don’t hear anything else about: they end up on my “to read” list for four years. These are my only remaining books from 2011. The first, my mother told me to read. The second, a judge of a short story contest said I should check out due to similarities in plot structure with my story.
- Doña Bárbara by Rómulo Gallegos – Gallegos was the first democratically elected president of Venezuela and a prolific novelist, which I think is just fascinating as hell. My wife is from Venezuela, and I’m always eager to learn more about the country. I’m still conflicted about whether I want to read a book by him or about him, but this is his most famous novel, so I’ll probably start here.
- Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames by Ian Bogost, Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature by Espen Aarseth, and The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response by Wolfgang Iser – I gave a talk at a conference on categories of player-driven narrative choices in video games, and now I am turning that talk into a chapter-length work to submit for publication. These are three books I plan on reading to use as sources on the subject. All three (as well as several articles) were either suggested to me during the Q&A session of my talk or I pulled from the bibliographies of my co-panelists.
Quite the variety. Very male-heavy (only 2/9 authors are women) which I’m sad about and will seek to rectify with my subsequent selections. There are more, of course, sitting around my house waiting to be read, but these are the definites.
How do you make these decisions?
The weather in my area has been insane! Check out this graph of Austin’s Lake Travis’s water level. Be sure and check the boxes to be depressed about how, even with this inundation of rain, we’re still quite a ways from 2010.
Given that I love Full Stop and I also like to encourage book reviews to be a part of a conversation, you can read Sho Spaeth’s review of Minae Mizumura’s The Fall of Language in the Age of English here. My review is over at The Rumpus, and our conclusions did not line up, but our focuses were also a little different, so I think it’s an interesting pairing.
Pop Culture Happy Hour is my latest favorite podcast discovery. You should check it out.