On Letting Books Marinate

How do you choose which book to read (or listen to) next? For a long time, I added books to my To Be Read pile based on recommendations from every person under the sun: my mom, my professors, my friends from school, my friends from [insert hobby here], strangers, random bloggers, promotional emails, and so on. Sometimes a friend would gush over a book that put me right to sleep or, worse, sent me straight into angry grammar-related spirals. Over a long, long time, I realized that 1) people have different taste in books (shocking!) and 2) I didn’t have to accept any old recommendation!*

For a while, this changed my life. No more was I beholden to lists of “100 Classic Books You Must Read To Be Considered a Smart Person” or slogging through weird, half-baked books “written” for publicity purposes. Why did I ever feel like lists tailored to the most generic, aimless reader were meant to be followed religiously? Probably a confluence of culture and psychology, which I opt to ignore for now. More importantly, absent random recommendations, how does a TBR pile accumulate? 

On the one hand, trusted recommenders are a go-to source for me. After spending many reading-hours on (to me) clunkers, I might be too stringent with the strictures for “trustworthy” sources. Either the recommender is a friend with whom I spend many hours talking and share many experiences and acknowledge similar guiding principles, etc., -- this is a very small group of people -- or a stranger counts books and authors I love among their favorites. This might be the way reasonable people intuitively add to their own TBR piles. If that’s you, I salute your self-knowledge. If that’s not you, I am with you!

But! Even after all of this, I struggle to enjoy the book I’m currently reading under the weight of all the as-yet unread books straining in my TBR pile. In my opinion, this is the hardest part about working in a library: coming into contact everyday with innumerable nice-looking covers and clever blurbs. It’s hard to resist them. For me, it also starts to feel like ping-pong: rush through a riveting sci-fi novel to start a Troubles history to skim a new book of poetry. Nothing ends up sinking in, and while the number of books I have #read rises, I’m not really engaging with an author’s creation. Which is the whole point, right?

So I have a new approach, or what I am pedantically calling a new reading rhythm. This is where I (metaphorically) marinate my books. Rather than hurrying through page quotas and leaping from one random-but-interesting topic to another, I am trying to slow… down… and think through the questions and themes posed by each book I read. I let the book stew in my brain, like a little chicken in olive oil and lemon juice. Ideally, I want to develop a chain of books that doubles as a mental pathway: one book surfaces a question in my mind, the next is sought out to further explore the question. This feels to me like a more purposeful (and majorly neurotic, yes) TBR pile. Where does it lead? That’s less the point, of course, than the pathway itself. 

Pickling works, too.

How do you choose which book to read next? Have you noticed any rhythms in your own reading life? I would love to know -- leave a comment!

*Book Squad: don’t laugh at me too hard!

P.S. I did find some books on reading for us neurotic readers to study at length. I am going to ignore any reading tactics that don't appeal to me, and I hope you do, too.

Books on Books: How to Read, What to Read, Why to Read!

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-Hazlett Henderson is an Information Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.