opinions · reading life

Shut Up and Listen; Or, Having Bookish Guts

There are books that I describe as “deserve to be widely read.” I hate to do this. It just reminds me that these books will most likely be read by the people who are already kind on board with their message and ignored or denigrated by people who need to shut up and listen. That last bit of wisdom comes from a faculty member I was talking books with earlier today. This professor was talking about reading I Can’t Breathe, by Matt Taibbi, with her reading group, who focus on books about social issues.

(c) South Ayrshire Council; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
A.C.W. Duncan

I wish that my university would pick something like I Can’t Breathe as its freshman read. I think up until now, they’ve chosen books that cover important issues but that are about something that it’s possible for American readers to distance themselves from. These books, like Three Cups of Tea, end up reminding students that they’re lucky to be born in American. I would like to read gutsy books along with these students. I know it won’t be fun. It will be downright uncomfortable. We’ll get angry. We’ll get upset. But that’s what a great book about injustice should do. (And there’s a lot of injustice out there.)

I’m generally against required reading of books that aren’t enjoyable. And I understand why schools don’t pick uncomfortable. Three years ago, Duke University got in hot water when they picked Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. But I think the occasional uncomfortable, angering book is good for us. It’s even better when we have people to talk about it with. Reading books like I Can’t Breathe alone can make us feel helpless as well as angry. If we read it with a bunch of other angry people, after we all shut up and listen to people who aren’t being heard, we can make some changes. We can vote and make a difference.

And it can all start with an uncomfortable book we have to read. Someone just has to be brave enough to assign the book. After all, these books deserve it.


The Unquantifiable Canon; Or, Thoughts About the Collective Literary Conscious

A few of the book bloggers I follow have written posts about which books they’d add or remove from the Western canon. Reading those posts (linked in the most recent week on the bookish internet post) has set me to thinking about which books we add and which ones we leave out. This isn’t the most original post; scholars more experienced and better than mean have tackled the question of what ought to be in the canon. Harold Bloom made an entire career out of that.

Poul Friis Nybo

There are two ways to define a canon. On the one hand, a canon is the collective “best” work of a culture (or a species, for the people who very persuasively argue for a global canon). Best is obviously up for debate because it’s entirely subjective. On the other hand, a canon can be all of the works that readers ought to read in order to be considered well-read. There’s a lot of overlap between the two groups, but there are some distinctions—mostly because of readers’ and scholars’ subjectivity.

It would be nice to try for a global canon. Unfortunately, no library has the shelf room or the budget. Additionally, there would still be the problem of deciding what the cutoff is between “best” or ought to read and ordinary reading fodder that doesn’t stick with us for very long. For example, I think James Joyce’s Ulyssesis either a prank or just a mess. But almost everyone will argue against me.

The only thing I can say definitively about the canon is that it is a moving target. Any list will be obsolete a year after it’s published. I might think this because I’m a librarian, and I see books come in and go out of the library constantly. There are a lot of books that stay on the shelves, of course. We can’t throw out Shakespeare, Atwood, Rumi, L’Engle, Dickens, Ferdowsi, Austen, Lady Murasaki, etc. etc. But Horatio Alger is mostly gone. Melville was out and then in. Booth Tarkington appears on century old lists of books people will read in the future. Most readers now would struggle to name even one of his books. And at what point can we add N.K. Jemisin or Colson Whitehead to the canon?

Whether or not it’s necessary to have a definitive canon, it’s certainly a lot of fun to think about if you’re a bookworm. I love arguing with other readers about what’s “best,” what other’s ought to read, and where the cutoff should be. I’ve never written down a personal canon. It would probably snowball out of control within minutes because I just know I would try to come up with something that was both the “best” literature, challenging but meaningful literature, and inclusivity so that as many groups of people are represented as possible.

What would be in your personal canons?

• My money is on prank.


Start at the Beginning. Or the Middle. Or the End.

Since I finished The Witch Elm by Tana French last week, I’ve been thinking about a critical authorial decision: where to start the story. It doesn’t seem like it should be a hard decision. The story should start at the beginning. The question, though, is, where is the beginning?

On reflection, most of the books I read start in medias res. This means that they start right in the middle of the action. A catalytic event has already happened and the characters are scrabbling to put things right. Starting the story after the beginning is a winning formula because there’s no need for the author to ramp things up; there’s already narrative tension from the off. Some of the best mysteries I’ve seen, like Memento, or read actually start at the end and work their way backwards. 

Emily Bobovnikov

Literary novels, I’ve noticed tend to take their time about narrative tension, but they usually start close to whatever development launches the plot. Romance novels are similar because the meet-cute is part of the fun of the genre. Fantasy novels tend to cheat a bit. So many of them have prologues that take readers back years (or more) to provide information that probably won’t make sense until the end. 

Tana French’s The Witch Elm is the only book I can think of that starts before the big catalytic event. It started so far before that event that I was initially frustrated because I wanted the story to just get on with it. It was only later that I realized what French was up to and that I needed all that background to understand the emotional depth of the rest of the story.

But that’s why this question is so important. If the novel starts too “early,” you risk wearing out your readers’ patience. Too “late,” and you risk loosing your readers completely because they won’t understand what’s going on and/or what’s at stake. When it goes wrong, it goes really wrong. When it goes right, we hardly notice and the story just feels right. I’m glad I read The Witch Elm. Not only was the story brilliant overall, but it got me to pause and reflect on a terrifically different job for an author. 

opinions · reading life

Diamonds in the Rough; Or, Finding Great Reads in Generic Dross

A fellow bookish blogger, Smithereens, asked me a question about whether or not sue should read a particular book in a super-saturated genre. That question got me to thinking about what does make a book a stand out from the crowd when there are a bajillion examples of the genre all over the market.

Isaac Israel

Saturated genre markets are not unusual. Someone creates a winner—Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s StoneThe Da Vinci Code; any number of supernatural romances; and, in the case of Smithereens’ question, the mind-boggling number of dystopias currently crowding bookstore shelves—and then the Big Five publishers start cranking out readalikes until people get bored of them and move on to the next big read. This isn’t to say that all the clones are not worthwhile. There are good books in any heap. The problem is that, the more books there are in a genre, the harder it is to find the really good ones. Hence my question. So, I thought of some things to look for to find the goods ones:

  1. Look for roundups of the best examples of a particular genre on the big bookish sites like Book Riot, LitHub, or other source that has similar tastes to you. I prefer sites that provide at least little blurbs to explain why the books are particularly good type specimens.
  2. Read reviews of books that catch your eye and look for hints that the book does something different from the usual fare:
    1. Look for a protagonist who does not look like the usual type.
    2. Look for language that amounts to “twist on the usual.” For me, the stand outs in any saturated genre are the ones that play around with expectations. They’ll flip genders, mash up genres, age up the protagonist, avoid the tropes, etc.
    3. Avoid any books in which the review mentions any of the specific genre’s tropes or that refer to books as undeveloped, uneven, or unexceptional.
  3. Find another reader you trust who reads a particular genre and ask.
    1. Book Riot runs a very good podcast for book recommendations called Get Booked. The women who host the show have access to the massive Book Riot contributor community for when they get stumped.
    2. Joelendil added in the comments: “in my experience blurbs that directly compare their book to the premier book that popularized the sub-genre tend to be painfully generic at best. For me, ‘Fans of LOTR will love this…’ is a big red warning flag even though LOTR is my all time favorite fiction.” Thanks for the addition!
  4. This is similar to 3, but look for authors who’ve won awards in your target genre if there is one. You can often find genre awards by googling. I know there are awards for science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, historical fiction, and romance.

Good luck out there, readers! And thanks for Smithereens for the idea.

Edited to add 3.2, courtesy of Joelendil.

opinions · reading life

So Many Books, So Little Time; Or, Why I Need Bad Book Reviews

I’ve been thinking about something Evelyn Goldman posted to her book blog weeks ago. In her post, “A Review of Reviews,” she writes that posting negative reviews about books makes her feel guilty. I can understand the feeling. Like Goldman, I too recognize the work that went into a book. Authors can labor for years and face countless rejections before their work is published. It seems like we book reviewers are taking potshots at their children from the safety of our position as readers. But…I like seeing negative reviews. I actually need them.

Beatrix Whistler

Being a librarian and a voracious reader besides, I need to know as much as possible about what’s being published. But because I don’t have an infinite budget (either at work or personally), I can’t afford to take a chance on duds or offensively bad books. I want books that will challenge readers (like Dream Country), entertain readers (like The Nutmeg Tree), or help them escape the mundane world (like The Night Circus).

So, I read negative book reviews. That said, I ignore reviews on Amazon, for two reasons. A lot of them are purchased, for one. For another, a lot of readers don’t know how to write a useful negative review. What I want most in a negative book review is a reader giving a clear reason why they didn’t like the book. Goldman, in her post, gave a clear reason why she didn’t like a book. The book in question triggered her. Other readers might take issue with racism, sexism, or homophobia in a book. Yet others might be bothered by poor writing, uneven pacing, lack of character development, or other writing problems. I completely ignore reviews that don’t explain why they didn’t a book—if they just say a book sucks. I also ignore negative reviews that were given purely to bully an author.

If a reviewer gives a clear reason for why they didn’t like a book, then I can make my own decision about whether or not to take up a book. I can compare the reviewers tastes to my own. As Ranganathan says, “Every book its reader.” Not every book is going to be a hit with every reader. So, if a reviewer says they are triggered by a book’s content, but I’m not, I might take a chance. I might also skip books with racism, sexism, or homophobia unless it serves a purpose in the book. If a reviewer points out multiple flaws with the writing, I want to know so that I can look for something better.

The point of all this is, I want to know if a book is not good before I waste my time. I’d much rather read books that I have a good chance of enjoying. There are too many books out there to waste my time on a bad one.

In praise of... · opinions

In Praise of…Messy Mysteries

Mysteries tend to follow a very established arc. More modern mysteries tend to color outside the lines a bit, but all of the plots tend to meet up in the end and all of the loose ends were tied up in a more or less neat bow. Red herrings spice things up. Suspects drop in and out of view. Readers usually have a fair shot at working out what happened, unless the detective withholds a clue like Agatha Christie’s used to…or it turns out that it’s a messy mystery.

Artist unknown
(Image via Pinterest)

Last August, I read my first messy mystery: Lightning Men, by Thomas Mullen. Ordinarily, the crime is committed by a single criminal or a conspiracy. But in what I’ve come to think of as messy mysteries, it’s impossible to map what happened to one of Vonnegut’s plot graphs. In Lightning Men, for example, there isn’t just one crime. There are multiple crimes that intersect and make things even more difficult for the detectives. Where we can see traditional mysteries following a graphable arc, I tend to see the messy ones as Venn diagrams. One criminal’s act bumps into another criminal’s, forcing them to act and possibly bump into a third criminal’s subplot. Each bump makes it harder to track motives and evidence—sometimes to the point where I marvel at any detective’s efforts make sense of the tangles.

When I read Lightning Men, I was frustrated because I couldn’t force the pieces of the puzzle to fit. It wasn’t long, however, before I started to appreciate the realism. Real criminals don’t have a clear field to commit their crimes. Real detectives are often working on several cases at the same time. It makes sense that mysteries would get messy all the time. I understand why mysteries authors don’t go this route. This kind of mystery must be hell to create. And I image that publishers are reluctant to greenlight messy mysteries because a lot of readers will give up on mysteries with so many moving parts. Speaking for myself, I’m glad this sub-genre—a new genre-let—exists.

If you’re interested in reading some messy mysteries, here are some recommendations in addition to Lightning Men:

I take issue · opinions

Readers Read For Joy; Or, In Which I Take Issue with Howard Jacobsen

I suppose that Howard Jacobson’s recent interview with BBC Radio 3 make a change from authors lamenting the end of literature. Instead of blaming the internet, Jacobson blames readers. We just don’t have the attention for “serious literature.” Sian Cain writes:

Addressing a question from an audience member who reported feeling pressurised by publishers to write a “page-turner”, Jacobson said: “Tell them to go to hell. You describe the tragic state we are in. When someone tells me they couldn’t put my novel down, I feel they haven’t read what I’ve done. If you read me, you’re going to want to put me down … what you’ve said encapsulates the problem at the moment.

I fully realize that authors have to walk a thin line that balances their creative expression and interests and writing something that readers want. Some writers strike that balance very well. I am entertained and enlightened by writers like Barbara Kingsolver, Rachel Kushner, Daryl Gregory, Anthony Marra, Ursula Le Guin, and so many others. When I read Howard Jacobson’s Shylock is My Name, I…didn’t get either of those things. I’m sure there are readers who like Jacobson’s work. I’m not one of them. I could write a rant about Jacobson. I’m really tempted to.

Tullia Socin

What interests me (rather than insults me) is Jacobson’s comment: “Here’s the challenge: how do we educate the reader, so they don’t want to want it? I’ve never understood why anyone wants to read those books. ‘Who committed the murder?’ Who the hell cares?” To me, this is a misunderstanding of why readers read. Sure we want challenges every now and then. Some of us take on Ulysses (not me, though) because it’s the Everest of books. But what most of us want is to be transported. We read for fun. I’ve had so many people tell me they don’t read because they had books pushed on them when they were in school that they’d didn’t like, didn’t understand, and just plain didn’t work for them. They were never given a book that gave them joy.

So when I see authors say that they want readers to work, to put books down because of the sheer labor of reading the book, I’m not surprised that writers like Jacobson are seeing their numbers dwindle. Authors shouldn’t be required to write “page turners,” as Jacobson sneeringly call them. But I do think that authors should keep their audiences in mind. After all, how will they communicate their great ideas to readers if those readers are not tempted to pick up their books? Books that don’t engage readers are doomed to gather dust.