Friday, March 21, 2008

How Do You Find What You Read?

A commenter on the previous post implied that I don't read widely enough, and this is probably true, though it isn't for lack of trying. It did get me thinking about the books I've read in my life and why I read them and how I came across them. I didn't, in fact, graduate from MFA school with a list of accepted authors. The pressure there was to catch up on all the classics we missed out on as undergraduates. That's when I read the Russians and Moby Dick and Thomas Mann and Henry James.

I almost never read book reviews. Wow, that's a confession. I scan the NYBR and the NYer reviews for titles and names I might recognize (and it's part of my bookstore job), but you know what? I don't care what some hired gun has to say about a book. Is this heresy? Do other people depend on reviews? I do love a good trashing though (Tom Bissel's recent flaying of Scott Spencer's book was a delight, though probably not to poor Scott Spencer.)

I take word of mouth (and that includes blogs) very seriously. No one's being paid to flog books on a blog (at least not the ones I read) and I've found it much easier to find bloggers whose tastes I respect -- after only just a year of reading litblogs -- than I did in a lifetime of exposure to mainstream reviewers. Money corrupts! Anyway, since I've been here, I feel like I've uncovered an endlessly deep mine of great book recs.

My mom told me to read Nabokov.

My friend Catherine told me to read Alice Munro.

Serendipity is another way I've found things to read. Since I work at a bookstore I see lots of new books all the time, but so many that I've developed kind of a hardened attitude toward them. Most of them aren't really worth the $27.50, so a book has to grab my attention before I'll open it. I found Lydia Davis on the sale shelf ($2.00!!!). I liked the title of Lynn Tillman's American Genius, a Novel. Other books I've just found at the Salvation Army or garage sales and I thought I should rescue them. Library wandering used to be a real treasure trove, but I don't have hours to spend roaming the stacks like I used to.

There are a few contemporary writers I found out about in college and have read because of classes I took. These include Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson, Margaret Atwood, Tim O'Brien, and... hm. That's about it, actually.

How do you find books?

17 comments:

Chicklit said...

Good question. I've found a lot of my favorites simply by browsing. I used to make late night, sleep deprived runs to the bookstore across the street from my apartment and grab a book that looked interesting. It's a hit or miss strategy, but it keeps me reading. I also beg for book recommendations from my friends. I have very well read friends and will end up with anything from a pulpy mystery to an obscure chapbook.

Jeff said...

Litblogs...that's been the source of much of my reading lists for years now, and includes the discovery of your husband, among many others, that I'm not sure I would have found otherwise.

5 Red Pandas said...

I think I find books through a variety of ways, namely the ones you mentioned. I read blogs, I browse bookstores and I sometimes browse the library. Among my friends I am usually the one recommending books but I think that goes with being a former publishing lackey/English teacher/future librarian. I've been surrounded by books for most of my life!

For one of my library school classes I am going to do some research about the use of wen 2.0 programs like LibraryThing in libraries. I think that browsing at the library would be much easier if libraries started allowing users to tag books in the collection on the library OPAC (the electronic catalog). That way it would be easier to browse the collection and find other books you might like based on your interests. I think it's something that libraries will eventually do, but it will take some time. Some public libraries are already experimenting with it. I also think that doing that may increase circulation because right now the keyword search isn't quite good enough for things like fiction (plus things are cataloged by librarians who don't necessarily think like library patrons).

P.S.- Just wanted to chime in on the "this blog is NOT BORING" tip. My husband and I actually talk about what's posted on this blog during dinner so thanks and keep doing what you're doing.

Gloria, Writer Reading said...

I find that authors lead me to other books. I read a lot of author interviews, more than reviews, and they will always describe at some point their greatest influences. If it's a writer I admire, I search and sieze their book inspirations. This has worked extremely well for a wide range of reading. Another way is reading short story collections and find writers I like in the collections I then go after. Finally, I browse and impulse buy or pick off the library shelf. Both pleasant surprises and duds.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes it's the texture of a book cover. I like those smooth velvety ones the best.

jrlennon said...

Mmmmm....velvet....

Thanks for the compliments, all, and thanks Jeff for discovering me.

I get good recommendations from other writers, too. Sometimes, if somebody I like has, say, written a new introduction to a reissued book I've never heard of, I'll pick it up. The main writer I get my recommendations from, however, is Rhian. She is pretty on top of things at the old bookstore.

bookfraud said...

excellent question. i lean on wife (also a writer); spend far too much of my free time browsing; talk to other writers; i even asked on my blog for people to vote for which book i'd read next.

people assume that if you're a writer, you've read everything. my brother, a braniac and ex-grad student, once remarked to wife when she told him she was embarking on a dostoyevsky novel, "oh, so you're reading 'crime and punishment' again?"

also, it is odd how much gut instinct plays a role. if there's a "classic" staring at me at a bookstore, i'll have one of two reactions: i'll feel like i "should" read it though i don't want to, or wonder how i've gone all these years without reading the book/author. that's why i've never read "the mill on the floss" but eagerly picked up "jane eyre." there's no making any sense of it.

jrlennon said...

This is why it's great having a classics-only book group. I'm forced to read "great literature" once a month, and in ten years have become fairly well read as a result. Without the group, I would probably have stuck to mind candy most of the time.

Stephen said...

I've discovered a lot of writers via the internet: Blogs, book sites and following links on sites such as Wikipedia. A lot of the time they're writers I've heard of before but only been compelled to read them due to enthusiastic reviews.
I read a few newspapers and there are some reviewers whose taste I trust.

Matthew said...

Blogs, yeah. I've gotten some good leads from the Tournament of Books, which others love to hate. Mostly other people's sites, though. When things are smoother, it's what I like to aim for with my site, as well - talking about books and in particular the ones that really do it for me. I've discovered so many books I never would have heard of otherwise, just people talking about them.

Aos said...

Oddly enough when I used to work at a bookstore, we rarely read each others' suggestions, possibly to cover more territory,and possibly to feel more sense of discovery.

Now I get most of my ideas of further reading from reviews at the Guardian, Observor, Globe and Mail, NYT, as well as a couple of mystery blogs. Love reading European mysteries but find it frustrating because many tantalizing reviews lead to no rights in this continent .

Laura @ Hungry and Frozen said...

I read what my uni lecturers tell me to. I am lucky that this has led me to some fascinating books- In Cold Blood, Bonfire of The Vanities, The Crying Of Lot 49 - that I probably wouldn't have actively found myself. I am lucky to have a wonderful library nearby; when I am inbetween semesters I like to browse, but I always end up picking books I will only half-read. :) I did, however, find and enjoy Poppy Z Brite, so it's worth some persistence.

vicki said...

from the sound of it, youre sticking too close to the same style and type of writing. try reading some writers whose work you could never get into, maybe that you even hate. if they have a good name (so you know not wasting time.) if you force your way through, you might discover that you enjoy the writing, even if it's radically different from what you usually know. i find that shaking up my literary diet on purpose at least once a year broadens my horizons like nothing else. it's hard, first fifty pages usually tough, but then i feel a great transformation and i'm always enriched by it

bhadd said...

I found a book called "The Weight of Numbers" from reading a review. I would never have got this book if not for it.

Writer, Rejected said...

Oddly, I recently joined Good Reads, which is an online resource. You post the books you've read (they have the cover art as icons) and link to friends. It's actually been illuminating to see what my firends are reading and read their reviews of books. It's lead me to a lot of wonderful new choices. I highly recommend giving it a go.

amy said...

Ha! I hated the title of Tillman's American Genius -- but I LOVED the book. Like, LOVED IT loved it.

Not really an answer to your question, but just wanted to share.

rmellis said...

Hey, I'm on good reads. I think under my own name. Anybody, please come be my friend!