How to consciously read books written by women…

Before I started journaling my reading, in 2001, I just read whatever caught my eye at the bookstore without any sort of plan whatsoever. Over the decade since I started journaling, I’ve gradually become more purposeful in my reading, and if I look back over my journals (now on LibraryThing), I can see a steady improvement in the books I choose to read reflected in higher ratings and fewer abandoned books. 

At the beginning of the year, I did an exercise where I identified my top 10 favorite books of all time. I noticed that 7 out of 10 books were written by women (and of the 3 on my list written by men, one of those men was gay), but in my general reading, I’m still reading 2 books by men for every 1 book by a woman, according to LibraryThing stats. I decided to get even more purposeful in my reading and read mostly women, choosing books that are similar to my top 7 favorite books/authors. I still have a lot of unplanned reads, but the deliberate planning has been helping me discover new-to-me authors and break out of my ruts. This month, for instance, I’m reading 5 sci-fi/fantasy books all by women I have never read before.

My goals to stretch even further would be to read more women of color and more authors from countries other than the US/Canada/Britain. I would also like to read more gay authors and more authors of color generally. As a former English major, I find that I have about had my fill of the white male voice, even though there are many white male authors whose books I enjoy. But I want to hear from some other voices and open up my world even more.

For further reading:

Accidentally reading about reptiles…

srpsnakeI realized with the first two reads of the year, I have an accidental theme going on: reptiles in my fiction! With Swamplandia! it was alligators; then there is a snake in The Burn Palace. Our upcoming book club read is set in Texas, so I wonder if a lizard will figure into the plot.

That got me wondering how many of my past reads featured reptiles, so I did a quick search. Snakes are by far the most common reptiles to show up in my book reviews and summaries. Going back in time, I see there were significant snake scenes in:

As for alligators and crocodiles, there is only Swamplandia! that I can recall. There may have been a crocodile in The Poisonwood Bible.

There are quite significant cosmic turtles in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, from which I’ve read Small Gods, and in It and The Dark Tower series by Stephen King. As for actual turtles, they don’t seem as common, although the Mock Turtle in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland certainly comes to mind.

I also can’t seem to find any books I’ve read with lizards in them, although there are dinosaurs of course in Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton and The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle.

Would you be more or less likely to read a book with a snake in it? I’d rather meet one in fiction than in real life, that’s for sure!

Here’s a list of fictional reptiles from Wikipedia and a list of Reptiles in Fiction on LibraryThing, if you’d like to seek out even more reptiles in your fiction.

Reading night…

Last night, my husband and I instituted reading night. We didn’t turn on the TV, and instead read and listened to music during that time. I was worried I would be tired or sleepy to spend the entire evening reading, but I actually enjoyed it. I went to bed relaxed, and I made a good dent in the book I’m reading. It’s easy to get in a rut and just turn on the TV every night. I hope we’re able to keep up reading night, and maybe we’ll also add a game night to the week.

Reading is super.

Thoughts on The Circle…

The Circle coverThe last book I finished reading in 2013 was The Circle by Dave Eggers. The title refers to a fictional company that is quite obviously an amalgam of Google and Facebook. The book is a dystopian view of a near-future, a nightmarish outcome of current trends like living our lives via social networks, and the resulting monetization of our every share, the loss of privacy, and ultimately, loss of freedom.

While Eggers’ symbolism becomes quite heavy-handed, this is a chilling, sinister book that made me immediately want to disconnect my Facebook account. It was also an exciting book to read, because it depicts the world we are living in right now. This book may quickly become dated, but right now, it feels very current. The issues that it raises are issues we should all be thinking about and debating, and the point The Circle makes is that people have a tendency to accept what is new and exciting and convenient without really questioning the unintended consequences.

At its essence, I think The Circle is about indoctrination into a cult, how people can easily be persuaded that giving up fundamental freedoms is actually a good and necessary thing. Except in this case, the cult is global.

I’m not going to call The Circle great literature. But I think it is a thought-provoking read.

Here’s an excerpt from the book published in the New York Times Magazine.

How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read

“Non-reading is not just the absence of reading. It is a genuine activity, one that consists of adopting a stance in relation to the immense tide of books that protects you from drowning. On that basis, it deserves to be defended and even taught.”

How To Talk About Books You Havent Read on Brain Pickings is a great piece that helped crystallize some ideas that had been swirling around in my brain. I spend a lot of time thinking about what I will read, what I will read next and whether I should continue reading what I am reading now. My reading time is limited, and I want to spend it in the best way possible for me. Since I’ve become so conscious of what I read, I have consistently read books that I have enjoyed more and that have made me think more.

There is that tinge of guilt that comes with not reading something, especially if it is a deliberate choice. I really ought to read ______ (fill in the blank with important literary work here). Well, this post banished all those guilty feelings. I can read, not read, skim, give up, just read the review in the NYT, as I choose, because it all becomes part of my collective library. Even the books that I don’t read have meaning to me.

The post even provides a system of categorization of unread books: unknown, skimmed, heard about, forgotten. Those books too may be weighted on a scale from an extremely positive opinion to extremely negative. I immediately put this rating scale into practice when going through my library and trying to decide what to read or reread next. A forgotten book associated with an extremely positive feeling got put on my “to read” shelf, while one with a negative or even neutral opinion was placed in the donate pile, as I knew I wouldn’t want to reread it.

I realize that not everyone delves so deeply into their reading life as to categorize books they haven’t even read yet, but it is a comfort to know that I am not the only one to do so. Indeed, there is a whole book dedicated to the subject. To be truthful, I probably won’t read that book, since this summary on Brain Pickings gave me all the food for thought I needed.

I am a picky reader…

This is a repost of an old post of mine from Books Worth Reading. I think about it every time I hear someone say that they can’t or shouldn’t put down a book they’ve started reading, despite not enjoying it.

Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that you or I read, on average, 50 books a year. This is based on reading approximately one book per week, with a two-week vacation (to make the math easier). I know many people read a lot more than this, but most people read less, and I think it is a reasonable number. At least, it is fairly true of me.

Now, also for the sake of argument, let’s estimate that we will all live to be 95 years old, and we will retain our eyesight and mental faculties until our last days. Omitting the first 5 years of life, when we did not know how to read, that gives us approximately 90 years of reading time in a lifetime.

So, averaging 50 books a year for 90 years means that most of us will read around 4,500 books over the course of our life.

In 2006 (the latest year for which I could find data), 291,920 books were published in the United States alone. It would take almost 65 of us, reading our entire lives, just to read all of those books. And that’s what was published in just one year.

I don’t know about you, but if I am going to be able to read only the tiniest fraction of all the books that are out there, I want them to be good books. Which means I’m not going to feel guilty again about putting a book down after page 100, or page 10, or paragraph 10, or even word 10.

Life’s too short to read bad books.

How to be a better reader…

I spotted this question on Quora: How does one become a better reader and what does it mean to be a better reader? Here is my answer.

Being a better reader, I would say, means that you choose higher quality books that can enlighten as well as entertain you. By high quality, I don’t just mean the established canon of literature, but instead I am referring to well-written, impactful books in whatever genre speaks to your interests. Over time, you’ll find that you more naturally choose these books, that you learn more from your reading and that you retain what you’ve read longer. Your reading will start to inform other aspects of your life, particularly your creative life. In all respects, your reading will be richer.

A good way to become a better reader is to practice close reading. Instead of skimming or reading quickly, try reading word by word. Pay attention to the word choices writers have made and the way they have structured their sentences and paragraphs. Think about the effect they are trying to accomplish with their choices. You will read more slowly and you may read less, but you will get more out of what you read. And you will be unable to tolerate poor writing! For more on this technique, see Francine Prose’s book Reading Like a Writer or her article on Close Reading in The Atlantic.

I believe I became a better reader after I started journaling my reading. There are many methods available: a notebook, a blog, social sites like LibraryThing or GoodReads. Discussing what you’ve read with others is also helpful. Over time, I found myself choosing better books and thinking more deeply about what I read. It helps me to think of reading as a conversation between me (the reader) and the writer. Once the writer has his/her say, then I respond. This definitely helps me internalize what I’ve read and remember it longer.