Saturday, June 16, 2012

Books and More Books

 I have a problem. I’ve had this problem for years, and it only gets worse as I get older. My problem is deciding what book to read next. This indecisiveness is more distressing now than it was when I was younger. You see, I always thought I would “catch up.” That one day I would have read all those “classics” of American Literature and World Literature that I’d been hearing about since grammar school. That I would be "well-read." I did read many of those books in high school and college. But I read some of them too early to fully understand the plots or the characters. I’m convinced that if I went back to read those books now I would take so much more from the reading than the first time. So I’m torn between re-reading some classics, or going on to the ones that I’ve never opened.

 And then there are the New York Times best-sellers that everyone talks about. I feel socially inept when I find myself in the midst of one of those discussions at a party and can only nod and try to recall what I read in the reviews. But those best-selling books that everyone is talking about seem to be coming out more quickly than they used to. Before I can get to the first book by a hot new author, the sequel is out. And, there is the larger question of why I should read a book that everyone is talking about – Shades of Gray, for example – when it doesn’t sound like a book that I would find interesting. On the other hand, I could be wrong. And maybe I’m getting stuck in my reading rut and reading best-sellers would expand my horizons and keep me up to date on popular culture references.   

Then there is that third category of books – mysteries. I know I should be reading the latest Dennis Lehane or Lee Child or Margaret Maron or Nancy Pickard. Thing is, there are so many great writers – including my colleagues on this website – who I ought to keep up with. And I get their books at conferences and buy them at bookstores. And I do that year after year. And the books pile up and spill out of my bookshelves. And I’m so far behind in multiple series that I will never catch up. And then I read a book by a writer that I haven't read before – for example, Peter Robinson’s In a Dry Season – because I’ve been asked to lead a book discussion. And suddenly, I have another mystery writer whose books I’ll be adding to my pile.

The only reading I’m absolutely confident about is the reading I do at work, for my academic research. I know that I need to read a 350+ page dissertation that I got from Interlibrary Loan. I sit that at my desk and read and take notes, and move on to the next “scholarly work.” I have a system. I know why I’m reading. I’m enjoying myself and it’s all good. Lots to read, but I know where I headed. 

But when I’m reading at home, doubt sets in. I just finished re-reading Georgette Heyer’s The Unfinished Clue. I hadn’t read it in years, and I had a wonderful time over the week or so it took me to finish, reading each night in bed until the book fell out of my hand and hit the floor. It felt like pure indulgence because I could have been reading one of the new and never-before-read books on my nightstand.

I find that more and more – when life is too much with me – I am reading for comfort. That often means going back to fondly remembered books that I read years ago. The costs of doing that is that I might very well be missing out on discovering books that I haven't read yet and would like as much or perhaps even more. 

And that's it. The most frustrating thing about my dilemma -- all the books that I don’t have – will never have -- the time to read. As a child, I always hoped that I would find the one book that would explain how the world works. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland came closer to doing that than any other book I've since read.

Here’s a quote about reading from Nora Ephron:

            “Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter. . .”

Okay. But my problem is this advice from Henry David Thoreau:

            “Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.”

So here’s my new system. I thought of it this evening when I was faced with the nightly decision about what to read. Henceforth, I am going to try a three-prong approach. Like most readers, I always have more than one book going, and here’s my new system:

  1. Read my way through the Edgar, Agatha, and other award-winning mysteries for each year. Start with the oldest and work my way forward. This is going to take a bit of time. But since I’m writing a book about clothing and crime, I can kill the proverbial two birds with this methodical approach. Not only will I read good mysteries and get a sense of how the genre has evolved, I'll also be able to do some research (i.e., the use of clothing in award-winning mysteries).
  2. I’ll “sample” the New York Times best-sellers. I can do a lot of this online with the excerpts provided on the author’s or publisher’s website. I’ll read the first chapter and if it isn’t working for me, then I will have at least given the book a chance. If I like my sample chape, I'll read more of the book. 
  3. I’ll print out those lists provided for college students of “classics” of American and World Literature. Check off the ones I’ve read. And then apply the same sampling approach as for the best-sellers. Classic or not, if it doesn’t grab me by the end of the first chapter, then I’m probably still not ready to read it.
And, finally, when I feel the need and the spirit moves me, I’ll indulge myself by curling up with a favorite author whose book doesn’t fit into my three-prong approach. No guilt or apology needed. Reading is food for the brain. And although some books make us smarter, some books just make us feel as if the world isn’t turning too fast. Some books just help us to believe in magic and love and adventure. And that’s important too.


aaron said...


I couldn't agree more with your post! There are times when I'm getting to the end of current books being read (I always have more than one!!), and already there are 10 other books starting to vie for my reading attention. Which one to choose?? I know from experience that the work being read for research comes first (I've had my share of inter-library loans!!), but I also know that I need books for pleasure and escape. I could quite possibly build a whole new apartment with my TBR "pile"!! And as soon as I try to consciously implement a system, the only books that appeal fall well outside that system. I figure that as long as I keep reading, I'm doing something right, no matter the book. Thanks so much for your great and, for readers of all stripes, true post!

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Thanks, Aaron, I'm glad to hear from someone else who suffers from the same dilemma.

Of course, a part of the new strategy would be to go through my bookshelves and weed out the books I will probably never read and donate them. Problem is -- and I know you know this one -- there is always the possibility that one day I might have the time and be in the mood to read even an unlikely book that I've acquired.

aaron said...


Absolutely I know what you're describing! I am a bit of a paranoiac with my books...they have a lifespan of 5 years (at best) in the marketplace after all! I am afraid to give away books that I haven't read just based on the fact that they may not be available again, at least in the near future. Of course there are the canonical chestnuts that are always in print in one edition or another, but I love seeking out offbeat works by offbeat authors. And, I have certainly been able to (eventually) read books and gain valuable insight significantly later than when I purchased them to begin with, so you truly do have to come to books at the right time in your life to get the maximum enjoyment and benefit. Plus, I truly believe that the more that you read, the more that you realize that you haven't, and, honestly, may not have time to read. But that inspires me to find more time and expend more energy reading so that I can get to all of those books. I find it sad when people consciously minimize their reading choices after a certain age, such as cutting out fiction or simply focusing on rereading their personal Canon. I'm only 30 but I have no intention of cutting back or minimizing...there's just too much available to me and I want to enjoy as much as I possibly can! If nothing else, I'll have an excellent library!

Rick Blechta said...

I really enjoyed this piece, Frankie. Thanks so much!