Changing My Reading Habits (Part 2)

Walk2This continues yesterday’s ruminations about reading: duty versus pleasure, and where blogging/reviewing fits into all of this. How can I hack/cut my own path through the jungle of publishing PR, excited recommendations and friendly requests? How can I bring quality and fun back into reading, rather than making it a race about quantity and deadlines?

I’ve got a list of New School Year Resolutions, but I’ll start with the most obvious remark. I am NOT a professional reviewer. I do not get paid to read, edit, market, hold a writer’s hand or write reviews – not even for the Crime Fiction Lover website. It’s all a labour of love. I may be a fast reader, but I am a slow reviewer. I want my review to be well-balanced, fair, taking into account that different people might find different aspects of the book appealing. I like to think about larger patterns or themes emerging from my reading. I like to compare writers or different cultures. But all of this takes time – at least a couple of hours per review (pure writing time, without counting the reading and researching).

It’s time I cannot afford to spend anymore on blogging. Much as I love reviewing books, participating in challenges, interacting with you all, reading your thoughts and blogs, responding to comments and commenting on your posts, I just cannot sustain this pace whilst also focusing on my family and my day-job. My writing, above all, has suffered in the process. Which is ironic, because the reason I started blogging in the first place was so I could write something everyday, improve my writing skills, track my progress. Call me a wimp, a wuss, a ‘beer glass of reduced volumic capacity’ (good old Romanian saying), but I have days when I am unable to write anything else after I’ve finished a book review. And, since my mission in life is to write poetry and crime fiction (rather than becoming the most revered or feared book reviewer or the blogger with the most followers and freshly pressed articles), it is clear that things need to change.

Walk1Resolutions:

1) Thou shalt not buy, beg or borrow any more books

… until I’ve finished everything I already own. Or give away the books that do not appeal to me. That means: tie up (or otherwise disable) my trigger-happy finger which keeps clicking the ‘buy’ button on online bookshops (and it’s not just Amazon that makes it very easy to order with one click), or the ‘request/send’ button on sites such as Netgalley.

I am very grateful to publishers who send me free books – even more grateful to those who ask me first which ones appeal to me rather than just randomly selecting some of their latest releases. But I also have to be able to say ‘No’, to be clearer about my reading preferences, and not feel obliged to review everything I’ve been sent (when it’s not been requested by me). I also need to give away those ‘scattergun’ books much, much sooner, and stop hoarding them on the ‘off-chance’ that someday I may change my mind. (It can happen, but far too infrequently and I don’t have the space.)

Walk32) Thou can live without all the books you have ever liked or been interested in

I’ve had to move abroad quite a few times and many of my favourite books got left behind in the process. I still have an attic full of books in the UK – and yes, sometimes I would like to re-read a passage which I am sure I have somewhere up there, but on the whole I can live without them or look them up elsewhere. I have to be more selective about keeping only non-negotiable favourites whom I consult all the time, or rare/unusual/hard to find editions. Even if they were expensive.

And I can also learn to wait before reading the ‘latest buzzes’ – which means I am more likely to find them at the library and need not feel guilty about abandoning them half-way through if they do not meet my expectations.

3) Thou shalt have fun with your reading

… and bring serendipity back into the game. Pick up a random title, author, genre on the bookshelf, something just a little beyond your usual line of sight. I want to read lesser known authors, re-read some of my old favourites from school and university, discover little quiet gems instead of the big brash brass-bands of new releases. Not so much for the sake of standing out from the crowd, but because you get to hear all of that hype anyway, in all kinds of media. Do you really need my take on ‘Gone Girl’ when you can read hundreds of reviews elsewhere? There are so many other good books out there deserving a mention, perhaps ones which have been published a while ago but got very little exposure, or authors who have fallen out of favour.

Walk44) Thou shalt be brave and honest

I won’t like all books that I’ve been sent, that I’ve borrowed or bought. A perfectly decent cover, blurb and opening paragraph may suddenly turn into the nightmare read from hell halfway through the book. I know some reviewers who make it a policy to not review a book unless they loved it and can recommend it to others. I can understand this all too well: so much time and effort (blood, sweat, caffeine and tears) has gone into writing and publishing a book that anyone with a writer’s heart will feel uncomfortable criticising it. But if we were all to follow this rule, there would be no warning signs at all on books and we’d soon get very disappointed as a reader, feeling we’d been conned into buying books we simply cannot care about.

This is especially hard when you are reviewing books by people you consider friends (whether you’ve met them in person or only online). I have a huge sense of loyalty to anyone who’s ever been nice to me. When it’s a debut that I did not get on with, I’ve been known to email the author and say: ‘Would you rather I didn’t review it at all, because I can only give it 1-2 stars?’ Because I do believe that debut authors deserve some encouragement, a second chance. I’ve also been known to revert to what the French call the ‘wooden language’ of diplomacy. It’s useful to know perhaps that ‘fast-paced page-turner’ means ‘not much substance’, while ‘an assortment of quirky characters’ usually means ‘far too long cast list of flat stereotypes’.

From now on, I will be honest. Still fair and balanced, still bearing in mind that we are all different and like a huge variety of things, but no more beating around the bush if a book did not appeal to me. Although I may let any author friend know in private rather than posting a scathing review without informing them. And there will be no sarcasm for the sake of showing off my superior critical abilities – when I haven’t even finished writing my first novel!

Walk55) Thou shalt be guided by mood, the colour of the sky and the call of the wild

… but it will not be all aimless wandering. When you reach a certain age, it’s all too easy to turn into a curmudgeon and say ‘I know what I want and like, so that’s what I’ll read’. I want to continue to broaden my reading tastes, in a gentle rather than a forced way. I want to explore new countries, new authors.

So here are some concrete changes you will notice on my blog:

  • I won’t review everything I read, just the books which stand out for me, or which fit into a theme, and probably not more frequently than 1-2 review per week. And that includes the 1-2 books a month which I will be reviewing for other sites.
  • I won’t boast anymore about my latest bookhauls. Although I love hearing what other people are getting and reading, in far too many cases it turns out to be a sort of free book promotion for publishers and authors. I’d rather tweet about that, rather than dedicate a blog post to it.
  • I won’t be jumping on the bandwagon anymore with the latest releases. You may find I review things a couple of years later, after the hoopla has died down. Or talk about authors you’ve only vaguely heard of. Or introduce you to authors I’d like to see translated into English. But rules are made to be broken, so I can’t promise that I won’t fall for a bit of hype from time to time!
  • Post less frequently but more substantially (although I may still succumb to the temptation of pictures of libraries, bookshelves, writers’ studies and interior design). Write more poetry, prose and other posts about writing in general. And sorry, but I cannot stick to a set weekly routine of posts… It will be haphazard as ever, following the call of the wild…

 

Thank you all for your kind tweets and comments on Part 1 of this post yesterday, and for your patience for my long, self-indulgent rant today. It seems that this conundrum resonates with many of you, so please share your own strategies and coping mechanisms.

 

 

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41 thoughts on “Changing My Reading Habits (Part 2)”

  1. I love your plan. At first I managed to blog and to write and to read (it was before I had kids, eh), then I managed to read and to blog, and now I do read and I more rarely post, but the rest has fallen on the wayside. Perhaps it’s just the season (baby and all), but I’d love to refocus like you do.

    1. I hear your pain, my dear, but hang on in there. It will get better with the baby. At least until you hit the transition from primaire to college… which is killing me right now!

  2. Marina Sofia – I think your plan is fantastic. It’s sane, it’s a balanced approach and it sounds workable. So wise of you to really think through this and decide what matters to you and how you can do the things you need to do as well as the things you want to do.

  3. What a terrific post, if more blogger/reviewers would take a similar position it would improve the quality of the blogs.

    I do have one quibble with your comment (in point 1) that you “… not feel obliged to review everything I’ve been sent (when it’s not been requested by me).” It’s the part in parenthesis that bothers me. Too many bloggers feel that if they requested the book they are obligated to review it. If you request a book based on advanced publicity and it turns out to be a real dud, I don’t think you are obliged to finish it and review it. Don’t worry that if you don’t review it they won’t send you more books. You don’t need more books. Your time (and your readers’ time) is too valuable to waste on bad books.

    1. I am still a bit squeamish about that, you are right. But I’m getting better at saying: ‘I did not like that book so I’m not going to review it’. That’s where it helps to be part of a community of contributors like Crime Fiction Lover. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of taste and another reviewer can do it more justice.

  4. Good luck with your resolutions, MarinaSofia. One of the things that most called my name in this post is the idea that the time spent writing even a relatively simple blog review can be such a huge time drain from any other reading, writing or other endeavor one would like to take on that day. That can be quite frustrating, esp. when writing about a book you know in advance isn’t even likely going to draw much in the way of interaction with other readers.

    1. Perhaps other writers are better at compartmentalizing and getting to do both reading/reviewing and their actual creative writing, but I just find there aren’t enough hours in the day, or enough creative fuel left.

    1. Well, I don’t know about the outstanding books – I will still continue to read lots of crime fiction, and it can be an uneven ride at times. As with all other fiction, actually.

  5. Very very interesting couple of posts, Marina Sofia, and obviously resonating with many of us. Your resolutions sound really well-thought-out and sensible. I hope they work for you. At the moment I am involved in a project of reading (or discarding) all the books that have been lying around a while, some of them for years, and I am enjoying the challenge and both the discovery of gems, and the joy of ditching a book I’m really not liking. After years of reading, it’s been good for me to realize that I don’t have to finish a book, and even if I do finish it I don’t have to blog on it….

    1. I’m still trying to cope with this realisation – without feeling too guilty about it. And I used to have a complete overview of my shelves – there was nothing on them that I hadn’t read, so this does feel a bit like my shelves are taking me over.

  6. These all sound like changes for the better, Marina: congratulations on having the self-discipline to draw up the Nu Plann! I think you’re especially right to abandon the weekly book-haul posts (they’re interesting, and I’ve got hold of a book or two as a consequence of them, but I’d much rather read your more detailed thoughts on specific titles), and to resolve to turn your eyes toward more out-of-the-way books, including older ones.

    I’m not reviewing at the moment, but I do like to try to keep a record (and my hand in) by putting notes on Goodreads about each book as I finish it. When I’m up to my eyes in books of my own, this can be a sort of onerous duty. The great freedom came a year or two ago when I suddenly realized I didn’t have to write a full-scale essay about every book: if I was busy I could simply dash off a five-liner. That’s the wonderful freedom of reviewing for oneself (which is what Goodreads really is, and I’m not sure I’d use the word “review”!). A blog offers the same freedom: you don’t have to review anything unless you want to and, if five lines is all you have time/inclination for, that’s fine too. After all, it’s not as if any of your devoted readers are going to start demanding their money back . . .

    1. Ha! A wonderful revelation indeed – and one that I’ve only just come to. I do dash off a couple of lines on Goodreads- more to remind myself of my first impressions should I wish to review it in more depth later than anything else.
      The downside, however, is that there are some books about which I would like to write a full-scale essay, but then I run out of time. By the time I have the time, they are no longer so fresh in my mind, the mood has gone… Ah well, can’t solve all the problems of the world, can we?

  7. A lot of what you say resonates with me too. Especially the big new releases. I was thinking a couple of days ago that this hasn’t been a great year for fiction (for me) and I looked back at my reviews to find that nearly every five-star read had been an older book, read as a result of either my attempt to get to know American literature better, or as a result of someone else’s blog review. Crime’s a bit different – I do like to read new releases of them, especially if I’m following a series. But I’ve really made a strong attempt not to take on any new series till I feel a bit less pressured.

    I guess it all comes back to having the willpower not to take so many things for review – though I’m pretty brutal about sending feedback and refusing a review if I can’t stand to read the whole book. I also have a fairly strict rule about not reviewing the books of people I’ve met, in reality or virtually. This seems really unfair on the authors I chat with in the blogosphere, but I really can’t bring myself to be fearlessly honest when I know someone, so kudos to you for being willing to do that. That’s also the reason I don’t review self-published books very often – there’s no buffer zone of a publisher between me and the author. I don’t mind negatively reviewing well-known authors – I doubt one opinion will affect their sales too much and they’re guaranteed to get plenty of positive reviews too.

    Most interesting and thought provoking posts – thanks! And if it gives you time to write more poetry – then I say yay!

    1. I agree with practically all of what you are saying – and yes, my willpower cannot withstand new crime fiction releases, especially by an author I like, or in a series I enjoy.
      As for authors I know – if I really cannot bear their book (and am reluctant to give them brutal feedback, although I will usually find one good thing at least to say about it: great sense of local atmosphere or great use of punctuation or something of the sort), then I console myself with the idea that at least I’ve boosted their book sales figures by one. Bit harder to give them to charity shops though with the author’s personal dedication… But then, some authors keep on and on asking for your review on Amazon… and you think: ‘You really don’t want my review, no, you really don’t…’

  8. I like your plan. I’d be interested in hearing about books I might be interested in reading that I wouldn’t have otherwise have heard about. (If that makes sense) I’m with you part way, I’m going to continue to try to widen my reading horizons, though I am still going to try and devour a lot of crime for the sake of knowing the market as they say.

    Enjoy your choices and your reading. I look forward to a different blog 🙂

    1. Well, of course, crime is the exception… I can’t resist keeping abreast of that, ahem! But even there I sometimes get a little bored, as publishers jump on the bandwagon of a current trend and look for similar books – the Stieg Larsson wave, the Gone Girl wave, the gritty gangsters etc. There are few imitators (if any) who live up to the original, so I don’t know why they bother, but I still can’t resist searching for that potential gem amongst them.
      I don’t know that you will see a vast immediate difference in my blog, but over time it will become more eccentric…

  9. I think it is important to be honest about the books we review ….as long any criticism is balanced and not a ‘hatchet job’. I read so many gushy reviews on blogs it all gets a bit bland . It is difficult I know but it makes life much more interesting for the reader

    1. Exactly! I got a bit bored of everyone being ‘polite’ and ‘diplomatic’ about certain books, especially by big-name authors. When you have a limited amount of time and a limited budget as a reader, you really want someone to tell you: don’t bother with that first and foremost (it doesn’t mean you might not get around to it at some future point).

  10. Interesting post, and I hope the plan helps you carve out more writing time and avoid uninspiring reads. You’re not alone in your quest to approach your blogging anew: it can feel like a slog at times. I look forward to your posts, however frequent and whatever length they are.

  11. Since I do not write anything but my blog (and some work documentation that is not really too exciting), I enjoy all the writing I do for my blog and wish I could do more. I do love #3: Thou shalt have fun with your reading … and bring serendipity back into the game. I do enjoy nearly all the books I read and I wanted to read almost every book I choose to read, but I do want to be more random in my reading next year, and forget about “shoulds”.

    1. Bless you, I think there’s quite a few of us out there who feel like that – we should start a revolution. Of a velvety sort. And you have in a way, with your Japanese reading and German reading and all those kinds of challenges.

      1. I like that image: a velvety revolution. Just what I like, in terms of bucking a system but in a gentle way.

        Thank you, also, for affirming my Japanese (and German) reading.

  12. I ditched net galley ages ago it was to easy to get books and in all truth I don’t think I ever reviewed a book I got of their , I get sent enough for my needs I don’t ever ask for books from folk just not my thing ,you are right about the whole commenting blogging reading balance it is hard to do I must admit things like wordpress app help with comments I do most of my comments via that now throughout the day one main reason for buying a chromebook was speed to get on net means I can sneak time before work some days to do bits on the blog

    1. I keep, keep, keep promising myself to stay off Netgalley (it is rather good for the crime releases I have to review, and some publishers just send you the link to Netgalley), but there’s no need to explore it any further, is there?

  13. I admire the way you’ve thought through this issue and have been so clear about your plans – now all you have to do is stick to them! 🙂 Good post, Marina.

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