Building My Stack

In a recent blog post, first-time author and and long(ish)-time blogger Rebecca Rosenblum asked her readers (and I guess I count as one of those) to list the books they are reading and talk about the hows and whys of their reading choices. I refer to the books I own but have yet to read as “my stack,” with books I plan to read soon on the top, and books I plan to read much later at the bottom. My personal library of unread books was at one point an actual stack, but over the years it has grown large enough to render that description purely metaphorical. Anyway, I love to talk about this sort of thing, so behold! the great and mighty post about how I choose my reading material.

Right now the only book I’m reading is Elyse Friedman’s Long Story Short, which I chose because it caught my eye at the House of Anansi booth at this year’s Word on the Street festival in Queen’s Park, and really for no other reason. I almost wish I had a better story to tell, because it would let me get into the sometimes circuitous ways in which I choose what book to read next, the circuitous ways accounting for probably sixty percent of my choices. Instead it will have to serve as the example for how I choose the other forty percent: I’m out in the world somewhere, and for some reason (the cover, the blurbs, the way it’s made) a book will catch my eye, and I feel compelled to add it to my stack.

I should also probably mention that I only read one book at a time, and I read every book cover to cover with no exceptions. This made my Reading 2007 and ongoing Reading 2008 projects considerably easier, but I actually adopted the approach upon leaving grad school in 2005. I found that I was reading most books in a mercenary way, with specific goals in mind, to have something to say in class, to support the thesis of my latest paper, to learn how another author approached certain questions of narrative, or whatever. I was getting a lot out of the books intellectually, but it was all short-term. Once my task was achieved, the books slid from my mind. They didn’t linger in my emotional or moral awareness (the world moral is pretty loaded, and I’m not talking about taking a specific doctrine and applying it superficially to the content of a book; it’s more complex than that, so much so that I’m not entirely sure that I can explain it in a satisfactory way), and that’s a significant chunk of what I want from a book, as a pleasure-seeking reader. I find that by reading one book at a time, and not abandoning that book, I not only absorb a good deal more of the book emotionally, I also actually manage to read a greater number of books. It’s no longer just mercenary reading, it’s complete immersion (though it doesn’t always show in my reviews here, which are intended more as sketches and impressions or even meditations than carefully structured opinions or arguments).

Aside from “catching my eye,” though, there are any number of ways that I can choose what to read next. I started reading Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series because, after ignoring my father’s praise of them for years (stupid of me, really; he has a great eye for that sort of book) I ran across an interview, in The Paris Review, I think, wherein A.S. Byatt spoke very highly of his work. Her book, Still Life, is the only work of art other than Othello to move me to tears, and I respect her opinions and ideas a great deal, and adding that to my father’s praise, reading them was a no-brainer. I read all twenty in less than a year. Byatt was also instrumental in my reading Iris Murdoch. I wrote my honours essay (or “undergraduate thesis” in UW parlance) on The Biographer’s Tale, my favourite Byatt novel, and it was my thesis advisor, the brilliant Dr. Sarah Tolmie, who pushed me in the direction of Murdoch.

I purchased and read Zadie Smith’s On Beauty because of positive reviews and commentary, mostly from blogs, that stressed how the book engages with English literary tradition without sacrificing contemporary interests, a delicate balance that I find incredibly compelling as both a reader and a writer. I came to both Muriella Pent and Special Topics in Calamity Physics in much the same way.

A good deal of the books I’ve read this year (In the Place of Last Things by Michael Helm, Dead Man’s Float by Nicholas Maes, Fits Like A Rubber Dress by Roxane Ward, Nathan Sellyn’s Indigenous Beasts, Catherine Hanrahan’s Lost Girls and Love Hotels, and Sarah Dearing’s Courage My Love for example) came from a desire to see how Canadian writers deal with conspicuous sex, violence, or themes of urban life, things that are often hard to find in our accepted national narratives. I roam used book stores (the BMV on Bloor St. is a particular favourite for this sort of thing) looking through their CanLit sections for books with mostly naked ladies on the covers, aggressively modern or post-modern designs, or compelling non sequitur titles. These books are often substantially cheaper than volumes of Alice Munro or Timothy Findley, and tend to come from less mainstream publishers. Some of them are spectacular, most are mediocre, but what they all show me is that there are writers out there, existing mostly in a kind of remainder-bin underclass space, who are making a genuine effort to put aside our literary community’s dusty obsession with history and embrace our society’s contemporary makeup.

There’s other ways that I find books, of course. I have a huge list of books and authors that I’ve been wanting to read for years that I often draw from. Girlfriends (one ex in particular) or my few bookish friends can be remarkable sources for reading material, and I’ve come to rely quite heavily on the opinions of bloggers such as Mr. Beattie. And often, more often than you may imagine, I will find the name of an author or a book referenced by a narrator or character in a work of fiction. That rarely fails to pique my curiosity. Once in a while a publisher or an author will see fit to send me a book, and that’s always quite nice.

Lately, in no small part because I now review on this blog every book I read in a calendar year, I pay close attention to a great many things when choosing what book to read next that would not have entered into my thoughts at all before. Even considering many of these factors makes me feel dishonest, as I don’t believe they have any bearing on a work’s worthiness or quality, but being even marginally in the public eye forces a certain amount of pressure on my choices that I have difficulty ignoring. If I’ve read three or four books in a row written by men, I find myself confronted with questions about whether or not I read enough female authors, and so a book may be moved closer to the top of my stack. It hasn’t been an issue this year, but in previous years I’ve had to seriously question whether I’m engaging with my own nation’s literature to a reasonable degree, and so I find myself placing Canadian books at strategic positions in my stack. It doesn’t feel entirely honest, and since I’ve already written about this issue in greater depth, I won’t get any deeper into it here.

As you can see, there’s nothing very special about how I choose my reading material. I imagine that most pleasure-seeking readers have similarly diverse processes for selecting books.


Writer. Editor. Critic.

One Comment

  1. Hey, August!
    I didn’t see this before, but it’s great! I never thought of the parallels between On Beauty/Muriella Pent/Calamity Physics before–good point!

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