Tuesday, February 27, 2007

BOOKS | Follow Your Own

A while back, Jenclair posted a question on how we decide what to read next. I thought a little about my own reading choices and came to the conclusion it's all whims and fancies.

Then Jeanette Winterson wrote something along this topic for The Times' Her Word column. Her advice:

Then – and this is the fun bit – proceed to a section of the bookshop in which you think you have no interest, and buy something that catches your eye. I have just been reading Captain Cook’s Journals, which made me read Robinson Crusoe again, which made me think about island narratives, and has run me towards Boswell and Johnson in the Hebrides, Marianne Wiggins’s wonderful novel John Dollar and to Diana Souhami’s award-winning Selkirk’s Island, which made me order Coconut Chaos, her new book on Pitcairn.

For me, this is the way to read and reread books. I don’t want to be told that if I liked X I could read Y, or that people who bought A also bought B. Reading is not a place to be one of a crowd, it is the place to be yourself. In our world of lookalikes and wannabes, being yourself amounts to a social service. Give books for good reasons – because you love them – and buy new books that can become part of a living library, a place where the unexpected still happens.

I'm always at a loss because I really find it hard to sum up quickly what books I like to read. Really, the most accurate reply I can give is this: I read whatever catches my interest at that time.

The thing is, an answer like this often do not satisfy people. It does not allow them to understand or classify you immediately.

I work in a bookstore and you would think people who work in bookstores are good judge of readers and reading habits. Not true. My manager was surprised that I have a pretty good working knowledge of fantasy novels; she thought I was all serious fiction. One of my vendor was caught off guard that my degree was in English Literature; he thought I was all non-fiction.

I guess I shouldn't tell anyone that my graduating thesis was a Bakhtian reading of William Gibson's Neuromancer - Cyberpunk as Cybergothic. (I always imagined Angelina Jolie as Molly Millions.) What will people think of me then?

My friend once told me how her editor, RL, found my Director's love of comic books demeaning. A grown man reading comics? I was amused because I have very little respect for my Director's taste in general - but I have to stand up for the genre and say RL should keep his mouth shut about people who read comics, since he knows very little about it.

We often have assumptions about people and what they should be reading. One of my colleagues once told me she doesn't read fiction because she is a person well-grounded in reality. She was particularly disdainful of speculative fiction. Yet she is in fact one of the most fragile character I have ever met, because she breaks down completely everytime her worldview is challenged.

People in fact, should read as widely as they can. And read what they want to. Forget about the critics or reviewers who tell you what you should or should not read - unless you really trust their taste of course. A friend used to jacket her romance novels with pages from magazines - she was self-conscious about being thought of poorly as a "romance reader." Oh, how we blush.

I hate it when someone remarks, "This is so not you" - about a book I'm reading. Well, I chose it, and I'm reading it - so it is definitely Me. It's just inconsistent with your definition of Me.

It doesn't matter if your reading is a little esoteric. It doesn't matter if no one in your bookclub wants to read Robertson Davies, and no one else seems to share your passion for this funny but wise Canadian author. You can just keep giving away Robertson Davies novels as presents. Birthdays, Christmas, Baby Showers - lots of good excuses for giving away books. Who knows? Maybe some day a friend will finally read your favourite author - and enjoy the experience. They might even pick up other Robertson Davies titles.

I have often thought my reading choices too on the whim, and there can't possibly be any active decision-making behind the books I pick up. But maybe not. Maybe my choices are not as incidental as I assume. Isn't it our spontaneous choices that truly reveal our genuine desires?

So why do I have a book on the history of salt?

We should all follow Jeanette Winterson's advice:

"I began to follow my own eccentricities, which is really the only way to read."

On an ironic note, I recall one of my teacher, Mr C., who came from a Jesuit seminary, training for a life of celibacy and service to his faith. As fate would have it, he met the woman who would become his wife, gave up God and ended up teaching Shakespeare to ignorant eighteen year olds. Mr C is a voracious reader on the subject of true crime and serial killers, and he has heaps of these paperbacks. If our libraries are archives of our longings, what does it say about Mr C?

And I have books on suicide and manic-depressive artists. What does that say about me?

Why care? Just go forth and read whatever you want.


Carl V. Anderson said...

Great thoughts! I think it is a shame when a person, for whatever reason(s), limits their reading choices. While my blog focuses largely on science fiction and fantasy, I have many other reading loves: comics, classic literature, young adult and children's books, travelogues (i.e., books like Under the Tuscan Sun), nonfiction books about any number of subjects. Limiting oneself to just one's favorite genres is like boxing oneself in and only choosing to experience a certain portion of life. There is no reason for it.

I think reading is highly whim-induced, especially for me. Right now I'm devouring science fiction. I could wake up tomorrow with a craving to re-read all the Anne of Green Gables books, and off I'd go. That's the way I've always been and I believe I am all the better for it. I've experienced so many wonders because of the printed word.

"and buy new books that can become part of a living library, a place where the unexpected still happens."

I love that!

Imani said...

Hear, hear! What a great post, Orpheus. I too tend to meander and just pick up whatever strikes my fancy at the time. I used to be self-conscious about my romance reading but not any more.

Sometimes my choices are pre-meditated and sometimes they're not. There are so many things I like that when I'm asked, I tend to mention what I usually avoid or simply never thought of trying.

Anonymous said...

"I began to follow my own eccentricities, which is really the only way to read." ~ Love that quote! Actually I love your whole post. I was nodding my head a lot as I read this.
By the way, have you ever seen the "Reader's Bill of Rights"? I think you'd enjoy that. Here's one link I found: http://www.ala.org/ala/yalsa/teenreading/tipsenc/tipsencourage.htm

Anonymous said...

I don't have trouble finding books to read, because I get them recommended to me faster than I read them.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post! I used to feel guilty that I read so much at whim but there are so many great books I never would have read or enjoyed if I followed some kind of plan.

Rebecca H. said...

I don't like it when other people try to pigeonhole my tastes either -- how limiting! What one reads is a way of extending oneself -- playing around with identity, maybe -- so why put boundaries around it?

jenclair said...

I love the Winterson quote! I think we all go off on tangents now and then, pursuing a particular genre or topic, but it is the wide variety of world experiences, personal experiences, fiction, nonfiction, fantasy, science fiction, mystery, biography-- that keeps us moving, interested, and curious.

I have so many interests, and the more I read, the more interests I have. Which is probably why we love reading other blogs--more avenues to explore!

Great post!

LK said...

I'm with you, everyone should read what they want AND try to read widely.

Great post.

P.S. I have a lot of books on depressed, suicidal type writers myself. But nothing on the history of salt, alas.

Anonymous said...

My reading tastes are all over the place. Usually I read something and that piques my curiosity to read something else sort of connected, and I keep going from there. What I hate is reading Amazon reviews and seeing someone who doesn't like a book and then will write Don't Read This Book. I hate that. Please don't tell me not to read something--you might have thought it was awful, but what if I love it!! I read whatever I like, though occasionally will feel guilty if I read too much fluff--must stop that!

Imani said...

I came across this bit in an interview of James Wood, a respected literary critic, done by Robert Birnbaum. It's approaching some of what you said from a slightly different angle, but is related to my reaction to your piece.

RB: That’s a burden, isn’t it? The need to be consistent when someone asks for the books you like to read. That’s terrible.

JW: It is terrible, and I think, it’s surely not loyal to the exceptionalism of the novel. It’s why when I read about myself in reviews I always want to say, “Yes, but.” Because just like any reader, my exceptions define me and that’s the only way to describe the novel. It’s the freest form there is. If it’s true that I often chastise writers for breaking in essayistically and telling us about characters when they should be leaving well enough alone, it’s also true that I like Lawrence, who does that a great deal. I like Bellow, who does that a lot. If it’s true that I like stylish prose, it’s also true that I revere Chekhov who in some ways is about—well, not exactly about self-withdrawal because he is quite a stylist but certainly about handing over something to characters themselves. [pause] If it’s true that I don’t like didactic fiction as much as people don’t like didactic fiction, what do you make of Roth, who is always coming in and saying—jabbing at you.

Here's a link if you care to take a look: Birnbaum v. James Wood

darkorpheus said...

Hi everyone! Sorry if I don't get around to replying individually to everyone's comments. A little caught up at work recently. And unfortunately I do most of my blogging at work. *sheepish grin*

I hope everyone got to read WInterson's essay though. It's not one of her best, but she's got some quotable quotes. And my post is a direct response to her essay.

Winterson is one writer who always seems to be able to set my mind on fire.

Carl, Dorothy & Jenclair: I know what you mean. It's like James Wood said in the interview Imani quoted: "Because just like any reader, my exceptions define me" - the exceptions are the little signatures that make us unique.

It's the whims - the natural curiosity that expands our minds, isn't it? We are limited only by ourselves. Each time we reach out to something new, we grow, expand.

Imani: Hee. At least you don't have piles of romance novels jacketed with magazine pages sitting at home, right?

James Wood is married to Claire Messud? The Claire Messud of Emperor's Children? Thanks for the sending me the interview. I'm curious about his books now. Damn.

Anyone read The Irresponsible Self?

Iliana: Read the "Reader's Bill of Rights" - I think we can add one more: Readers have the right to skip to the end before deciding to continue with the book. Hee. ;p

LK: *tsk tsk* all those books on suicidal depressed types. what will people say? But the topic is actually quite ... romantic? Yes?

Stefanie: And yet I admire your reading plan for your philosphy project. Very organised. And your Emerson reading - very disciplined, I might add.

My meandering ways led me to a few wonderful places, but often I find I need focus in order to achieve depth in my self-study.

Danielle: I have to admit, I have the bad habit of telling people what NOT to read. It's partly the impulse reading which led me to some pretty bad books. Then I lament the sheer waste of time which could be better spent reading other stuff. Or doing the laundry.

But I often ignore people who tell me what NOT to read. Because I need to find out for myself before I can decide if a book is really crappy.

A paradox, right?

Fluff is good. It relaxes the brain. Make it soft. ;p

lazy cow said...

I love this post. It's come at an opportune time, as I'm pushing myself to finish "The Emperor's Children". Why? I don't like it, and usually I don't finish books I don't enjoy, but I feel compelled to see it through to its - no doubt - unsatisfying end. From now on I'm reading what I want to read, not what I feel I should.