How do you choose the books you are going to read? she asked

Saturday, July 17, 2010

A few days ago, when Amy Riley and I were taking a wee break from techno talk (Beth:  HTML code?  Amy (long distance):  Okay.  I'm doing it with you.  Are you on the Feedburner screen?  Do you see the box next to the words ....?), I told her that I'd just returned from the bookstore with an armload of new books.  She, being a great reader herself, asked me which ones.  I listed Libba Bray's A Great and Terrible Beauty, Richard Russo's That Old Cape Magic, Maile Meloy's Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, John Green's Looking for Alaska, and Jane Mendelsohn's American Music.

There was a bit of a pause, as Amy searched (I imagine) for some pattern in my selections.  "Interesting," she said at last.  "How do you choose what you are going to read?"

In answering the question I realized just how many influences weigh upon me.  The fact that I work in multiple genres, that I teach, and that I care a whole lot about language has me scurrying after the books I hope will teach me—in every genre.  The fact that I sometimes wonder why the rest of the world reads what it reads (e.g., The Help, Girl in Translation, Loving Frank) gets me curious enough to buy.  Blogs influence me (hence my purchase of My Name is Mary Sutter).  Friends do (Kate Moses has led me to The Names of Things; Jane Satterfield to The Importance of Music to Girls).  Reviews do (The New York Times Book Review led me to Forest Gander's As a Friend, Kim Echlin's The Disappeared, and Chloe Aridjis's Book of Clouds).  I trust imprints, like Graywolf, because they publish friends like Alyson Hagy and so I read and not surprisingly love Jessica Francis Kane's The Report.  I trust editor friends like Laura Geringer, Jill Santopolo, and Alane Mason, and so I read, respectively, Virgin Territory, Between Shades of Gray, and Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives and Nothing Happened and Then it Did.  Many, many authors send me their books, and I do all I can to read them.  On lovely afternoons, I drift through bookstores and find titles that appeal, and some of my favorite books have come to me this way:  Michael Ondaatje's work, The Book Thief, The Cellist of Sarajevo, to name just a few.

This time around, my reasons were thus:  Maile Meloy because my writing friends adore her work and because I've been impressed by earlier stories.  John Green because he is John Green.  Richard Russo because I always meant to read him and because bloggers I respect insist.  Libba Bray because two minutes in her presence and I adored her.  Jane Mendelsohn because I absolutely loved her first novel, I Was Amelia Earhart, which begins: "The sky is flesh. The great blue belly arches up above the water and bends behind the line of the horizon...."

Marketers would love to know the why behind book selling.  Pundits speculate (interestingly, following the recent New York Times story suggesting that book trailers are highly influential, my in box was full of readers saying they never watch trailers).  I can only tell you what I do.  I wonder what your methods are.


Becca said...

Delicious food for thought. I think my response deserves some deeping thinking, and perhaps a post of it's own ;)

I will tell you that I rarely watch book trailers (except for yours).

Becca said...

Meant to write "deeper" thinking...don't have my glasses on!

Lilian Nattel said...

My methods of choosing what to read are much like yours. I'd just add that when I've been working on my historical books, I also read fiction by authors who lived in the time and place that I'm writing about.

Carrie said...

Sometimes I have no idea why a certain book calls out to me - other times, I know it's the title or a gorgeous cover. Often, it is the recommendation of in-real-life friends or bloggers whose taste I trust. I have gotten better at choosing books - less duds lately - and sometimes I try to purposely choose books that lie outside my reading comfort zone. Some of those turn out to be the best surprises.

Beth F said...

I don't know how or why I choose but language and words and beautiful prose I don't have tweak grab me. And now -- based on those few words -- I Was Amelia Earhart is on my must-read list.

Wendy said...

I love this post, Beth - like you, I read from lots of genres and I often read new-to-me-authors. I pick my books because:
1. A blogger or friend who I respect loved the book.
2. Cover art (I'm a sucker for cover art) that blows me away.
3. Its a book by an author I have loved before (I can't resist a new John Irving, or Rose Tremain, or David Mitchell or Katherine Center)
4. Curiosity
5. A publicist I trust tells me I would love it.
6. Just because (I know you read my post about serendipity...and that is a great example of "just because")

I am rarely disappointed in my reading. And like you, a book with beautiful language wins me over every time...

Serena said...

Gosh, this is a loaded question.

1. an author I know and love
2. premise of the book seems new or has a new twist
3. books with dogs, about dogs, or New England or Portugal/Azores attract my attention
4. recommendations from Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)
5. recommendations from other bloggers
6. Graywolf press and some other small publishers took the chance

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