Confessions of a Dilettante Reader
I was listening to a discussion on Minnesota Public Radio this morning asking this question: “What books would you take to a deserted island?” The usual answers came in: Moby Dick, Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby, etc. I rolled my eyes, despite the fact that no one was around to witness my ocular sarcasm.
I love to read. I am reading constantly. But I have a peculiar aversion to things that a lot of other people like. If something is on a bestseller list or labelled a “classic”, it automatically falls to the bottom of the wish list for me. I will read it. Eventually. Maybe. Not ever.
I know more about books than I’ve actually read in full. I’ve never made it through Moby Dick or War and Peace and here it is, folks: I’m not a fan of Austen. Doff your hankies and pummel me with your pre-Victorian disgust. I can take it. I read weird, unrelated genres. I find random books that I have to get through inter-library loan because nobody wants to read them unless they’re doing research.
I am generally reading 5-6 books at a time, picking them up depending on mood, amount of time, ability to focus, etc. This is the current stack of books on my reading table:
- The Death and Return of the Author: Criticism and Subjectivity in Barthes, Foucault and Derrida by Sean Burke
- Moscow but Dreaming by Ekaterina Sedia, a collection of Science Fiction short stories
- Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do, Edited by Meredith Maran
- Into the Garden with Charles by Clyde Phillip Wachsberger
- The Wisdom of Compassion by the Dalai Lama and Victor Chan
- Five Decades: Poems 1925-1970 by Pablo Neruda
This pile reflects how busy I’ve been lately – everything is digestible in small bites. When life slows down, I have more fiction, full length novels in the stack. When I’m in need of inspiration, I have random poetry books to read. I am especially fond of Neruda, Wordsworth, Auden and Tagore.
It makes me sound like a highbrow intellectual or a snobbish “indie reader”, but my reading habits are more about curiosity and discovery. What I read supports my interest or passion at the moment. Like Wikipedia links, one book leads to another and I follow the trail until I’m ready to move on to the next topic. Any subject you have an interest in is much fewer than six degrees of separation from something you’ve never explored.
This is the beauty of bookstores or libraries. I am on a literary safari, digging through the piles to find that gem that sparks interest, inspiration, ideas. I often wonder if I’m a truly a literary reader, especially when I hear people wax poetic about a book that they read over and over. I have some standby favorites that I promise to myself I’ll read again in my dotage. I probably won’t, though. There’s so much more I want to explore, experience and absorb – and so little time.
As a writer, I worry that I’m really missing the boat by not trudging through Joyce or Chaucer. I also worry that I know the plot lines and characters to a hundred times more books than I’ve actually read. I’m a walking Cliff’s Notes for popular literature, while I can frequently kill a conversation by making references to books no one has ever read. I am also the person who can gush on excitedly about a novel that fell off the bestseller list two decades ago. If nobody’s talking about it anymore, it’s my discovery. Even if it sounds like I just fell out of a time machine.
I am an indiscriminate reader – from cereal boxes to academic tomes on botany. If there is a new perspective, information, ideas, I’ll dive into obscure text. I’m not hip enough to adore Gaiman, intellectual enough to discuss Tocqueville or poetic enough to wade through artistic language without dozing off. Tell me a good story, teach me something, lead me to unexplored territory – this is what I look for when I want to read. It’s a book club of one, but I am rarely interrupted and I can always count on good snacks.