Monday, November 3, 2008

Reading: No Shoulds Allowed. Well, maybe a few.

Lately, I get this question.

"Oh, you're a writer. Tell me, what should I read?"

Oh, boy.

What I'd really like to say: Sorry, but I cannot tell you what you should read. I have no idea. Anyway, in my experience, the surest way to turn someone off reading something – even if it's the greatest piece of literature ever written – is to say, "You should read this."

For example, for years I resisted reading
Annie Dillard, I think because for years whenever I admitted to not knowing her work, everyone, it seemed, in an appalled voice, told me I should read her. And so I did, because finally, because I was assigned to read and annotate several of her books and excerpts during my MFA program. I learned a lot from reading her, and as I begin to teach, I'm finding myself looking back over some passages – and yet: I still never pick up one of her books for pleasure, and I'm not really sure if that's because the shoulds still overshadow her work, or if she's just not my particular cup of literary tea.

So, when folks ask me what to read, I'll probably change the subject. If I can't, they get my much longer answer (remember, the person asked) which involves my asking a lot of questions, trying to get to know the person a little better, finding out at least a little of what makes him/her tick. Then, I might make a few suggestions, which I try to tailor for each individual. If I can determine what they are reading for – information, entertainment, comfort, escape, knowledge, fun – then I could probably name some books and writers who I think fill those niches nicely.

If the person wants to know what books to read in order to improve his/her own writing, then I like to spend some time talking about their writing and maybe I even read some (or a lot) of it, and then I might be able to recommend some great books and authors which, if read slowly and deliberately, could speak to that need/desire. Maybe.

If someone merely wants to know what books are in the news, which ones are popular, which books to read so that at parties the small talk is not too excruciating, I can probably reel off some, but more likely, I'll suggest checking the
New York Times.

By now, the person has more than likely lost interest. And the truth is, as much as I love to talk about books, it's sometimes a relief. Except for the person whose real question all along was not what really what he/she should read, but what am I reading.

But here's the thing. What I’m reading more than likely has nothing to do with what that person will want to read. Reading, I think, is highly personal, idiosyncratic, often unpredictable. Oh it's great social fun when someone has read the same books and bam – you're off on a great conversational tear with someone new who immediately feels like an old friend. But I have no illusions that simply because I write that what I read is any better or more interesting or more valuable than what the next person reads.

Maybe because I am exposed to a wider range of authors and books on the upper end of the literary scale, my picks may include a higher percentage of well-written books (not always). But that often translates to a lot of books which most people have never heard of and are probably not interested in hunting down. In any case, that does not make them better books, for anyone else's reading diet but my own. Every day, it seems, I learn of another book which interests me, another writer whom I add to the "to be read" list – and that information comes to me from non-writers, too.

So, back to the original question, which I think in most cases, really does boil down to what are you reading?

I'm always in the middle of at least one memoir which I believe, even before I open the cover, will be well-written, either because I'm familiar with the author, I've read a review, or it's been recommended by a writer friend or an author I know or admire. If it delivers, terrific. If not, I put it aside, often sadly, but lately with alarming speed. Life is too short to read books that don't hook me. (And since no one is assigning them these days, my "never mind" pile can get as high as I want.)

The good ones I tend to talk about, write about, recommend, lend out, re-read. Often, I email the author (whether or not I know him/her) and express my interest/gratitude. Every writer likes positive reader reactions. Over the last few weeks, the good memoirs have included
The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere (Debra Marquart); Epilogue (Anne Roiphe); and Safekeeping (Abigail Thomas) – a re-read, because I'm trying to learn something about shorter segments. There were two clunkers I abandoned, one on page 10, the other nearly 1/3 of the way through. It happens.

As for novels, I often have one or more going if they are long; one at a time if shorter. I have a much less predictable pattern when it comes to choosing novels; beyond reviews and those by authors I already know I like, I tend to pick fiction (novels and short story collections, too) for the most insignificant, non-literary reasons – I like the title, the cover illustration or design, I overhear someone somewhere say something interesting about it, the collection editor is someone I admire, it's on the bargain book table at my local bookstore. With all that in mind, make what you will of my fiction list from the last few weeks:

She's Come Undone (Wally Lamb) – a re-read because how does he stay in that other-gender voice for 465 pages? Horseplay (Judy Reene Singer) – chosen for a laid-up-in-bed-with-a-sore-back-for-a-morning read; a horsey frolic. Most of the stories in High 5ive: An Anthology of Fiction from 10 Years of Five Points (Ed. Megan Sexton) – each story the perfect length while waiting for my kid in the car pick up line after school.

Then there are the essay collections and anthologies – usually three or four, on end tables, the arms of couches, and desk corners throughout the house. Right now, I'm working through, slowly, randomly:
About Face: Women Write About What They See When They Look in the Mirror (Ed. Anne Burt & Christina Baker Kline); they threw a fun reading/panel discussion/party last month nearby. The Slate Diaries (intro. Michael Kinsley); I guess I wasn't really paying attention to Slate back in 1997, so I’m catching up. And, Best American Essays 2003 (ed. Anne Fadiman); why that year? Beats me.

I'm also a magazine junkie, a (physical, in my hands, print edition) newspaper addict, and I love to graze the web in search of good literary grub; it's great fun to find an online literary journal that will keep me reading, onscreen – which my eyes generally dislike – a 3,000 word piece of nonfiction narrative or short fiction.

Oh, and I usually have one poetry book going too – right now it's
The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni 1968-1998. Why? Frankly, because I listened to her read a poem on a web video link someone sent me a few months ago, which reminded me of the poem she wrote for, and read, on the televised memorial service for the Virginia Tech students last year, and then last month, I went to a local book store to special-order (at full price) an obscure out-of-print memoir I had never read, but somehow felt I "should" read, only to find it wasn't available, and on the way out, I spotted a friend and when I went over to say hello, I knocked Giovanni's book off a shelf with my purse.

Which should only reinforce – if I haven't already – that if someone is inclined to ask me what books they should read, they'd better have some time on their hands.


Jenny said...

I love hearing what others memoir lovers are reading, because I like to find new ones. I'm going to check out The Horizontal World (already read, and enjoyed, the other two).

Happy reading

Michelle O'Neil said...

And when do you sleep Lisa?

: )

I usually have four or five books going at a time myself, so I can't really talk, but I've long since given up physical newspapers, and magazines are generally only on-line for me(unless of course I'm at the dentist).

I've just picked up the memoir Falling Into Manholes by Wendy Merrill. I won't give you any shoulds about it, but she had me at page 2.