Reading: individual and communal

I was reading the Jan/Feb issue of Poets & Writers today and came across “You Are What You Read:  the Art of Inspired Reading Lists” by Joshua Bodwell.  He talks about how readers–in particular writers–go about picking and choosing books to read.  In the article, he quotes writer Anthony Doerr as saying, “I think reading is such an idiosyncratic and private experience that every reader should make her own way, draw her own map, become her own researcher.”  So I began to consider how I pick what I read or put on a to-read list.

What I cannot do as a general rule:  read books recommended by friends.  Although I love my friends dearly, we–none of us–read or prefer the same things (even as English majors and MFA grads).  It isn’t that their suggestions are terrible, they just do not particularly appeal to my own preferences.  So, clearly, that makes me a non-receptive member of my local community.

I do, however, enjoy GoodReads.  They send out an email every month about new books which has been quite helpful in finding interesting reading material that I might not otherwise know about.  It seems odd that while I cannot enjoy books suggested by friends I can enjoy books recommended by strangers!  I wonder if this is because the community pool is infinitely larger and more preferentially diverse than my circle of pals.  At least someone somewhere has to have a reasonable number of quirks and suggestions that appeal to me, right?

Like many in the article I also have a list of books I’d like to read; I keep mine in a white hardbound journal book with a drawing of a flower fairy on it. (Hush!  I can hear you laughing.)  Where do I find them?  I listen to NPR.  I browse Amazon, Powell’s, and Barnes & Noble.  I read The Big Idea on Whatever.  I find book lists and suggestions in newspapers and magazines.  Sometimes I even stumble across a book in a bookstore (imagine that!)  But because I don’t lug the journal list everywhere, most suggestions end up on scraps of paper or sticky notes until I take the time to re-copy them.

Do I prefer one genre?  Do I stick faithfully to an author?  Am I to be counted upon as a reader?  The answer:  no.  Well, occasionally, I will go in with an author of a series for the long haul, but that is an exception.  I will read creative non-fiction authors like Barbara Hurd or Luc Sante.  I will read sciencey stuff from sciencey people like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Brian Greene.  I will read literary fiction from authors like Amy Tan or Sherman Alexie and poetry from poets like Sharon Olds or Tony Hoagland.  I will read on history, philosophy, and religion.  I will read YA.  I will read through the sections of literary canon I skipped or skimmed.  I will even read mindless, predictable books on occasion.

So I guess my map really is a little less “execute the flight plan” and a little more “bumblebee.”  Like I said:  flibbertigibbet.

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