A Guide To Reading

Did anyone ever teach you how to read? Not the actual art of deciphering words on a page, but as in what books you should read when and things like that? Well, this isn’t that kind of guide. This is more of a tips and tricks sort of thing. I think many of us aren’t honest about our reading habits. We think we have to finish a book once we’ve cracked the cover. We think we have to read a book just because someone said we needed to. And we certainly will never admit to not having even tried reading Moby Dick or War and Peace.

I will admit it. I have never read Moby Dick or War and Peace. See? That wasn’t so hard. And I suspect my poll numbers didn’t really drop much with that revelation. Reading makes us put on airs and masks, just like many other things in life do. We all want people to think we just read classics and critically acclaimed award winners, but the bestseller lists tell a different story.

woman reading book
Reading: it’s not new.

Look, I know that many of you don’t need me to tell how to conduct your reading business, but I have learned a thing or two in my day, and maybe someone out there will benefit from this wisdom. Or better yet, someone out there will find a new book they like. For those who at the end find this to have been a waste of time, I recommend you try a good book instead next time.

Try popular books and series

Maybe that seems too obvious?  A good way to find something new for you to read is simply see what is popular. I have done that with several series, with mixed results.

Janet Evanovich’s One for the Money (Stephanie Plum series). I loved this book, and liked the next dozen or so well enough. The lack of resolution of the love triangle and repetitive plot elements means I haven’t read the last few, but overall a success for me.

Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons (Robert Langdon series). Read this during my first visit to Franklin (where I now reside), but that is neither here nor there. I liked it okay, but haven’t gotten around to reading anymore of his.

Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’ Left Behind (Left Behind series). I thought the concept was really intriguing, but for me the writing itself fell short. I made it into the third book before giving up.

Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (Millennium series). I enjoyed this trilogy. Could have used a little tighter editing perhaps, but with Larsson having passed away I understand the difficulties there. I haven’t read the new one, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, by David Lagercrantz yet. Someone let me know if it is worth a go.

Give up on books (and admit failure)

If you aren’t enjoying the book you are reading, then stop reading it. I think this is a skill we have to learn, the ability to put aside a book (or series) you have started. If you must know how it turns out, skip to the end or find a summary online.

There are all sorts of reasons not to like books. You might not like the writing style, or the genre, or the content, or whatever. That is okay. I was reading a fantasy series some years ago, an epic six book thing. I do not recall who the author was off the top of my head, but that isn’t important. The thing was that I was three books in and wasn’t having any fun. The hero was kind of a jerk, and then actually switched sides, making it hard to root for him. What I realized it was missing was comic relief. That series was desperate for humor.

So own up to it, especially if it is a classic or something recommended to you. If you came up to me in the library and said “put one of your favorite books in my hand” I might give you, say, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Perhaps once you were reading it you might say to yourself “ye gods, what dreck. There are like 80 ways I don’t like this book.” If that were the case, then you should stop reading it and come back and ask for something else. I would not be offended.

Yeah, this one isn’t a keeper.

Come to terms with not reading everything

This is a big one. No one can read all the books (although I do know someone who read 300 in a single year). And most of us haven’t read all of the books everyone is “supposed” to read. You know, those books on the required reading lists you get in school. Spoiler alert: those lists change over time.

Time for an experiment. I just now did a Google search for books everyone should read, and this was the first result. Only 30 books on there, so give me a moment to count how many I have read. Processing your results…15! I’ve read exactly half. Interesting list, with a mix of genres and newer and older books. Some that I haven’t read: Little Women (maybe wrong demographic here, although I did just read Jane Eyre a couple years back), The Book Thief (newer book I haven’t gotten around to yet), A Tale of Two Cities (I haven’t read any Dickens ever), and The Color Purple (which I started years and years ago but couldn’t get into).

Classics for a reason

I am mildly fascinated with what qualifies a book to be considered a classic. This is a topic that many people more learned than me have tackled. The point here is that a lot of these books are considered classics for a reason. Hmm, that sounds like a future blog post in and of itself. You might find it worthwhile to give some of the ones you haven’t read a shot. Or to revisit ones you read before, like in school, and didn’t care for back then.

I first read To Kill A Mockingbird in 10th grade, and it didn’t make much of an impression on me. I read it again maybe 15 years later and was like, oh, this is probably the best book ever. On a side note, for a book that is about pretty common things, it has an unusual quality that sets it apart. I have on more than one occasion had a patron clamoring for something like it, only to disappoint them with the news that there is nothing else like it.

Another example is The Catcher in the Rye, which I’ve read twice, probably about 20 years apart. I liked it the first time, and found that it totally held up the second time.

Don’t be embarrassed by what you are reading

Romance novels are enormously popular (and come in many varieties and genres), but some people are embarrassed to be seen reading them. Teens can sometimes see reading as an undesirable activity, and might not want to be seen with a book in hand. I myself find that when someone asks me what I’m reading it is never when I am enjoying something like Lord of the Flies, but always when it is a Dungeons & Dragons novel, or maybe an X-men graphic novel.

That shouldn’t make a difference, but we let it. I should certainly know better, as my mother taught me that reading was the important thing, regardless of what it was. A nice perk of reading on a tablet or other device is that no one needs to know what it is. Embarrassment can be hard to overcome, but there are tactics and techniques you can use to keep the reading train rolling.

reading on the fire escape
You can always read in private, too.

Read before you criticize

Let us be honest here. There are bad books out there. But poorly written, cliche ridden tripe can still be popular (just like with movies). We might like to bash these books, but to be fair you might want to give it a read first. This first occurred to me several libraries ago, when the branch I worked at put on a huge Harry Potter event for, IIRC, the third book (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, so 1999 I guess). There was a small but vocal group of protesters outside, and in the newspaper article about it one of theses objectors admitted to not having read any of the books.

That got me thinking, and while we can certainly rely on reviews and word of mouth to give us an idea of the quality of a book, sometimes I have decided to give a maligned book a read before offering my opinion on it. I’ll give you two examples.

Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer. A massively popular book (and series) that has generated a lot of discussion. I finally gave it a try, and found it to be okay. Decently written, but short on plot and action. I mean the big vampire throwdown at the end happens off page! But not a bad read, and certainly more appealing for those in certain demographics. I felt no need to read the others, especially considering the feedback I had received on them from trusted sources. Plus the whole love affair between a teenager and a 100+ year old dude icked me out a bit.

Fifty Shades of Grey, by E. L. James. When this series became a big sensation a couple years ago I decided to give it a shot and judge for myself. (The fact that it started out as Twilight fanfiction is coincidental, I assure you.) I made it about two thirds of the way through the first book before giving up. The sexual content didn’t concern me much (and in fact I found it tamer than some things you see in other bestsellers), but the writing did. Holy crap is that book poorly written, at least in my opinion.

Read bad books for fun sparingly

I had to stage an intervention on my wife, who had fallen into the habit of reading bad young adult novels and talking about them on Goodreads. It is perfectly fine to read a bad book now and again, and I suspect we have all enjoyed a bad book before. but there are limits! They will bum you out and bring you down. Moderation in all things! Oh, and if you enjoy a book that others think is terrible, that is perfectly fine. Happens all the time.

That is not my bookshelf, but I have read some of the books that are on it.

Create your own book club 

My wife and I did this a few years back as a way to both read some of the books we had never gotten around to and also to be able to talk to each other about our reading more. It worked well enough for awhile. We found a recommended reading list we liked (alas, I can no longer find it online, though I have printed copies), and we would round up two copies of a book on it to read at the same time. We didn’t get too far, as we don’t always read at the same pace and things like that. But it was fun, pointed us to good books (like Atonement), and is something that is easy to do with family or friends.

We also held our First Annual Bad Book Contest, where we each submitted what we thought was one of the worst books we had ever read. I entered Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn, by Philip Athans, and she chose Hush, Hush, by Becca Fitzpatrick. Let me just say there were no winners, and no Second Annual Bad Book Contest. (Hush, Hush, by the way, is a fairly popular series, and was even optioned as a movie, although that project has since been cancelled. When people ask me for the book I get it for them without providing any commentary about it.)

Genre bingo

A nifty way to find new kinds of books, detailed in a previous blog post. I’ll have a follow up post once I hit bingo on one of my cards. Getting close!

Message in a bottle
Some reading should be prioritized.


Two weeks ago I started reading a paperback, and managed to lose it. I therefore needed a new book, and at my house there are plenty of options. Stacks of pages just waiting for my attentions. So, at the advice of my wife, I made a list of them and chose which one I would read at random, via a roll of the dice. Or die, actually. A single d20 did the trick. The winner was All Other Nights, by Dara Horn. I’ll let you know later how it turns out.

Blind recommendations and curated lists

This one is a bit scarier, especially if you the person you ask isn’t familiar with your reading preferences and habits. What you do is ask someone to stick a book in your hand, and that is what you read. I’ve had really good luck with it myself, but I can see how it might go bad. Alternatively, there are tons of recommended and suggested reading lists out there you can use to find books to read, especially if you are looking for books similar to ones you’ve already read. As always, your local friendly library can help with this.

Bringing books home

Finally, a word of caution. I used to bring home all sorts of stray books, thinking I would get around to reading them. I eventually learned to be more discerning with the strays I picked up (or bought at the used bookstore), as some of the books languished unread for years, and others I would try to force my way through under the misguided notion that I “had” to read it.

You don’t want to be the one who chose…poorly. On a related note, you have to learn to let books go. Unless you have an actual home library

Home library
(Which I don’t)

you probably find yourself short on shelf space. Instead of trying to cram yet another bookshelf in maybe you need to lighten the load on the shelves you already have. Acknowledge that some of those books you will never read, or, something I was guilty of, that you won’t ever get around to re-reading them. Keep the ones you will read, and the ones you truly love, and the ones you use for reference, and the ones you just like having on your shelf. I bet you’ll still find plenty to take to the used book store, on put out in the garage sale, or perhaps donate to the library (which will then probably give them to the library’s used book store).

Well, that wraps up this meandering essay. Let me know what things you have learned during your reading escapades!

6 thoughts on “A Guide To Reading

  1. Good one – I especially like where you mention what will probably happen to books donated to the library. Forewarned is good!


    • That’s right. The library always looks first to see if the books should go into the collection, but the ones that don’t bring much needed funds to the library via the bookstore.


  2. I need to read more books by women, and by diverse authors in general. Plus read more of classics – I’ve only read two Dickens books (does A Christmas Carol count as a book or a short story, or a novella?).


  3. Chris,
    Try reading a Tale of Two Cities by Dickens, one of my favorites. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”
    I liked your meandering, very good thoughts about reading.


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