Reading Deliberately: Assuaging the Guilt

5 Jul

One of the big literary links floating around the bloggosphere today is The Millions’ release of their Most Anticipated: The Great Second-Half 2011 Book Preview list. And I’m feeling really guilty about it. I’ve read the list. In fact, now I’ve read it a couple times.

And with a few exceptions – Eugenides, Martin, Grossman, Perrotta, Harbach – I neither care (and likely never will) nor will read most of the books on that list. The ones I’m looking forward to are the ones by bigger names, by best-selling authors, or in a few cases, books that have already gotten some buzz like Chad Harbach’s upcoming The Art of Fielding.

I feel slightly like a fraud. Especially because I retweeted an article from Book Forum about how the process of best-seller lists for books is doing more harm than good to authors, readers and the book publishing industry. It’s an article I totally agree with, and I absolutely despise that our best-seller lists are primarily made up of books whose covers are filled with the name of the “author” instead of the title.* Nothing screams to me “bad writing” more than the font size of the author’s name on a cover. It’s about branding, not writing, and branding is about sales. I agree that we should be promoting smaller names (literally and figuratively), who deserve recognition for the quality of their writing.

And yet…

I am guilty of using sales as part of my gauge for whether a book is worthwhile of my time. It doesn’t mean I’ve ever picked up a James Patterson, but I’ve bought books because they’ve done well. I’ve played into the hype machine – my praise of last year’s The Passage was proof enough of that – and I can say I don’t plan on picking up most of the books on The Millions list with confidence because, in most cases, I’ve never heard of the author or read any of their previous books. In other cases where I do know the other or have heard of their previous work, like with the new novels by Alan Hollinghurst or Ha Jin, the books feel like too much, too cerebral, like too much work. And then I start to feel like a fraud. What kind of blogger, what kind of so-called literary book reviewer am I, if I don’t want to read Delillo or Bolaño, because they’re too hard?

I’m trying to read the classics as part of this year of reading deliberately. I’m attempting to go beyond my comfort zone, but what does it say about me that I’m not open to reading a few of those unknown authors on the chance I’ll actually like them? It’s not like The Millions isn’t a trusted resource. Their critiques are well-thought out, their scope broad. But I still struggle. There are so many books to read, I know, but why shouldn’t I make time for one or two I’ve never heard of before?

I read a lot. I read a lot of books that I’m pretty sure I’m going to like. When my constant refrain is “so many books, so little time,” doesn’t it make sense to choose books I’m pretty sure I will enjoy? How much obligation do I have – as a reader, as a book blogger, as a consumer – to discover and promote books that may not get as big of a voice as others because they come from small publishing houses or because they do not get as large a cut of the promotional pie in their big houses? And is the obligation to my readers, to authors who need the voice, or to myself ? Am I too comfortable in my reading choices? And is that okay?

I’ve got a lot of questions – mostly about what I should be reading – but after typing out this whole post, I realized that I already answered my some of my own questions: my only obligation is to myself. Before becoming a blogger, I never worried about whether I was branching out enough or reading lesser known authors simply because they were lesser known. Reading for me has always been a pursuit in pleasure. I read for many reasons: escapism, knowledge, etc. But never should I have to justify my solitary activity to anyone besides myself. There’s enough self-imposed guilt involved in how much or how little I’m blogging; why add to that guilt in terms of what I’m actually reading? That’s supposed to be the best part!

As bloggers, I think we often feel like we’ll never be able to read every book we want to. It’s frustrating to look at my shelves and my wishlists and to know I’ll likely never read some of the books I already own, let alone all the future books being released that I’ll want to read as well.  It’s a never-ending cycle, and the best I can do is to choose a few titles from the lists of forthcoming releases – even if I know the author already – and give them the best voice I’m capable of. Maybe I’ll only manage to review Chad Harbach’s book of the debut authors on The Millions list. But isn’t that better than nothing?

*”Author” is in quotes, because too often – as with the newest Tom Clancy – the biggest name on the cover didn’t actually write the book. A co-writer did, and their name appears teeny tiny in comparison. Branding, baby. “Tom Clancy” is the name that sells the book.

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14 Responses to “Reading Deliberately: Assuaging the Guilt”

  1. Rebecca @ The Book Lady's Blog July 5, 2011 at 4:33 pm #

    As you said, Rachel, I think you answered your own question. The “right” books are the books that call to you, the books that you want to read, the books that fit into your goals for your reading life and your blog. Those things are always changing, and the beauty of reading deliberately is that as long as you stay focused on reading for your own edification, you’ll be reading the right things.

    • Rachel July 5, 2011 at 4:42 pm #

      Thank you. It’s easy to tell myself all of that, but to have it confirmed by someone else is refreshing. Books should not be stressful right?

  2. Kerry July 5, 2011 at 7:33 pm #

    Books should absolutely not be stressful. Like you, I started questioning my reading list after I started blogging regularly. I got to a point where I felt I had to finish and review every book I picked up because of some sense of obligation. Then I thought, obligation to whom? To my readers (of which there are precious few)? To my blog, so it could be “complete”? Ultimately, that obligation was to no one but myself, and I was the one making myself feel guilty when I failed to live up to it.

    I think that reading deliberately is an excellent goal, and one that is ultimately defined by the person who set it. My own effort to read more deliberately might not be the same as yours, and so on, but as you said, reading is an activity we pursue because we love it, and if you make it feel too much like work, it loses that charm.

    • Rachel July 6, 2011 at 10:36 am #

      I guess it’s appropriate that I start to question what “reading deliberately” means to me, since I set that as a blogging goal at the beginning of the year, and we’re halfway done with 2011 now. It’s good to be reminded that being deliberate is about what I find important to devote my reading life to, not what anyone else says it *should* be. Thanks for your response.

  3. Jenn's Bookshelves July 5, 2011 at 7:33 pm #

    I agree wholeheartedly with what Rebecca stated. I don’t review the “big, bestseller books.” I review the books that call to me, engage my interest. Now, the aforementioned books might be on one of the bestseller lists, but I’m reviewing them because I want to read them, not because someone else says I should read them.

    Like you, I find myself retweeting lists. I don’t feel bad about doing it; I do it because I agree with the list and want to promote the books.

    Bottom line: don’t feel guilty. Blog for yourself, not for others. Your readers will see your passion about the books you review. Happiness will follow 🙂

    • Rachel July 6, 2011 at 10:33 am #

      Thanks, Jenn. That’s sort of how I felt about The Passage. Everyone was all, “it’s so buzzy! I don’t want to read it!” But I legit loved it, and the buzz didn’t matter. I have to remember that just because my readership is growing, I started this venture for myself, and that’s how to keep it most enjoyable and authentic. For myself and for my audience 🙂

  4. Megan July 5, 2011 at 7:45 pm #

    I guess the question that we all have to ask is who exactly we’re blogging for. I started blogging for me. I’ve grown to care about hits and audience and stretching myself in my reading and giving a voice to the books that might not get a big mainstream following, but at the end of the day, my blog is still about me and the books I like to read. That’s why I’ll never pick a niche for my reading/blog despite that being against the branding/self-marketing common wisdom and other such practices that might make me feel like I can’t read the books I want to read. That said, I’m totally with you in getting frustrated that I’ll never be able to get to all the books I want to read (much less the ones I “should”).

    So, my advice in a nutshell?

    Life is short, read what you like!

    • Rachel July 6, 2011 at 10:32 am #

      I hate the idea that we have to force ourselves into a niche market to gain followers. I read from too many different genres to be able to do that. Sometimes I wish I only read from a small segment of the publishing world so my TBR list didn’t feel so unmanageable.

  5. Alison's Book Marks July 5, 2011 at 9:04 pm #

    You’re guilty, I’m guilty, we’re all guilty…of not reading every new book out there. It took me a long time to not only accept the fact that I can read 100+ books each year, yet not come close to reading all the books I WANT to read; but that I don’t have the time or desire to read books that don’t interest me, and that’s okay! There are enough readers, and blogs for that matter, to cover it all.

    I have a lot of friends who are avid readers, yet I have yet to meet my book soulmate. No one reads and likes the same books I do. No two readers are alike, and again, that’s okay! No one says you HAVE to read and like Ian McEwan or Cormac McCarthy or Margaret Atwood!

    A part of me wishes the publishing industry would pause all new releases just for six months to give us a chance of catching up!

    • Rachel July 6, 2011 at 10:30 am #

      Just six months?!?! If they stopped publishing entirely tomorrow and never published another thing for the next ten years, I’d still manage to not get to everything I wanted to read. Which I guess is useful to know about myself. I’m never going to be able to read everything, so stop stressing about what I might be *missing* and enjoy what I’ve got.

  6. ohemgillie July 5, 2011 at 10:15 pm #

    Honestly? Out of that entire list, I’ll probably end up reading like 2% of them because those few are the ones that grabbed me as I read about them.

    I don’t doubt that they’re all fantastic in their own right, but maybe having these kinds of lists is just as destructive as the best-seller list phenomenon? It’s not the kind of numbers game that the best-seller list seems to be, but these books have to have enough hype to even make The Millions list, regardless of who writes and publishes them.

    Everyone else has already made the point that there’s bound to be something for everyone on each of these lists, so it probably isn’t worth getting too worked up over reading the “wrong” kinds of books. I think the fact that you’re concerned about the quality of the books you choose means you’re more likely to make choices that are good for you.

    • Rachel July 6, 2011 at 10:28 am #

      Thanks for your input. And you’re absolutely right – I guess it’s like parenting: if you’re worried, you’re probably doing something right 😉

  7. Greg Zimmerman July 6, 2011 at 10:41 am #

    Unless you’re Michiko Kakutani or Ron Charles, you have no other obligation than to yourself. The minute you feel obligated to do anything (whether to read a particular book, or to write a review on EVERY book you read…to kick that dead horse yet again), you’ve turned this blogging/reading thing from a fun way to escape and meet people into a chore. Read what you want, not what other people (even people as credible and well-respected as The MIllions) tell you to, and especially not what marketing/branding people tell you to. It’s natural to fall into that trap, as you say, but if it’s a book you were interested in anyway, then no harm, no foul.

    My dad has gone through and read all 100 novels on the Modern Library List, and by the end, he was miserable and hasn’t been back to literary fiction since (it’s been a couple years) – all he wants now is to read James Patterson. To me, that’s quite the cautionary tale for trying to prescribe your reading in advance, or reading something you’ve never heard of or hadn’t caught your eye at first, just because it’s on a list (whether best seller or best of the century). Be flexible. Let it stay fun. Don’t worry if others care what you’re reading. If you care, they will too.

    And, I can’t wait for The Art of Fielding, too!

  8. Meg July 8, 2011 at 1:55 pm #

    I try really, really hard to not feel guilty about not reading the books that others say or insinuate that I should read. If a book looks interesting, I’ll pick it up. If it looks like I may want to gouge my eyes out after I read it (or part way through reading it), I’m not going to pick it up. Reading shouldn’t feel like a chore!

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