How Do You Like So Many Books?
A guide to making sure your reading time is spent on books you enjoy.
Not too long ago, a writer acquaintance of mine told me, “Man, you like a lot of books.”
If you’re detecting a little subtext of judgment there, I did too. I felt like I was being accused of something, like maybe I lacked some measure of critical discernment and couldn’t tell a “good” book from a “bad” book. This person has lamented in the past that they have a hard time finding something good to read, and yet I was always talking about how I was reading a good book.
It’s true, I like a lot of the books I read. The fifth grader in me wants to finish that sentence with, so sue me. I don’t know how unusual it is to like a lot of the books you read, but I did start thinking about my reading practice, and how I’ve arrived at this point.
So, here’s my guide to liking the books you read:
1. Have standards that make sense to you.
The person who made this remark to me was possibility suggesting that I don’t have any standards, but in fact, the opposite is true. For the books I’m going to read I have a reasonably high bar for entry, and then a low threshold for exit.
Because of my background and experience as a writer and writing teacher, I need a book’s prose to meet a threshold where I’m not distracted by it. If I’m noting cliches, or rewriting sentences in my head as I go, I’m not going to make it through to the end. I’ve written in the past how I used to love the Dirk Pitt books by Clive Cussler like Raise the Titanic, because they are kick-ass adventures, but now I can’t get through them because of the clunky prose and cheesy dialog. It’s a shame because it is fun to read a book with a hero that can hold his breath underwater for four minutes.
So, I’m a bit of a snob. (Though hopefully not too big of one.) Lots of readers do not care about the line-by-line quality of the writing in a book if it’s telling them a good story, and I do not begrudge them or the books themselves if this is the case, but I can’t change how I’m wired on this front.
2. Like a variety of stuff. (And know what you like.)
This has a couple of components. For one, my tastes are pretty catholic. I’ll read just about anything provided it clears the bar in terms of its prose. For example, no one will confuse Lee Child with Proust, but the writing in a Reacher novel is perfectly suited to its genre, which makes ripping through another story about the big man setting the world right by taking out a bunch of terrible humans a pleasure to read.
It’s also helpful if you can adjust your thinking to connect with the particular pleasure a book might have to deliver. Unlike a Reacher novel, you’re not going to pick up My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard, if you’re looking for an edge-of-your-seat page turner, but once you settle into Knausgaard’s rhythms, you might find yourself transfixed by a writer mining their own experiences. As James Wood said of reading Knausgaard, “Even when I was bored, I was interested.” If that description makes no sense to you, stay away from Knausgaard no matter how much hype you may hear.
If the book needs a likable protagonist, you should steer clear of The Talented Mr. Ripley, or the work of Herman Koch (particularly The Dinner), or my friend Teddy's Wayne’s Loner. But if you’re like me, and merely want a subject that’s fascinating and the vehicle for a compelling story, and don’t mind spending time in the mind of a monster, that kind of book may deliver great rewards.
Now, it’s fine if you don’t like a lot of different books too, but if you know that, stick with it. I always see online customer reviews complaining about how they didn’t care for a book that got a great review on NPR or in the New York Times, and then want to moan about the “elite gatekeepers” who are trying to force pretentious garbage on the rest of us.
No one is obligated to read a book just because it won a big prize or is getting a lot of attention. If your gut says that it’s not a book for you, listen to it.
3. Know what you’re in the mood for.
Different books hit differently at different times. This is why at any given time I have no fewer than a half-dozen titles waiting in the wings for when I’m ready to start a new book. Like right now, I have Mohsin Hamid’s The Last White Man in my stack. I’m a fan of his previous novels, Exit West, and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, and feel good about this new one, but I can also tell from reading the first couple of pages that it’s written in a style that’s going to require an little extra measure of attention in order to fall under its spell. It’s a slim book, so my plan is to get to it when I want a palate cleanser from something longer and have the time to get through it in a sitting or two at most.
If I’m getting on a plane, I know I want something that’s going to grab me with its plot. I often save the latest Laura Lippman novel (like Dream Girl) for a trip knowing that I’m going to get good writing and a propulsive story that I can pick up and put down and get right back into the action.
4. Get recommendations from people you trust.
Teddy Wayne turned me on to Notes on Your Sudden Disappearance. Bookseller Addison from The Village Bookseller seemed like she would not stop talking about Lee Cole’s Groundskeeping until I read it, and I’m glad I did.
When Mother Biblioracle really insists that I read a book, I almost always listen, but not necessarily always because what kid always listens to his mother.
5. Quit reading books you’re not enjoying.
This is the low threshold for exit I talk about above. Once I decide I have no interest in continuing to read a book, I stop reading it and move on to another one. I have no hard and fast rule - like I make myself read the first 100 pages no matter what - it’s a vibe thing. Once I’ve had enough, I’ve had enough. Sometimes I even quit when I’ve been mostly enjoying a book, but don’t need any more, as was the case with Charlie Kaufmann’s Antkind.
I know some people are dedicated book finishers, but I recommend people think of books as though you’re eating a meal. If it tastes bad, you stop eating. If you’re satiated, you stop eating. The experience of reading the first part of a book is not somehow validated by reading the book to the end. That experience remains no matter what.
I can honestly say that I like very book I finish because I don’t finish the books I don’t like.
6. Don’t let anyone tell you what you’re supposed to like.
I will admit I went through a phase where it felt sort of important to not like things other people liked, as though there was some kind of credibility to be earned by not liking things because serious people knew how to map out what’s good from not good, and then convince others they were right.
That started to melt away after reading the aforementioned James Wood’s essay on novels he labeled “hysterical realism,” novels like White Teeth, Infinite Jest, and Underworld, books I liked, but which Wood believed were aesthetically and morally irresponsible in their turn towards “spectacle,” and away from “a picture of life.”
Wood’s thesis is clear, carefully articulated, well-evidenced, and as far as I’m concerned, totally wrong. I found the “spectacle” of those books to be a vital technique in rendering a picture of life that I found deeply compelling in creating a fuller picture of life than straight realism.
I’m certain that James Wood comes by his opinion honestly, and because he’s a book critic, he’s obligated to read books people are talking about and give his opinion, but I don’t have that kind of relationship to books. I can spend much more time focused on what I like.
My Chicago Tribune column this week is both a tribute to Barbara Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed), who passed away recently, and an appreciation of some writers who are working in her tradition.
The shortlists for the National Book Awards were announced this week, featuring a bunch of unexpected, and intriguing choices for the fiction list.
A group of students in Texas has started a book club featuring books banned by the adults in their community.
In other book club related news, a Chicago attorney has started the Visible Man Review, a book club targeted towards Black men.
In other other book club related news, I’m going to be hosting my first ever book club for The Village Bookseller in Mount Pleasant, SC. If you’re in the area, come join us October 6th, as The Biblioracle Book Club reads John Williams’ Stoner.
The New York Times has a quiz on astronaut-related books. I scored 5 out of 5.
All books linked here are part of The Biblioracle Recommends bookshop at Bookshop.org. Affiliate income for purchases through the bookshop goes to Open Books in Chicago.
Affiliate income is up to $229.50 for the year, and in case you haven’t noticed, there’s a bunch of books up there that I said that I liked, which means you might like them too.
1. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
2. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
3. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
4. Office B.F.F.s by Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey
5. The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger
Audrey H. - Evanston, IL
I thought I’d recommended this one on here before, but if so, I can’t find it. I have been recommending it pretty widely in real-life, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin.
1. Jack by Marilynne Robinson
2. Broken Harbor by Tana French
3. The City and the City by China Mieville
4. Bittersweet by Susan Cain
5. Devil House by John Danielle
Jeremy Z. - Syracuse, NY
Susan Cain’s Bittersweet is about how the experience of sorrow and longing for something lost is an essential part of being fully human - that’s a little oversimplified, but close enough. When I think of that emotion, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout comes to mind.
One of these weeks, I’m going to go full-on pledge drive to try to induce more people to subscribe, but for now, I’ll give my usual plea that if you enjoy what you read here and have the resources to do so, please consider a paying subscription so I can continue to make the newsletter available to everyone.
I’m curious, who out there is a fellow book quitter? What percentage of books do you start and not finish? What’s the latest you’ve ever quit a book. (For me, it was 17 pages from the end, if you can believe that.) For you non-quitters, what is it that compels you to keep reading to the very (sometimes bitter) end?
I had a minor Knausgaard fling, where the only thing I was reading was Knausgaard for a while, but after finishing the 3rd volume of My Struggle, I’d had enough, pushed back from the Knausgaard table, and have never returned.
I used to finish every book I started. Then 30 years ago I went to a presentation by Nancy Pearl and she said that you should subtract your age from 100 and that is how many pages you had to read before you could put a book down without guilt. If you were under 50, you could just quit after 50 pages. So, this week I put a book down after 28 pages.
Funny. My fiance and I were talking about this last night. She is a dedicated book reader who just trudged through a book that was badly written with a poor story. She knew it early on, but finished nonetheless on principle. I'll have to share the food analogy. Time is precious! There are more books to read! Don't finish just because. At least, that's my take.