How I select the next book I’m going to read

betweenactsI’m sure that everyone out there has an extremely rigorous “next book” selection process. It’s really something of a necessity for modern life. You can’t just pick up whatever’s at hand, because a book cannot be consumed in a single sitting. You need a book that speaks, not merely to your current setting and mood, but to the current moment in your life. And that takes some serious thought.

Over the years, I’ve developed three rigorous book selection principles:

  • I must actually enjoy reading the first sentence (and the second one and the third one, etc) — If I pick up a book and the first sentence bores me, then I put it down. It doesn’t mean that the book is bad, but it does mean that the book is not what I’m looking for right now.
  • My whim is law – After I finished reading Jenny Offill’s novel, I decided that I kind of wanted to read a book that had something of an atypical form. This led me to consider Padget Powell’s The Interrogative Mood and Tao Lin’s Taipei. But then, I thought to myself, “Hmm…It’d also be really good to read a book by a woman,” so those two options were out.
  • Don’t look too far beyond the current book – It’s very easy to make elaborate reading schemas (for instance, last fall I decided that I’d read ALL OF GERMAN LITERATURE). And there’s something very satisfying about making those schemas. But when you’re following them, they become kind of a straitjacket. I’ve learned to dispense with the planning. It’s hard enough to figure out what book I want to read now, much less what book I might want to read in a week or a month.

Anyway, long story short, when I looked around within my parameters (less-typical form, written by a woman), my mind naturally drifted to Virginia Woolf. I picked up The Years, but the first sentence didn’t interest me. Then I picked up Between The Acts and the first sentence was:

It was a summer’s night and they were talking, in the big room with the windows open to the garden, about the cesspool.

And I found myself intrigued….anyway, that is the book I am reading now. It is good. I am enjoying it. Virginia Woolf really is one of the most powerful writers I’ve ever read. All of human existence is mirrored in her novels. For instance, this one is about some folks in a little country house who’re putting on an amateur theatrical (shades of Mansfield Park, there)…and it’s also about the imminence of World War II. That’s a pretty neat trick. Virginia Woolf is so political and so aware of current events, but she gets no credit for it, because she doesn’t engage with politics in the expected way.

A Taxonomy of Readers

All the pictures that came up when I searched for ‘taxonomy’ were boring, so I decided to search for ‘taxidermy’ instead.

I was thinking about yesterday’s post, and I realized that my reading habits are incredibly bourgeois. That’s not a pejorative; it’s just a description. My reading habits have a distinctly middle-class and earnest feeling to them. Which made me think, what other kinds of reading habits are there? This line of thought led to the following taxonomy of readers

Mass-Market – People who read only a book or two every year and prefer to read whatever the year’s breakout book is. I imagine that they enjoy the feeling of connectedness that comes from doing something at the same time as millions of other people.

Industrial – People who consume books as if they are an interchangeable product. Once, I was like this. When I read a book I liked, I went out and tried to find twenty books that were exactly the same, so I could get exactly the same experience. I preferred longer books, because they lasted longer. And I preferred long series, because I knew I could get more of what I liked. Example: most children go through a stage like this.

Populist – Readers who distrust book reviews and the opinions of academics, but still try to read the best books that they can. Populist readers often place a lot of stock in Amazon book reviews, word of mouth, and popular vote awards. They have a strong sense of their own likes and dislikes and are willing to defend their own tastes even against the prevailing opinion. Example: many science fiction fans, and people who say that books like Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged are the equal to most of what is considered, by the establishment, to be extremely good fiction.

Academic – These readers gravitate towards books about which there is still something interesting to say. They shy away from books that too much has already been written about. Although they’re about equally interested in contemporary and classic fiction, when they read classics they tend to gravitate towards obscure writers and lesser-known works by famous authors. Example: Most book critics, bloggers, and commentators.

Hip – Very familiar with whatever writer is on everyone’s tongues. In the 90s, it was David Foster Wallace. Now, it’s George Saunders. Also familiar with the nimbus of other, less-known contemporary writers that hover in that zeitgeisty area. Example: Anyone who’s ever read a novel written by Sam Lipsyte.

Super-Hip – The person who determines what the Hip people are going to be reading. Usually conversant with the major features of English literature (the modernists, etc) and extremely conversant with what’s going on in contemporary literature. Example: Anyone who’s ever read a sentence written by Tao Lin.

Bourgeois – Those who put a lot of stock in the literary canon and disdain contemporary literature. Prefers to read “the best” of any genre. Believes anything that has gotten public notice or critical acclaim must have some positive qualities. Turns reading into a project and then blogs about the project. Often has a fascination with and love for literary quotes. The objective of high school and college education in literature is to produce bourgeois readers. Examples: I am an extreme form of this, but I would also include all the computer programmers and lawyers and doctors who very earnestly sit down to read Faulkner or Dickens in their free time.

Aristocratic – Prefers classic literature, but, even within the classics, has very particular likes and dislikes. When they find an author, they often read every work that the author has written. Example: Anyone who has ever read a published collection of a famous authors’ letters.

 

There are three standard progressions through these categories:

Industrial -> Populist -> Academic

Bourgeois -> Aristocratic

Bourgeois -> Hip -> Super-Hip

 

I consider myself a little bit of an outlier because I went from Industrial -> Populist -> Bourgeois.

Can anyone suggest any additional categories?