Friday, February 26, 2010

Literary Leanings or How to Pick a Book Without Oprah

"Have you read anything good lately?"

How hard can it be to wander into a Barnes & Noble and find something interesting, perhaps even fascinating, to read? Turns out, it's pretty dang hard. First, there's alot of crap. There just is. The "New in Paperback" table sitting in the center of the store is the literary equivalent of a giant Doritos display in the middle of the grocery store on Superbowl Sunday. It's not there because Doritos taste the best, or because they are made with integrity, or because they are good for you. It's there because a big company wants to sell you their crap. And in the long run, crappy novels just don't satisfy, do they?

I think we call such books "beach reading", which, when accompanied by a giant bag of Cool Ranch Doritos, can provide a nice, semi-conscious day of reading and making sure the kids are still floating-and-not-because-they're-dead-oh-my-god-I-can't-tell-are-they-alive-phew-they're-o.k.-get-your-butts-over-here-you-scared-me-to-death-you're-way-too-far-out-I-could-never-reach-you-in-time-way-out-there. I hate the beach.

And publishing companies know that you choose with your eyes. Did you know that? It's kinda like how organic apples look all mangled and ugly but taste super good and won't make you grow a third boob, but the shiny-perfect apples are the ones everyone wants even though they taste like apple-flavored sponge. You know about the book/cover/judge thingy by now, so don't ignore it. Lots of "books" are really just book-flavored paper.

I'm not going to recommend specific books, but if you'll let me, I can change how you choose your reading materials forever. Not even kidding.

The laziest method I can offer is actually quite good. NPR (that's right, hipsters!) has a show called "You Must Read This". So, I think the intent behind the show is mostly obvious. Contemporary authors discuss and recommend a book that most affected them, inspired them, changed them, or informed their writing, character development, style, etc. What I love most about this is they are not necessarily the books that the authors "liked" the best, and this illustrates an important point about choosing books: You don't have to "like" a book for it to impact or transform you, any more than you have to "like" a historical incident for it to have altered history. In fact, it may repulse, offend, or scare you, but change you nonetheless. Be open to this idea.

This is one of the blessings of an Arts & Letters degree. You are forced to acknowledge and deal with styles, genres, and authors that wouldn't be sought out voluntarily. It's like being teamed up with a stranger, and you must work out some problem, some issue together. You're free to reach your own separate conclusions, but in the end just see if you don't have a greater appreciation for another's point of view or experiences.

My second recommendation for finding good books is slightly more complicated, but far more interesting. Did you ever dream of attending Harvard? Oxford? This year's winner of the "Number One Party University" title? Doesn't matter. Pick a university and go to their website. Look up the Arts & Letters department and read the bios of the staff. Professors are into some really, really weird stuff. Pick the person who most interests you. Click on a class they're teaching and download the syllabus/reading list. Try to follow the reading schedule exactly, and stick it out with the books that you don't particularly "like". Professors organize their units around themes, so try to see how it fits into this theme, or expands your understanding of the time period or genre. Heck, download their lecture slides. If you need password access, email them directly. Professors aren't, by nature, rule makers or followers. You will learn so much more about history this way, not necessarily because the books are historically factual, but because literature reveals so much about the fears, preoccupations, and psychological makeup of a specific time and place.

Eat your Doritos, if you must. But eat your mangled apples, too.

And to the serious readers out there: Let me do you choose your next book?


  1. Thank you for hating the beach. The anxiety is just too much! I think I get attached to an author and then read everything he/she has ever written. However, it can be anti-climatic when you reach the end of the list. I'm on a Richard Yates kick right now. I think I'll cut this comment short and start searching for professor websites.


  2. Christine, I happen to know you're still trying to finish Milton.

  3. I wander through Powell's Books for a couple of hours, no big Dorito displays there, maybe just a few small ones on the end caps. Powell's is literary nirvana!

  4. Yes!! I often try out music featured on NPR too (I'm a public radio geek). Love the Doritos analogy. I usually compare those books to cheap candy--fun but makes you feel kind of gross if you have too much of it. Never thought about looking for books as suggested #2. Am off to see if any of my favorite lit professor's books are in the university library. :-)

  5. Powell's is just a front for a, kidding. I love that place and need to go there soon, if only to replace my husband's grody old "My wife went to Portland and all she got me was this Powell's T-shirt". The armpits are several shades lighter than the rest of the shirt, and I don't remember it being, sheer when first purchased.

    MRI-please keep us posted on what you're reading...and since you're an NPR geek we should co-author a "This American Life" post! Where would we even begin, though?

  6. So, Summer, how about a quick list of your five favorite recent reads? Pretty Please??


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