Changing My Reading Habits (Part 1)

BookPile2This post follows a few days of intense thinking after reading this very enlightening post by Simon Savidge, a book reviewer I hugely respect. I also realised that this coming weekend I will probably reach my reading target of 150 books for the year – with three months still to go! No, that did not fill me with pride, but with horror, as I expected it to be a stretch goal. It’s all very well to read fast – but does that mean I am perhaps reading too fast, or opting for ‘easy’ reads, not challenging myself, not really spending time with the kind of books I want to be reading? So here are some of my thoughts about how I got into the predicament I am now with my reading, reviewing and writing.

I was never the world’s most disciplined and systematic reader. I would meander through bookshops, libraries, friends’ bookshelves, life in general, picking up whatever I fancied, experimenting, rebelling against the imposed and eager to partake of the forbidden. Many books were censored by the government of the time, so unsurprisingly that made them all the more desirable to the citizens of my country, so we made do with photocopied versions or ancient paperbacks that had been smuggled in and fallen apart in the process. My parents had a good selection of books across all genres and in several languages, all accessible to me from an early age (there was no attempt to guide or force my reading, other than a vague ‘What’s that you’re reading now? Oh, I seem to remember that’s excellent…’). I was always allowed to buy more books, no matter how hard up we were financially (and books were cheap back then), but I always borrowed far more than I bought. From my parents I learnt, above all, a huge respect for books, especially those of good quality, which did not peddle the ‘party line’ in order to get published.

P1020734So my reading habits back in my childhood and teens could be described as ‘omnivorous’ and relying very heavily on ‘happenstance’. I would fall in love with a new author and become mildly obsessed with him/her, reading everything by and about them that I could lay my hands on. Same with historical figures, certain topics or schools of thought. I spent a winter with the Dadaists, a summer with Sylvia Plath (probably just as well, as Sylvia Plath in winter may have driven me to the depths of despair). The main thing is: I read for pleasure, without any care about impressing others or worrying about whether I was learning anything from other writers.

Then I studied Japanese and English at university, so my reading became much more ‘specialist’. Not only did I have a set syllabus (oh, Chomsky’s transformational grammar and Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours Lost! Bane of my life!), but I also discovered competitive reading. All of my classmates were budding writers, literary critics, great readers and often book snobs. So I had to keep up with the herd. I had to be comfortable discussing Saussure, Lacan, Foucault and Barthes, as no essay could be written without at least a passing reference to them and other structuralists. I had to hide away my Agatha Christie and other ‘lighter’ fiction in favour of the classics and ‘trendy’ books of the time. (In our isolated socialist society, we were probably a bit behind the times, but I seem to remember collective obsessions with John Fowles, Bernard Malamud and Mircea Cărtărescu).

Then came the Fall of the Wall and suddenly the whole world was our oyster. So much richness, so much choice! I went a little mad and joined all the foreign libraries and borrowed ten books at a time, went abroad and returned with suitcases full of books (the customs officer could not believe that I had returned from Japan with books instead of electronic gadgets). I recently found a diary of those years and this is a typical example of what I might read in a week:

Beryl Bainbridge: Watson’s Apology; Kafka’s Letters to Milena; Malcolm Lowry: Under the Volcano; Patrick White: The Burnt Ones; Rosamond Lehmann: Dusty Answer; Natsume Soseki: I Am a Cat; R. Wiggershaus: Die Frankfurter Schule (nope, I don’t remember much about that last one).

And I kept up this eclectic approach when I went abroad, from country to country, reading in the original language where I could,  becoming more and more enamoured with crime fiction and noir, relying heavily on inter-library loans when I found a new writer I could be passionate about. Joy, fun and lack of snobbishness were once again on the agenda. But reading was once more a solitary activity – few of my friends enjoyed the same books I did, and I tried a couple of book clubs without much success. I was too wary of rejoining a herd, listening to received opinions, reading the same books that everyone else was reading. How did Murakami put it so nicely in his book ‘Norwegian Wood’?

If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.

I decided I was an eccentric, a rebel, a crime fiction addict with a hard literary core.

Fast forward to 2012 when I started writing seriously once more. Blogging was initially a way to hold myself accountable for writing regularly, rediscovering poetry, experimenting and chronicling my favourite reading. Through this blog and Twitter I connected with some wonderful writers, publishers, reviewers and – after answering a quiz about crime fiction – I became part of the Crime Fiction Lover team. This led to other requests for reviews and I began reading more and more to keep up with demand. It was wonderful to share my bookish delights with others once more… and even more wonderful to receive review copies from publishers for free.

P1020733Yes, I admit I was greedy. Not very discriminating. I just couldn’t say No to a book – even if it wasn’t in my preferred genre, even if I wasn’t the perfect reviewer for that book (not being the target audience). Call it years of deprivation, of having to make do with nearly illegible pirate copies, or having to survive on books that were considered ‘compatible with socialist mores’… Call it the hunger for English language books when you are living in a rural corner of France, where there are next to no bookshops, although thankfully a fair few libraries (the English language section, however, is quite limited)… Call it making friends with fellow authors and wanting to support them by buying and reading their books… Call it reading too many book blogs that make a compelling case for just one more book…  Or just call it plain old avarice.

Anyway, so I have ended up with far, far too many books. Both on my groaning bookshelves and on my Tablet (which my husband bought me in the mistaken belief that it would eliminate our book flow problem). But the worst thing is… that I now have to read with a purpose – usually for reviewing, or for engaging in a dialogue with other bookish people around the world. And, while there is nothing nicer than sharing our love for books, or shouting from the rooftops when we’ve found a book that we believe everyone else MUST read AT ONCE, it has also put pressure on me to read certain books at specific times, just before or after their release dates. I’ve also had to plough through books which have not been quite to my taste, or perhaps I was not in the mood for them just then – but there was no time to set them aside and try again later.

It's all about the meeting of minds.
It’s all about the meeting of minds.

Don’t get me wrong. I am very grateful indeed to all the publishers and PR folk who keep me in the loop with their latest releases. Of course I get a buzz from discovering a new author to love – perhaps ahead of the rest of world. But it has got slightly out of hand. Instead of finding sustenance and sheer joy in books, I sometimes read them with the dagger of duty in my heart. I feel like I am back at university, with a required reading list whether I am in the mood for it or not and seeking to impress my peers. So how can I recover my sense of wonder and delight, how can I continue to explore while still allowing time to think and reread? Am I still a rebel, an eccentric, or am I just a faceless member of the herd?

But this post is already long and rambling enough as it is, so I won’t try your patience any further today. I will continue tomorrow with my thoughts on how to ‘turn over a new page’. [Oh, yes, I’ve got bookish puns aplenty!] Thanks again to Simon for helping me crystallise my own thinking on this.

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35 thoughts on “Changing My Reading Habits (Part 1)”

  1. An excellent post! I know the feeling exactly: I had the same problem when I was reviewing fantasy/sf regularly, and even more so some years earlier when I was reading as judge for one of the f/sf awards, where the deadline was far more absolute. In both instances, it was months if not years after my duties were over before I picked up another f/sf book — what had started out as pleasure had become an onerous duty.

    1. I don’t think I’ll ever get fed up of crime fiction books – but I do need a break and a variety, certainly. Otherwise they all start to ‘blend/blur’ after a while…

  2. MarinaSofia – What a thoughtful and excellent post! It is such a difficult thing at times to balance reading for pleasure – just because – and reading things one’s expected to read, for whatever reason. A big part of the wonder of reading is choosing authors and books that capture the fancy. And that doesn’t always happen if one feels obliged to read something. On the other hand, sometimes that obligation leads one to….a beloved new author or book. So that balance is both difficult and important. I’m really looking forward to your next post on this.

    1. Wise words indeed – sometimes these ‘obligations’ we take upon ourselves allow us to discover things we would not normally have. Reading Challenges are particularly good for that. And sometimes I have given books a second chance because I had to read them closely for review – and discovered I did like them after all.

  3. This is s really interesting post. You read far quicker than I do but the same problem applies at times. I find I ‘should’ be reading a certain book when I want to be choosing a book. I decided about a year ago that I would try to widen my reading horizons and though I have ventured out of crime fiction I don’t feel I have done enough as I just picked a second love with YA. So last week I walked up to the SciFi section in the bookshop and bought myself a book. Admittedly it’s not hardcore. It’s Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, but it made me feel as though I was doing what I’d set out to do again. I look forward to reading your next post.

    1. Yes, that is exactly what I mean, Rebecca! I have such a wonderful feeling of freedom when I have no books waiting to be reviewed and can choose something I just like the look of for my next read.

  4. This is an excellent article, Marina. I can see exactly what you mean, and I’m starting to encounter some of these competing dynamics myself. It can be difficult to get into the right frame of mind for a particular book if one feels obligated to read it for whatever reason. I can think of a few books I failed to engage with on the first or second attempt. Either it wasn’t the right time for me to read that book or I simply wasn’t in the appropriate mood for a certain tone or style when I picked it up. It can be so difficult to balance these things if you’re reading to a schedule of some sort. I’m really looking forward to reading part two of your post on this topic.

    1. Yes, and you don’t have that luxury to ‘try again’ when you have a deadline, so my review might end up a bit more negative than the book warrants (or else I just read more superficially and it ends up more positive, although that is far more seldom).

  5. Very interesting post. I usually only feel pressure to read more, since I have too many books. Most of which I have purchased myself, but usually used copies. I don’t read a lot of really new books.

  6. I’m also looking forward to part two, Marina. I think that bloggers are extraordinarily conscientious about their reviewing. From my past experience as a book reviews editor I know that publishers take something of a scattershot approach to sending out review copies. They understand that not all of them will be reviewed, and it would be unrealistic for them to expect that. My policy is that if I would recommend a book to a friend I will review it but if it doesn’t interest me I’ll find some other grateful recipient. I’m very popular at my local charity shop!

  7. A really interesting post. I hadn’t considered the socialist effect on reading and conclude you have more reason to be a book hoarder than most of us. The other points covered do apply to lots of us though in that it is easy to hold yourself to dates and deadlines once you receive books for review and this leaves less time for ‘free choice’

  8. This really hit the spot with me because I had been thinking almost exactly the same thoughts earlier this afternoon. I have a pile of books I ought to read for reviewing purposes and a pile I want to read and this is now too often the case. I shall be really interested to read Part II

    1. I think quite a few of us are feeling this tension between ‘would’ and ‘should’. Not sure if I’ve got a good solution, but I need to find something that works for me…

  9. I was engrossed in the account of your intimidating past with foreign tongues and books. Compared to you, I am quite the impersonator! I did call off my brief friendship with the PR folks of the publishers: I was reading books but ‘with the dagger of duty in my heart.’

  10. It’s great getting access to so many books for review, but yes, it can so easily become a chore and not a pleasure. I’m trying really hard to cut back on the number of books I accept and to restrict them to books I would want to buy, but it’s still too easy to end up with massive piles. For me the real problem seems to be factual – being offered loads of history books is great since I love reading them and they’re very expensive, but they’re also so time-consuming, and I always seem to be rushing to fill the ever-hungry blog. I also very much miss re-reading favourites but just never seem to have time to fit them in now. Time to take a step back… I look forward to hearing how you intend to go forward…

    1. Yes, you echo so much of my own thinking. It does feel like a hungry monster (of our own making), which has become insatiable, so we’re struggling to keep it half-way fed… and never quite succeeding…

  11. I really enjoyed reading this post. It was fascinating. I’ve started receiving a few books from publishers which I review but always prefer and find it easier to review when there is no pressure. Very much looking forward to reading part two.

    1. There is the added problem that if you aren’t reading the new releases when everyone else is reading them, you feel that you’ve missed the boat. By the time you’re reviewing, everyone else has moved on to the next thing and you are alone in the wilderness.

  12. A fascinating and enjoyable post, Marina. Like previous commentators, I too understand where you’re coming from and can’t wait your next post. I especially like the Jordan quotation from umashanker, ‘with the dagger of duty in my heart’, so appropriate. My own dagger was through my first degree and it took me an age to start reading books for pleasure again. I’m told that some readers discover a sort of compartmentalizations process and read first for pleasure and then as a critic—great if you can do it.

    I’ve long been in awe of your reading and critique abilities—I’ve wondered how you’ve managed it and said so frequently—your reviews are ‘a good read’ in themselves and my reading list has grown as a consequence.

    I avidly await your next installment, wish you well in your contemplations, and am off to read the Simon Savidge post, which I’ve left until after writing this in order to give you my thoughts rather than being influenced ‘by what everyone else is thinking’.

    Good luck x

    1. Thank you so much, Polly, for your kind words. I did feel my English degree was at times detrimental to the pleasure of reading, although now, many years later, I have to admit it probably did equip me with a certain ability to read beneath the surface and gave me a language to discuss my reactions to reading. Hopefully, it did not make me ‘snobby’ about books!

      1. You’ve never come across to me as anything but balanced in your views, Marina, certainly not ‘snobby’. It’s a strange concept, snobbery. Seems to me it’s used as a particularly derogative term towards people who have studied—poor old academia gets so much bad press from those who for whatever reason didn’t pursue qualifications.
        I’m more interested in what people do as a result of study. And you’ve put yours to excellent use.

  13. Great post, Marina. I just returned from hols on which – as is my new ‘rule’ – I only took non-crime books. Reading outside my own genre is a gust of fresh air and a necessary corrective, I think, to becoming too formulaic as a writer. Thank you.

    1. It’s all about the balance. I could never live without a few crime books per month, but I always need to read other things as well, otherwise it all starts to blur a little… no matter how good they are.

  14. I have been wary of the entrapment inherent in being offered new releases for a while, mostly because I really value my freedom to choose the next book and to be influenced by the thought processes provoked by the one I have just read. I love it when one book inspires me to read another and creates a kind of literary journey and the review becomes more of an essay because of the connections between books and/or authors. I love seeing what’s coming out and reading all the reviews, but detest any kind of obligation that limits my freedom and for that reason I rarely enter challenges, though I aim to read one book a week and have pretty much kept to that in the past, although this year life has intervened and required that I give more attention to other things.

    I don’t think you should be too hard on yourself, it’s an entirely natural desire to respond as we all do, to the invitation to read a new release, to want to do a good job of reviewing it and then eventually to sit back and think about what we want versus where we have arrived at.

    I am reminded of my own number 1 rule of reviewing: Be Discerning in Choosing a Book to Read , i.e. thinking very hard about whether to read a book and whether it is one that we think we will really enjoy – those are often the books that are still on our shelves , that carry no obligations, we’ve been attracted to them for a long time and they’ve been gathering dust while we are seduced by the loud, shiny things.

    Bonne Continuation Marina!

    1. Thank you, Claire, you are very right that it’s ‘the journey of exploration’ from one book to the next, seeing patterns or differences, new perspectives – that’s what I enjoy about reading, rather than being up to date with all the latest releases (although admittedly there is a certain ‘glamour’ to that).

  15. This reminds me so much of the blog turnaround I had after about 18 months! I’d said to everything publishers offered, as it was so exciting to be offered, and I realised my blog was in no reflecting my taste in books. So I made the decision to blog how I wanted to blog (which should have been the ethos from the outset, of course!) and have been much happier since.

    1. Exactly: the blog should be reflecting my taste in books – or at least my attempts to explore new ground, rather than just a hunt for all of the latest buzzwords and releases!

  16. Here are many, many comments by bloggers with their impressions about reading and blogging that made me think: your comment ‘dagger of duty’ Claire’s comment ‘seduced by shiny loud things” , FictionFan’s “feeding the ever hungry blog” and Simon’s “blog how I want to blog”. All in all I think your blogpost reflects how many of the bloggers at times become overwhelmed with deadlines, challenges, pressure to read the ‘shortlists’. My solution is: I read and say to myself: “I’m not blogging this book”. Once I’ve done that it gives me the feeling of choice and that makes all the difference. Always enjoy your reviews…and poems. How are the tango lessons going?

    1. I do have some reviewing obligations too for Crime Fiction Lover – which are of my own making and which I usually enjoy, so I should stop moaning. I don’t feel any pressure to read shortlists or the latest releases, but my Netgalley consumption and the books I get sent (which I do want to read, not the unwanted ones) do provoke guilt.
      Ah, tango, I won’t have much time for it this year, unfortunately! Maybe some good poetry will come out of NOT doing it?

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