Whittling down Mount TBR…

I’m finding myself getting very picky about what books make it on the To Be Read (TBR) pile. By the TBR, I mean that pile of books that I’m really, truly, gosh-darn-it gonna read in the very near future. Ideally, I want the number of books on the TBR to be fewer than the number of books I read in a typical year, so I have a fighting chance of working my way through it.

Right now, I have several lists going: a list of books I own and want to read soon, a list of books I own and want to read but maybe not right away, a list of books I want to get from the library, a list of books I want to buy from Amazon if the Kindle price ever drops to a reasonable amount, a list of books I’ve heard about and kinda want to read, a list of books related to other books I’ve liked that sound interesting but I don’t know too much about them. There are probably more lists, but I’ve forgotten them.

Too many lists! I spend more time managing the lists than I do reading. So I’ve decided to cull mercilessly,  with one simple test. Am I excited to read this book? If I’m not excited to read it, it goes off the list.

For instance, All the Light We Cannot See is available at the library in electronic format, everyone’s reading it, it’s getting great reviews. So I thought about putting it on hold. But the truth is that I’m just not that excited about it. It may be truly terrific, but I feel burned out on the WWII time period, and I’m also more interested in women writers right now. So I x’ed it off the list.

I reserve the right to change my mind, of course.

StationElevenHCUS2I was going to read something else next, but everyone is reading Station Eleven and saying good things about it, I already own it on Kindle, and it is very much exciting me. I love its cover and its premise! So despite my lists and reading plans, that’s what I started reading last night.

Using this excitement test, I earmarked many, many books from my TBR pile for gradual donation to the Little Free Library or immediate donation to the Big Free Library. Now my physical TBR fits in my bedside table and there are several books on it that I am excited about reading.

I don’t like having a big TBR. It makes me feel like reading is a chore and not a joy. Also, there will always be books available, and they will always be making more books (unless, maybe, the apocalypse). So if I get rid of a book and it turns out I really did want to read it after all, I’m sure I can get another copy when I’m wanting it.

A book does it have its moment, and sometimes that moment passes us by. Books that linger too long on the TBR seem to acquire a patina of sadness. I know I’m anthropomorphizing, but that’s what it feels like to me. Better that those books move on to someone who will read them and love them and fulfill their purpose.

I will likely keep making lists, though. I do love lists.

Here’s a video from Book Riot advocating the opposite point of view–i.e., just keep adding on to the TBR all you want as long as you have money, time and space for them. (And stop anthropomorphizing books, ha ha!) I don’t tend to agree, because the TBR has weight for me, but I do think I should be able to buy and keep any books I want because I am an adult. I even buy books I’ve already and gotten rid of if I find a particularly beautiful edition. We all love books in our own ways.

Tidbits…

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I saw the third installment of The Hobbit over the holiday, and I have to say that this has not been my favorite book-to-film adaptation. More is not always more, a tough lesson to learn. Anyone else tired of unending superhero movies and uninspired sequels as well? The movies just don’t seem fun anymore.

I did see Birdman over the break too, which I really liked. It pokes a lot of jabs at superhero movies and Hollywood sacred cows. Other than The Grand Budapest Hotel, Birdman is the only Oscar-nominated movie I’ve seen. I liked them both, so take note: They never give Oscars to movies I like.

Speaking of overblown movie award shows, I loved this joke by Tina Fey at the Golden Globes: “Steve Carell’s Foxcatcher look took two hours to put on, including his hairstyling and make-up. Just for comparison, it took me three hours today to prepare for my role as human woman.”

I didn’t watch the awards, but I did watch Amy and Tina’s monologue and thought it was great.

I just purchased and started reading a beautiful little book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I was struck by this sentence in the section on books: “The moment you first encounter a particular book is the right time to read it.”

Hmm. This strikes me as true, as I just cleaned out my books and earmarked for the Little Free Library or book sale donation all of those books I’ve owned for over a year that have gone unread. I figured the moment when I felt the energy to read them has passed me by, and if I ever do feel moved to read them, well, books are very easy for me to get.

But it’s making me re-evaluate the whole idea of reading by categories over a year. While I love being organized and planning my reading ahead, it removes the spontaneity. I think there is a balance to be achieved–still musing on what the right balance is, though.

Favorite Reads of 2014

I was going to do a whole “year in reading” post, but I got sucked into other things and now I find the year has already turned over. Happy new year!

Here are my favorite reads of last year. Many are relatively new, some are classics, all are worth your time.

The Sundial Cover

The Sundial by Shirley Jackson: After receiving a vision from their deceased father, the Halloran family and their various hangers-on prepare for the end of the world (gothic horror classic). I got this wonderful Penguin edition with introduction by Victor Lavalle.

The Burn Palace by Stephen Dobyns begins with a maternity nurse discovering that one of the newborns in her care has disappeared and has been replaced by a six-foot corn snake, and it just gets wilder from there (mystery).

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers: Mystery writer Harriet Vane returns to her college at Oxford and is drawn into an investigation of a spate of poison pen letters, vandalism, and other pranks; she must call on Lord Peter Wimsey to help her solve the mystery (mystery classic).

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler: Private eye Philip Marlowe is hired by a millionaire to track down a blackmailer and gets entangled with his spoiled daughters and a bunch of seedy characters (mystery classic).

China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh: In the 22nd century, when China is the dominant superpower and the US has had a socialist revolution, Zhang is trying to figure out what to do with his life (science fiction).

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie: At one time, the artificial intelligence Justice of Toren was the brain of a massive starship as well as the crew members on-board and the security forces keeping peace on a conquered planet, inhabiting the bodies of human prisoners-of-war, called ancillaries, whose brains have been wiped clean and repurposed. But now the AI, called Breq, is confined to just one of her ancillary bodies, as she doggedly pursues revenge against the one who betrayed her while becoming embroiled in a complicated struggle for power over the galactic empire (science fiction).

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell: Mitchell’s latest novel is a genre-bending epic spanning 60 years about the people whose fates are altered by an ongoing war between immortals (literary fiction).

In the Woods by Tana French: Investigating a child murder, Detective Ryan returns for the first time to his childhood home, where his two best friends disappeared in a still-unsolved crime (mystery).

Rivers by Michael Farris Smith: In the near future, climate change and perpetual storms have forced the US government to abandon the Gulf Coast, and those who remain live without laws or services (apocalyptic fiction).

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh: Tells the truth on every page. And there are dogs. They aren’t cute dogs but you can’t have everything (humor).

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons: Flora Poste moves in with distant relatives on Cold Comfort Farm and decides to fix everybody (humor classics).

Revival by Stephen King: Throughout his life, Jamie Morton has repeatedly encountered the Reverend Charles Jacobs and been drawn into his mysterious experiments with electricity, but toward the end of Jacobs’ life he coerces Jamie into participating into the ultimate–and most dangerous–of experiments (horror).

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett: After learning that her colleague has died of a “fever” in the Amazon jungle, Dr. Marina Singh follows in his footsteps to learn more about the cause of his death and locate the reclusive Doctor Annick Swenson, who is developing a miracle fertility drug (literary fiction).

Top kids’ books: James and the Giant Peach, The 13 Clocks and Charlotte’s Web — all rereads.

For writers who want to self-publish…

I’ve been reading a lot of self-published books lately for a freelance gig reviewing independently published books. I am not opposed to self-publishing. I think it’s terrific that technology is allowing more writers to get their work out there and have the opportunity to be read.

BUT… (you knew that was coming, right?)

A lot of readers are turned off of self-published books and refuse to even consider reading them, and I think that’s only going to get worse. There are many reasons for this that I could get into, but the major one that’s been bugging me, that I see time and again in the books I review, is sloppiness.

Sloppy grammar, sloppy spelling, sloppy storytelling, sloppy characterization. It’s as if the writer is in such a rush to publish that s/he forgets to slow down and take care with this thing s/he is making.

Traditional publishing does provide one important thing that self-publishing does not: time. It takes time to get through all those gates the publishers are keeping. It takes time to prepare a book for publication. During that time, the writing can be polished, edited, corrected, cleaned up. It results in a better product.

Readers can be notoriously picky about little things like grammar and punctuation. Sometimes I think we readers are more particular about these things than many writers. You have to remember that we read primarily for enjoyment. A book riddled with errors does not make for an enjoyable read. A sloppily written book will not be worth the time readers have to put in, much less their money.

If you are a writer who intends to self-publish, and you want to make it big a la Hugh Howey or Andy Weir, you have to be more perfect than everyone else. I can direct some criticisms at Howey’s and Weir’s books, but at least they were free of egregious grammatical and spelling errors, which meant I enjoyed the experience of reading them.

The best advice I can give to writers who want to self publish is to reread your work many times and mercilessly eradicate all the errors you find. Better yet, invest in a thorough copy edit by a professional who really knows their stuff.

Above all, don’t be sloppy. If this is something you really feel you want to do, as a profession or even as a calling, then take your time and make your writing the best it can be.

In future posts, I’m going to be offering specific advice about the most common errors I’m seeing in the self-published manuscripts I’m reading. There are many ways to follow me (see the sidebar) if you’d like to improve your writing.

Reading with focus, or the annual theme read…

This year, for the first time, I tried reading around a theme or focus. The focus I picked was mysteries, a genre I have not paid much attention to since I devoured them as a youngster. To tell the truth, I really didn’t get focused until around August, so most of my reading was random and haphazard as per usual, but I did read more mysteries than I normally would (normal being zero).

I am enjoying it. I finally read some classics I had been meaning to get around to, I dabbled in a couple of the sub-genres, I tried a mystery set in my hometown, and I rounded it out with several mysteries from around the world. I know–the year is not done yet. I still have quite a few mysteries loaded on the Kindle and waiting for me.

To be clear, I didn’t read only mysteries. But I did make a list and tried to focus on them. I read with intent, which was to re-educate myself in the genre.

I think it might be fun to do this every year. Next year, I’m considering reading through time and reading speculative fiction by women as two potential focuses.

Since I love making book lists, I thought it might be fun to come up with some mini-courses that a reader could do in a year or less to learn more about a particular genre or type of literature. The courses could be organized in several ways. I could pick representative works or authors from the earliest examples through to the present day and get a broad overview. Or I could focus on reading the best example from several different sub-genres. Finally, I could narrow the selection to a focus within the genre, such as reading works by women or by minority writers. If I put a few of these mini-courses together, I’ll post them.

Have you ever tried reading around a theme or focus for a specific period of time?

How to decide what to read next…

Over on that most wonderful bookish online community, LibraryThing, entire groups and challenges are dedicated to helping us pick what to read next from the gigantic wishlist of everything we’ve ever wanted to read. My favorite way is to join in on theme challenges, selecting a book from a randomly proposed theme like “books with disasters in them” (Rivers, my next read) or even “a book that has blood on the cover” (NOS4A2my last read).

It appears that readers everywhere have this very perplexing problem of picking what to read next and have devised all sorts of solutions. There are website services like this one or this one or this one, librarians can provide custom recommendations, or go the simple route and create a book jar. Also an attractive option for displaying next to the bookshelves.

How do you decide what to read next?

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 4 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: