other book stuff

Reading Outside Ourselves

As a bookseller and book lover, one of the most common things I’m faced with is a customer’s or friend’s reluctance to venture into new literary territories, whether genre, style, or subject. I do understand this; my own world has been rather narrow as time and money have become more precious and I find myself increasingly comfortable with what I know and trust already. At the same time, though, I worry about this. I don’t want to live an existence so small that I’m missing out on discovering new loves or entering exciting discussions, especially when, as such a passionate person, I’m always thinking there has to be more to life, to me, than this.

Reading, as most of us already know, but also the act of writing, does not have a singular purpose. Both are creative; neither is meant solely to entertain or provide escape. It is also meant to expand our minds, to edify, to educate, to provoke thought and stimulate dialogue, to facilitate connection—and that’s whether or not it’s Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein or Roth’s Divergent.  In writing we grow because the process is also an act of discovering more about ourselves, how we think, what we fear, what we’re capable of. Joan Didion said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

How we read—that is, how we interpret a text, whether novel, short story, or non-fiction—is also very telling about who we are. So is what we choose and what we refuse to read. When I first had the idea for the YOSS table at the bookstore where I work, it was met with such skepticism I thought they were going to ask that I make a different display. I was told no one likes short stories so no one would buy off the table, that we never sold them, and I conceded, since whenever I suggested short stories, people said they didn’t like them. However, I love them, and I wanted to change people’s minds because I think they’re missing out. Now, two months later, we’re still regularly restocking that table!

This is what I mean: if we can get past our assumptions, our fears, even our preferences, often we find ourselves with something more to talk about. We go from reading whatever everyone else is reading to cutting our own path, to telling people what awesome new things we’ve discovered. What starts with Sarah Selecky becomes Jessica Westhead, Matthew Trafford, Lydia Davis, Edna O’Brien, Carolyn Black, Robin Black, Julie Booker, Jessica Grant, Sam Martin, Raymond Carver, John Cheever…and suddenly novels aren’t the only books we have to choose from if fiction is our thing. Maybe we also start to read essays. Maybe we’re even inspired to write, too. Now we’re not so limited. Now we understand our fellow readers with different tastes, interests, viewpoints.

I went to a Christian university, and in my postmodern lit class, there was a novel on the syllabus at least one student refused to read. Having grown up in a relatively and thankfully uncensored literary world at home (excepting the time my mother rendered asunder with uncharacteristically brute force a formidable copy of Stephen King’s IT, citing it as garbage…which I decline to comment on now), I was shocked by the refusal to read Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage. (I loved it!) The idea of refusing to read something because it might not or doesn’t jive with your world view is both ignorant and close-minded. One cannot effectively or persuasively defend one’s faith (in this case) if one knows only one’s own side. Dialogue, understanding, acceptance, knowledge, growth, ideas—all these things are born out of acknowledging both sides, or all sides, of any issue. Blinders prevent you from contributing anything of real value.

Today, my friend Amanda, a writer I know only online but whom I greatly admire for many reasons and in whom I’ve found a kindred spirit, posted this on her blog Waiting for An Echo: “I’ve shared a world with them [she’s talking about previously unknown creatures exposed by the 2004 tsunami], and neither of us knew it. Who knows what else lies in the world, waiting to be discovered?”

Indeed! When we’re not open to reading suggestions, what worlds, what characters, what stories, and what skilled writing, regardless of genre, are we missing out on? Because of several publishers offering me books to review and so many customers sharing their enthusiasm for a book and so many new bookish friends online, I’ve changed. I’ve gone from saying no to things they and customers enthusiastically suggest to saying, what the hell, I’ll try it. I’ve learned that I don’t have to fear losing precious time, because in the face of so many excellent books, I’ve stopped forcing myself to get through ones I don’t like. Saying yes more to stories I fear, whether because I fear my emotional reaction (e.g., Water for Elephants, Marley & Me, etc.) or because I am reluctant to set myself up for disappointment, has also spread to the rest of my life. And that’s aside from the new interests and knowledge I’ve gained: now I say yes to more things in general, because whatever those things are, I’m usually proven wrong in my assumption I won’t like it.

Since university and getting married, I admit my world has become increasingly small and exclusive and comfortable. I’m growing old before my time and often have to remind myself I’m only 37. At the same time, life has become less satisfying and I’m more restless. I want more. To be more, to know more, to be able to discuss more, to do more, to be readier for opportunity, should something awesome in the book world come my way. I want to be some kind of champion. I dislike not knowing what people are talking about. I hate not knowing a book, and worse, constantly saying, no I haven’t read it but I hear it’s great! I know I can’t read everything, but agreeing to read The Help, for instance, in which I have no interest, may not only educate me but open up a world of dialogue with so many others who’ve read it and enjoyed it. I may change in some way from having read it. Just as I’m changing from simply saying, yes, I’ll try it—whatever it is. There is nothing to lose.

Even if you’re disappointed, that act of saying yes allows you to form an educated opinion. It also suggests freedom—from yourself. If you’re not disappointed, think of what you’ve gained; nothing comes without leaving its mark, even in some small way. It’s as they say when you’re trying on a wedding dress: you may not like it on the rack, but try it on anyway. You could be surprised. The dress you think is ugly, or not you, could very well be the one.

Books change people’s lives—that’s a fact. Saying yes to more of them gives you not only numerous opportunities to change but also increasing options as to how.

 

27 Comments

  1. What a wonderful post! Also a big thanks to Harper Collins for getting you into book blogging and book selling in the first place!

    I completely agree with reading outside my comfort zone. A co-worker once called my reading tastes catholic, and I think that totally sums it up — I’m totally eager to try new authors, genres, etc. It does make it a bit difficult at casual conversations when I meet people and they ask “What do you like to read?” and “anything and everything” sounds like a boring cop out. I usually like relying on the first page test: if a book doesn’t grab me by then and make me want to keep reading, I’m more likely to pass.

    Your story about the guy in university made me laugh. I studied at a Catholic school, and remember vividly a high school teacher who told us to bring to school the books we read for fun. She then read out loud a couple of make-out scenes from a Sweet Valley and an R.L. Stine book, and waggled her eyebrows at how alarmingly explicit these books were. (Seriously, she kept pausing to look at us and shake her head.) Overall highly entertaining, but I’m just glad no one really took her seriously.

    I’m all for expanding your reading horizons. Whether reading high brow award winning books or Harlequin romances or Archie comic books (yes, all of which I read), reading is just a lot of fun, and I think allowing yourself to step out of your comfort zone and discover new genres and writers just adds to that fun.

    Reply
    1. Steph Author

      I’m the same: if the first page doesn’t grab me, I usually don’t keep reading. But if it does, I flip through the book more and read bits and pieces and then either put it back or buy it.

      I have noticed that about you too, that you read pretty much anything; I’ve admired that!

      Reply
      1. Marie

        But this is just limiting oneself in a different way to limiting by genre, e.g. Some books start slowly and build to stupendous heights (just like it takes a while to get to know certain people who may end up lifelong

        friends…)
        Is it more admirable to limit one’s reading choices by the demand that a work of art make an immediate impression than by any other criteria?

        Reply
        1. Steph Author

          There are some books I’ve read that did pick up in later chapters than the first, but the books nevertheless attracted me before that. What I am looking for when I read the first page and, as I mentioned, sections throughout the book, is examples of fine writing. This isn’t a question of admiration of readers, it’s a question of what I consider good writing. I do demand much from a writer; if you’re going to be published, and I’m going to buy it, it needs to be worth my while. If the parts I read to sample the book aren’t grabbing me, I’m not going to start it to see if it does grab me elsewhere along the way. I want the book to make me work by stimulating thought, not causing me to struggle with disinterest.

          Reply
          1. Marie Clausén

            Fair enough. :) I just find that writing grows on me, especially if it is a style I am unused to (I’m thinking of Gunnar’s Daughter here e.g. and Icelandic saga style in general). I need time to nestle my way in sometimes. A newspaper article is different – it if doesn’t grab me in the first paragraph I’ll leave off reading it, but with books I approach things more slowly. In the end, we all have to make reading choices though and perhaps one method of choosing is as good as another. :)

          2. Steph Author

            Yes! Gunnar’s Daughter is a perfect example, but again there was something that interested me already: I’d read and loved KL, and had your high recommendation. Plus, while the writing was different, it was still quality.

            And yes, I agree that one method of choosing is as good as another. As my mom says, De gustibus non est disputandum.

  2. Marie

    I agree that we owe it both to ourselves and our communities to engage with a variety of books (as well as films, artworks, political and philosophical ideas, etc.) in order to round out our understanding of the world we live in and increase our chances of fully being. On the other hand, variety purely for the sake of variety, or change for the sake of change, does not strike me as always being the best way forward.

    I like to think of my reading as a journey – this ‘a’ will lead to this ‘b’ and then onward to this ‘c’. It is an organic amble, and if others are constantly tugging at my coat tails, pointing me in a multitude of other directions, taking me off-road, off-path, I never get a chance to move forward down the path that my reading would naturally have taken me.

    I often feel obliged to read what others suggest or lend me and more often than not I am disappointed and unimpressed with it; only occasionally have I been pleasantly surprised (as with Michael Chabon’s ‘The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay’, which I admit I would never have picked on my own). At this point I actually trust myself to pick out better books for me than anyone else can pick out for me. I am well-read enough to strike out on my reading journies without a cicerone and even without fellow travellers.

    I do sometimes feel the loneliness in terms of not always being able to discuss the books I read with my friends, but I don’t think tailoring one’s reading just to be able to have a conversation is necessarily the best way to explore the world of books. There is no longer a canon, one can argue, now that everyone no longer even reads Plato and Aristotle, so what each one of us reads out of the multitude of books published around the world in so many languages each year, cannot hope to overlap to any remarkable extent.

    Perhaps in the end that is alright, too. There are times when I mourn the idea of a shared literary canon, but then in my case it was always going to be difficult, partly due to my multicultural reading habits. Not many of my Swedish friends can discuss the English books I read and none of my friends in Canada have ever even heard of the Swedish books I read! :) Straddling cultures make the notion of sharing books and conversations about books even more challenging than it might otherwise be.

    Reply
    1. Steph Author

      But I’m not saying for the sake of variety alone; I gave lots of reasons why we would say yes more often to books we may not normally read. I don’t even know if it’s possible to do something purely for the sake of variety; you still edit choices to some extent, based on whether or not you acknowledge you’ll get something out of it. I’m not saying we need to say yes to everything.

      I have less of an agenda when it comes to reading (all I really want each time is to get something valuable, thoughtful, something I can appreciate and then engage with or about, but not in any linear way or to any designated objective, which doesn’t sound to me like ambling), but that has led me to be somewhat overwhelmed, because there are so many people suggesting I should read such and such. Still, it just means I won’t get to it right away; of the choices, I also get to choose when I read them. And while I acknowledge that it makes sense that we know ourselves best, I’m suggesting we reach past that, or more that we can’t possibly see everything open to us, and thus different perspectives and tastes guide us to things we may end up loving. I’m not actually often disappointed by personal recommendations but more so by book hype and advertising.

      The trick to satisfying engagement with others re reading is being able to discuss the content beyond agreement or disagreement; that I find very difficult to find, either because the writing doesn’t lend itself to it or, more often, others don’t really think about what they read. That’s why I find book clubs valuable; if you’re in a thinking one, the discussion can be excellent!

      Reply
      1. Marie Clausén

        I know what you mean – I would have loved discussing ‘Jacob’s Room’ with you, or with Chris, or with someone, but no one has read it. There were so many passages I wanted to read out loud, to share and discuss. But alas! However, as frustrating as that is, I would rather have read it all on my lonesome than read something I don’t particularly yearn to read because someone I know has read it so we can chat about it.

        Reply
        1. Steph Author

          Again, I agree! I don’t read stuff just because someone wants to discuss it. But I will read it if someone wants to discuss it and it also appeals to me. :)

          Reply
          1. Marie Clausén

            Oh my! Surely that has to be the single most unengaged and unengaging description I’ve ever read of a book. Utterly meaningless. While none of it is strictly untrue it’s not at all the way I would choose to describe the book. I don’t want to write a review of it (at least not here) and don’t at all enjoy writing reviews anyway, but I can write you an email perhaps quoting some of my favourite passages. It is, like most of VW’s work, a novel about life, about being human. I recognise myself, with a pang, in Jacob and others. I see what they see, feel what they feel, through Woolf’s words. There is definitely an odd narcissism at play whenever I read Woolf as I feel I’m reading my alter ego’s work. She see the world in the same way I do – I find myself whispering ‘yes, just so’ ‘I know, it’s sad, isn’t it?’ ‘yes, aren’t we humans brave and stupid and wonderful’. When I read her books I feel like I’m reading a tractate on life itself, (not just an aspect of life) attractively rendered in poetic prose. I feel that I am communing with a very intelligent writer who really saw things as they were, saw surface and depth at the same time and was somehow cleverly able to render both simultaneously. (That’s just for starters.)

      2. Marie Clausén

        I just wanted to say that part of our difference in perspective here may be our different experience in taking people up on their reading recommendations. I used to do that a lot, but I found after a few years that I just didn’t like the books others were recommending as much as the ones I rooted out for myself. Once (or a hundred times) bitten, twice (or a hundred and one times) shy.

        Reply
        1. Steph Author

          Your reaction is very powerful, and it makes me curious. I find myself having similar reactions to great writing; art imitates life and all that, and yet there are some authors who can express that so intimately and clearly that their writing touches our soul.

          And I understand what you’re saying about recommendations and different perspective. Experience affects the way we think, what we think.

          Reply
  3. Marie Clausén

    I really do amble and it is doubtlessly one of the most enjoyable aspects of books and reading to me. I read the way I pick lingonberries in the Swedish forest, finding a handful of the glowing red berries beyond a tuft of moss, stopping to pick them and focussing on them entirely as I do so, and then when I’m ready I look up, spot some more behind a boulder or a tree trunk and amble thither…never knowing where I end up, only that where I end up has something to do with where I came from and my special trajectory.

    Reply
      1. Marie Clausén

        No, not planned in advance certainly. An example would be when I read “Gone with the Wind’ the passages about the various battles in the American Civil War made me curious enough to next pick up a non-fiction book on the Civil War. In that book in turn there was something which piqued my curiosity in another direction, which I consequently followed. Other people would just get in the way of such an intensely private journey where it is the texts themselves that are the ‘drink me’, ‘eat me’ labels that lead me on through book wonderland…

        Reply
  4. Steph,

    You are, as usual, spot on in so many ways. I especially liked what you had to say about realizing, at 37, that you want to do more, see more, etc. I think there’s an interesting balance that comes as we age, and gather experience — it’s like with every little thing you learn about the world, you recognize even more that there’s so much MORE waiting to be discovered, so much more that you’ll eventually encounter. As you say — Sarah Selecky leads to Jessica Westhead and Lydia Davis and Matthew J. Trafford and so on.

    I think you are a literary champion, Steph, of the best and brightest kind. You’ve been a champion to me in your LitBits and your tweeting and your tireless love of all that is book-related. Your stories about classmates whose own reading tastes were sadly restricted showcases, more than ever, your drive and desire to open the wonderful world of reading for so many.

    I love the idea that there’s nothing to lose in reading. Nothing. That’s a champion-worthy saying if ever I’ve heard one. :)

    Reply
    1. Steph Author

      Amanda,

      Thank you. What more can I say than that? It’s heartfelt. And that bit about nothing to lose in reading…I’ve only just realised how true that is over the last couple of years. It’s also occurred to me recently, when I decided to write a story and then submit it to Sarah’s contest, that there’s nothing to lose in writing, either, even if it’s rejected or it doesn’t win contests. And then, why wouldn’t I read and write and do other things like this, if there truly is nothing to lose, as opposed to spending time on things that don’t propel me forward?

      Reply
  5. Fantastic post. It seems weird to say that Peace Corps has benefited my reading life, but it has. My selection of books has been so much more limited for the past couple years than it ever was before that I started reading books and authors I wouldn’t have looked into in the States – Stephen King, John Grisham, Dennis Lehane, Water for Elephants, mystery novels. So odd that having a limited reading selection would expand my reading, but I am a more well-rounded reader today than I was a few years ago, and so much less reluctant to approach books that might have made me feel uncomfortable in the States. (I can’t imagine picking up “A” is for Alibi when I lived in NJ, for fear that…I. might. actually. LIKE. it….which it turns out I do, though I’m no longer ashamed to admit it.)

    Reply
    1. Steph Author

      I don’t think it’s odd at all that a limited selection or supply expands your reading! It makes sense that a person who loves to read would try anything in desperate situations! Maybe that’s our problem; we have far too much choice! :)

      Reply
  6. I love, love, love this post. It’s like you’ve taken my thoughts and written them down (albeit better than I could have done). Excellent article, excellent points. I think reading is definitely about the community it creates, and I love your point about reading a popular book in order to be able to talk about it. I’ve said it before, and say it again: books (and our reading of them) are a form of social currency.

    Also, I was pleasantly surprised by The Help. Like you, I read it mostly because I was tired of say, “No, I haven’t read it, but I’ve heard good things.” I actually listened to it, as I understood it was written in dialect, and the audio was excellent. Hope you enjoy it!

    Reply
    1. Steph Author

      Kerry, how often is it that we seem to write stuff the other thinks exactly? :)

      I’m glad you like the post and can relate.

      I’m really enjoying The Help, having no trouble with, but am rather liking, the dialect, and am also feeling a bit emotional about the subject matter. It just goes to show that sometimes, no matter how convinced I am I won’t like a book, I can be totally wrong!

      Reply
  7. Em

    This is a lovely post and I totally agree with you. I used to be less open and I must admit that I can still be a bit reluctant. However, I believe that blogging as helped me to accept recommendations. I tend to trust the recommendations of people who read a lot more than just people who will recommend whatever book they have enjoyed. As you say, time can be an issue there. Of course I would read whatever (I might be exaggerating a slight bit, here) if I had more time and there were less books. However, if people who know what I like recommend something to me, I will now trust them. The best way to convince me is tually give me the book, so then it’s on the shelves and one day I will pick it up.
    I know that when I pick up a book for someone, it is a careful choice. Of course, I want to share something I have enjoyed, but I don’t want to force a book down someone’s throat and I might thus not pick my favourite, but the one I believe the person will enjoy the most (because of the writing style, of its themes, etc), while at the same time getting her/him to discover something new. I expect people to do the same with me. But, of course, you know that! You’re a bookseller and a good one I believe ;)

    Reply
    1. Steph Author

      You’ve brought up an interesting point, Em, and that is that, yes, as a bookseller and a book lover, I give a lot of thought to whatever I recommend someone. I try to match up the person with the book. So there are some people I don’t recommend certain books to, even if those books are my favourites, if I don’t think they will suit them.

      The trick is getting a feel for what they like and might like.

      Reply

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *