Picking and Choosing

Books recommended, books read, and books still waiting

Wandering into a bookstore isn't always a pleasant experience. Take a recent jaunt to the newish Borders close to my work. (I'll still choose an independent whenever possible, but when I'm about to launch into the long public-transpo commute home and find myself without reading material, that big red “B” is a welcome sign.) I came into the shop with a written list of six titles and two more in mind. Four were novels, one was a memoir, and three were nonfiction books on the subject of reading. None could be considered obscure. I found two of the nonfiction titles and none of the fiction — even after asking three employees for help. (Memo to self: Never, ever go into a chain bookstore with any expectations.) I finally bought the other two nonfiction volumes at Alexander Book Co. and Stacey's; the novels remain unbought.

I shouldn't complain, really: After all, I don't always have to buy my books. Some get mailed to me at work, unbidden, and if they appeal to me and there's nothing to keep them at the office, I take them home. The pile of freebies I'd like to read eventually grows every week, though I consider myself judicious in my choices. I might be swayed by the cover or title, but that's rare (My Life in Orange was a recent exception). Cover letters don't sway me, having written several myself, nor do blurbs from other authors, which I know to be mostly a function of who owes whom a favor. Usually the book has to ring a bell in my mind — whether because of a review or a recommendation, a familiar name or a compelling first paragraph. (I've read enough unpublished manuscripts to know that the first paragraph is telling.)

Because I can get books for free, when I am going to pay for one myself I'd prefer not to wing it. My little Borders list, for example, had come together with chaotic purpose — and much help from others. One title had been among the “possibles” for Fight Club (aka my tiny book group, at which we never fight, but it sounds less sissy) for some time, having originally come up in casual conversation and then appeared on best-seller lists; one had been positively mentioned on a blog I read; one has been noted in my Palm Pilot forever; one was recommended by my boss and is newly out in paperback. Among the nonfiction titles, the memoir was one I'd read in manuscript about 15 years ago and wanted to reread for a future column. I'd seen reviews of the three books on reading; they're discussed herein.

How do we choose what to read next? In The Polysyllabic Spree, a new collection of Nick Hornby's columns for S.F.'s The Believer about books he bought and books he read (not necessarily the same thing) from September 2003 to November 2004, the novelist writes, “I'm beginning to see that our appetite for books is the same as our appetite for food, that our brain tells us when we need the literary equivalent of salads, or chocolate, or meat and potatoes.” I'm not sure my brain works that way. My choices have less to do with what I need for long-term sustenance than with what I can consume quickly and enjoyably — and then drop without a second thought. Call me a binge-and-purge reader.

At the start of So Many Books, So Little Time, the author, Sara Nelson, a Glamour editor and New York Post columnist, makes a list of the titles she hopes to get to in the course of her project — reading a book a week for a year and writing about her experience. There are 25, plus “the complete, or almost complete, oeuvre of Philip Roth.” I don't think I will be spoiling anyone's surprise in telling you she gets to few of them by the end (when she makes another list, of what's in her “Must-Read Pile”).

I don't have a long list of what I plan to read. I don't have a must-read pile. I don't feel particularly compelled to fill in the holes in my literary education, vast as they are. I am not seeking meat and potatoes. Poet and critic Gabriel Zaid, in So Many Books yes, it has the same title as Nelson's volume, and was published four months earlier — writes, “Those who aspire to the status of cultured individuals visit bookstores with trepidation, overwhelmed by the immensity of all they have not read.” In contrast, I go into a bookstore and get irritated by all the books I have read. This isn't to brag, or to call myself a “cultured individual” (whatever that is), but rather to say that I am picky about how I spend my reading time: If I'm not enjoying a book, no matter how vigorously recommended, I will spit it out like sour milk.

But when I am enjoying one, oh, the sweet agony. It will end, I know, and whatever kept me riveted will go on without me, and then I will have to move on to another, never satisfied. I don't finish a good book and think, “Ah, that was enough. I won't need one of those for a while.” Instead, I feel empty, as after drinking a Coke — thirst quenched, brain buzzing ineffectually.

With The Polysyllabic Spree (whose title, I'm sorry to say, is an in-joke that bugs the fuck out of me), the sweet agony was caused by the author's voice. Whatever you think of his novels, Hornby achieves a tone here that can best be described by himself (in a passage about another writer): “It's humane, and humorous at the right moments, and he has a penchant for quirky cultural references.” He's clearly smart and cultured, but not intimidating in the slightest; getting his take on all sorts of topics — how to read with a “pram in the hall,” what it feels like to realize you haven't read all the books you think you have, why we should remember that it's possible to read a book badly — is like chatting with a friend.

Nelson's So Many Books, subtitled “A Year of Passionate Reading,” first engaged me for the idea behind it, and then, once I got into it, for the characters that infuse it. What “readaholic” (Nelson's word) hasn't dreamed of a project like hers? Yet soon after starting Books I realized that I didn't really care what she read, but rather why, and how, and when, and what her choices said about her and her family and her friends and her life. Nelson isn't as good a writer as Hornby — she's pedestrian at times, sentimental at others — but I'd talk books with her anytime.

Zaid's slim paperback carries the tag line “Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance”; its fascinating research and thoughtful insights kept me going even when the author got a little highfalutin. Here's one tasty tidbit: “The human race publishes a book every thirty seconds.” And another: “Simply reading a list of [those books already written] (author and title) would take some fifteen years.” I felt smarter after reading his analysis of the literary condition.

Now, though, it's time to move on to another dish. It might be Fight Club's next choice, William Boyd's novel Any Human Heart, culled from a long, detailed review researched and read aloud by my friend Rachel. It could be My Life in Orange, the memoir by Tim Guest that I snagged for its title. Or maybe Samina Ali's Madras on Rainy Days, because I have a thing for fiction set in India. Whatever it is, I'll try to keep my expectations low, to savor what there is to savor, and, in the end, to let go.

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