Confessions of a Dilettante Reader

canstockphoto8693491I 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.

35 Comments on “Confessions of a Dilettante Reader

  1. Moby Dick??!! As what? Kindling for your SOS fire? Gaaahhh. Moby Dick is what happens when authors are paid by the page.

    I would take the complete collection of the Thousand Nights and a Night translated by Sir Richard F. Burton (with footnotes!).

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    • I can see the drawback of writing this post – I’m going to end up with a zillion more titles on my reading list!

      I’ve always felt a little ashamed that Fitzgerald, Melville and Hemingway have never sparked an interest in me except as peripheral (or assigned) reading.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have recently, late to the game, joined the ranks of those who enjoy wine and also cigars… I have learned that it really comes down to taste. One man’s “two-buck Chuck” is another man’s “Sir Charles”. If you like White Owl more than My Father… more power to you.

        A particular individual’s taste is hard to judge. As Apple Jacks’ commercials often ironically exclaim, “We eat what we like!”

        I’m not really an advocate of moral relativism, but I do feel that what you like is up to you and your experiences… and I don’t think you need to feel shame for not agreeing with popular thought. 🙂

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        • I try to make sure that I don’t just read what suits my temperament or belief system for fear that I’m limiting myself. While I’m perfectly okay being disagreeable disagreeing with popular opinion, I don’t want to miss something because I’m being oppositional.

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  2. I read most anything. But put a Russian novel in front of me and I will be in a coma before page 2. Unless I opt for suicide on page 1, that is. And Joyce may be the most overrated windbag I have ever read.

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    • Ha! I did graduate work in Russian literature, so you’d think it would click with me. War and Peace was very distracting, since I had to keep looking up the cast of characters to keep the names straight.
      I’ve started Ulysses about ten times, but apparently I’m not avant-garde enough to be hooked by all that stream-of-consciousness writing.

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  3. Oh I love your phrase “ocular sarcasm” I just want to use that again and again…. Good post… always finding out something new about you. Russian Literature! I am impressed. I couldnt get through Hemingway. At this moment in my life, all I read are blogs!

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    • Don’t be too impressed – the phrase “did graduate work in” means I quit grad school! I go through phases of doing more online reading than offline. It tends to shorten my attention span somewhat, so I have to take breaks.

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      • I was in college courses for at least four years, but I never got a degree and I don’t think I ever will! Therefore, I think I will steal your “did graduate work in” concept!! I’ll say I’ve “done collegiate work in” and not feel an ounce of guilt! Boo ya!

        Thanks!

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  4. I must say, it’s kind of a relief to hear you all talking this way. In my graduate writing program, I find myself nodding knowingly when Joyce, James, and Hemingway are discussed. I have tried them and found I don’t enjoy them. Life is too short to read things to impress others.God save me from Faulkner. An Austen every few years is more than enough. I do like Trollope, though, oddly enough.
    I, too, am in the time machine mode, often discovering best-sellers after everyone else has forgotten them. I, too, have a list of favorites that I intend to re-read after I can no longer garden but probably never will. I, too, read 5 or more books at a time, but I wish I didn’t. I’d like to focus more.
    I love Russian novels, though! I try to read one each winter when the weather matches the mood.
    Happy summer reading – time for my biggest guilty pleasure…Grisham comes out in paperback in the summers! I can hear the ocean and feel the warm sand beneath my feet already. Don’t tell my professors.

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    • It’s a relief to hear from someone doing something that I used to wish for – getting into a good writing program, someone who is not a literary classicist (did I make that word up?). I’ll never forget reading “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad – I completely, utterly loathed the book and kept silent as everyone discussed its literary merits. I’m sure there were some, but I hated the story and the characters.

      I like shorter Russian novels and short stories, especially by Chekhov and Nagibin. Sprawling dynastic novels are a little tougher.

      Glad to hear that I’m not the only weird, eclectic reader out there!

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  5. “Tell me a good story, teach me something, lead me to unexplored territory – this is what I look for when I want to read.” Perfect requirements for reading and for living! Terrific post Michelle!

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  6. A writing instructor recently gave wonderful advice – read the kind of books you want to write. So I do not feel guilty not reading the ‘classics’ – that is not my style!
    Also, I have gotten to the point in life where time is precious – if I do not like a book after a few pages, I don’t finish it. There are too many good ones I know I will enjoy out there…

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    • I’ve definitely gotten in the habit of not finishing books that don’t retain my interest. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the very advice your instructor gave. I am currently working on the 2nd draft of my novel, but have realized that I would not choose to read it! I have to make a decision about whether or not I continue or if it’s simply a starter novel I need to get out of my system.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

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  7. Great post, and I like that ocular sarcasm phrase too. (I specialize in it and am usually caught at it.) All those literary books are so darn depressing. If I want depressing I’ll watch the news. I’m out and proud that I haven’t ever finished The Great Gatsby. Not that you asked what I’m reading, but I’m telling. I would take the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher, the Harry Potter series (on audio read by Jim Dale) and Malcolm Gladwell’s books. How big is the island? If there was enough room I might take a couple Lemony Snickets (also in audio form read by Tim Curry I better get stranded with a solar charger). “Kon Tiki” would probably be a good choice.

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    • I absolutely love the Harry Potter audio series – Jim Dale is awesome! There is a theme that runs through many classics, much like Elyse’s reaction to Russian novels. If it’s a classic, somebody is killing themselves, getting murdered, being molested or the supposed protagonist is a reprehensible human being. If I were stuck with only a book or two, it would be Vonnegut, because his writing makes me laugh (sometimes morosely).

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  8. I don’t read as much these days as I would like, but I can find a camera manual as enthralling as a good mystery. I do love to read biographies – Just finished Steve Jobs’. I think the only bio that ever bored me was one on Grover Cleveland – not much to work with I suppose.

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    • I rarely read biographies, probably for the reasons I mentioned in Death by Writing – knowing too much sometimes ruins things for me. Occasionally I do read biographies of historical (not cultural) figures. Grover Cleveland would never make my reading list, but I had thought about reading the Jobs’ biography. The Atlantic wrote an article that made it seem like it might not be enjoyable to read. Did you like it? I did like Walter Isaacson’s other biographies on Franklin and Einstein.

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      • I love historical biographies the best – Doris Kearns Goodwin’s presidential bios are my favorites. I liked Jobs because it really gave insight into his thinking process, which was revolutionary. It was a long read, and unvarnished but I did enjoy it. I like autobiographies too – Barak Obama’s books were fascinating, so were the Reagan Diaries. I don’t read many that are “cultural” – I prefer historical.

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  9. I minored in English Literature (and majored in Creative writing) at university, and I HATE ‘classics’, probably even more now that I have had to study them. Reading books you just aren’t interested in is a minor form of torture…

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    • True about the torture. Guilt about being too low brow convinces me to attempt to read some classics, but my interest wanes quickly. I enjoy reading what I don’t have to parse to understand.

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  10. I wouldn’t sweat it with Joyce, which is sacrilege for me to say…but depends on the time and place. Got some Neruda ourselves, we do! Nice post.

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    • While I haven’t given up on Joyce altogether (Still have A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man on the reading list), I likely won’t be returning to Ulysses anytime soon. And you’re right, time and place make a huge difference. If I have a long stretch of uninterrupted time, I’m able to work through more difficult literary works. Lately that hasn’t been the case, but with long summer days arriving, I look forward to losing myself to a book or ten.

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  11. Your stack sounds interesting! I’ve read a lot of the books you say you haven’t read. Some I loved on my own. Some I hated and couldn’t get through. A lot of them I liked reading because they were for class and I find it easier to understand some books when I’m reading them with others. None of the books you mentioned as not having read are must-reads on their own, IMO. But reading some of the classics is definitely a good idea because they underpin (if that makes any sense) a lot of current writing and culture. Not reading any of them is like missing out on fairy tales and folk tales or nursery rhymes. Maybe I should wake up before I try to present a case haha.

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    • I understand what you are saying. This is also why I believe a religious education is important, despite my secular humanist beliefs – the Bible, Torah, Koran are often the sources for literary allusion. On the other hand, as a writer, sometimes naivete and lack of knowledge is a good thing – fewer attempts to mimic “classics” and just plowing forward blazing one’s own trail is good. I cross the path of classics when I’m following interests and that’s usually when I read them, if at all.

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      • I agree about the religious education, too. Although I had lots of Sunday School as a kid, when I studied literature, I wish I had fit in a class on “The Bible as literature,” that sort of thing. The kind of classics I’m most glad I read are the ones people rarely talk about like William Dean Howells, Edith Wharton, etc.

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        • In 20/20 hindsight, I feel fortunate for my fundamentalist religious upbringing – I know the Bible pretty thoroughly.

          I did read Age of Innocence, impressed that Ms. Wharton was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize. I find it hard to read books about the depressing status of women in past societies, although one of my favorite books regarding class is Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence.

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        • I used to love D.H. Lawrence until suddenly I didn’t like him any more at all! Now I prefer to read memoirs by contemporary women ;).

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  12. I devoured libraries in my teen years…but everyone is always surprised to find out that I’ve read very few of the so called ‘classics’. And those that I have, I generally dislike. I would much rather pick up a book and decide for myself if its a ‘classic’ than read something just because people say it is.

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    • I always wonder what is wrong with me when I read a book everyone is raving about and I don’t get the hoopla. Reading, like anything else, is so subjective and personal.

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