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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

My Next Read?

I was asked recently how I choose what book to read next. Hmmm. You wouldn’t think this would be such a difficult question to answer but once I thought about it, it was. I will often spend a great deal of time in front of my bookcases, pulling off books and read their flap copy, just as if I were in a bookstore. I will just have brought home several books from work, but suddenly I’m not as interested in them anymore. I think of the oodles I own, and I know, I just know there’s one that’s absolutely perfect for my current mood.

I don’t always know what I’m in the mood for, but I do know what I’m not in the mood for. It’s easy usually to decide for nonfiction or fiction (but not always). Long or short. Funny or not. I’m always worried that the perfect book will be languishing somewhere, but I’ve had it for so long it’s hard for me to even see it on the bookshelf anymore as it’s become a part of the furniture. So I try to look at all the shelves, pulling off and glancing at all the possibilities. Then in the end I seem to pick something at random. A book I’ve picked up and put back 20 times before will suddenly strike my fancy for no particular reason.

Length often has a lot to do with it, sadly. For instance this week I knew I had a long flight coming up. I know I want to bring a very long book there, and since The Help is my book club’s selection for next month, that seems to make sense. And since I don’t want to leave a book half-done, for this past weekend I picked up a very short book, Firmin (just 165 pages). I’m also bringing Jane Eyre which is my book club selection for this month. I’ve read it before and remember getting through it fairly quickly (and rereads are always faster). I know that The Help really ought to be enough for 2 cross-country flights, but being stuck without something to read is my worst nightmare and Jane Eyre is a mass market so they’re both coming with me. (Along with probably 3 magazines.) I have owned The Help for nearly a year. It’s been highly recommended to me by at least 10 people. But I’ve just not been in the mood. (Plus, being a thick hardcover there were some situations where it just wasn’t practical.)

We’ve always made fun of my father because whenever we’ve given him a gift of clothing, he won’t wear whatever it is for usually five years. (He’s gotten better more recently. Possibly because of all the teasing.) But I do the exact same thing, although with books, not clothes. Eleven of the 53 books I read last year I’d owned for at least 3 years previously (a couple, much longer). This is a big reason why I don’t like to use the library as an adult. What I would pick out, I just know I wouldn’t feel like reading at all during my 3-week window. In fact, being forced to read something often makes me even more reluctant to do so (although I almost always get around to it in the end, being a Type A.) But all this is why for Christmas I asked for a set of Dickens (the gift is being spread out over a few holidays as I’m getting antique editions). Because I would like to read more Dickens novels besides the four I read in school, but if I don’t own them, I never will read them. But now I have a shot at them.

The other funny part about my moodiness with picking books is how I know that it doesn’t much matter. I could just pick a shelf and start reading from one side to the other, and I’d have just as much luck and like just as many of them as when I go to trouble to pick books out. When I am stuck somewhere I can pick up and read just about anything. Last year at Christmas (1998), I ended up staying at my Mom’s for longer than I expected, and so I had to pilfer her bookshelves. I found Mountains Beyond Mountains which was fantastic, and which I’ve been suggesting to a lot of people this week who want to know more about Haiti. The Forgotten Garden was just something I had lying around my office when I realized I had put an already-read magazine in my workout bag by mistake, and I couldn’t possibly be on the treadmill for 45 minutes with nothing to read. I also am very limited with audio books since I only want to listen to unabridged narrative nonfiction, and that’s how I ended up with The Guinea Pig Diaries. The Bible Salesman I read because Clyde Edgerton was coming to town for an event (with his band!) and I needed to have read the book first. I do have a pretty firm rule about not reading a bunch of the same kind of book back-to-back, particularly by the same author. I did this back 10 years ago when I discovered Bill Bryson. And now I can’t tell any of his travel books from each other, aside from A Walk in the Woods and In a Sunburned Country. (The fact that I read the British or Australian editions of many of them doesn’t help as I am really screwed up about what the titles are.) I think my favorite was I’m A Stranger Here Myself, but they all kind of melded into one massive narrative in my mind. So when I read a book I really love by an author with backlist, I have to wait at least 3 months between each (and preferably at least 10 books between them) so I can keep them straight in my mind. Of course now that I’m writing reviews of them all that also will help, but I have a brain like Swiss cheese so I shouldn’t take any chances.

And this is why it’s so hard to say how I choose my next book. Because I don’t know myself.

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