Tag Archives: reading

Another reading challenge

For several years now, I’ve participated in the Goodreads reading challenge. I’ve enjoyed it and it’s not complicated: declare how many books you think you’re going to read in the year to come and have at it. Read anything you want; all we’re after here is quantity, although if you can get quality as well, more power to you.

This year, I’m branching out. I’m still doing the Goodreads challenge, although I’ve dropped my goal by about 20%. I’d been reading thinner books in order to get more read (quantity) and I wanted to read thicker books this year without feeling like I was endangering my success rate. Besides the Goodreads challenge, though, I’m also participating in the 2016 Book Riot Read Harder Challenge. This only requires 24 books at most during the year; the challenge lies in getting you out of your reading comfort zone. Finishing it successfully will mean I’m going to have to read a horror novel (ick). And listen to an audiobook. You’re allowed to fit one book into as many categories as possible, so maybe I should listen to a horror audiobook because I’m bad at remembering what I’ve only heard, and I’m pretty sure I won’t want to remember the details of whatever horror novel I choose.

To space it all out, I only need to do two books a month. But somehow without really trying, I’ve gotten to the end of February and I’m already six books in.

  1. A nonfiction book about feminism or feminist themes: Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick. I had hoped this would be more of an analysis of spinsterhood; instead, it was mainly a memoir. Well, one is not required to love every book for the challenge; one must only find them and read them.
  2. A book that is by an author from Southeast Asia: Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho. This is a fantasy novel, so we’re squarely in my comfort zone here. In the 19th century, England’s first black Sorcerer Royal tries to both hold onto his position and find out why England is losing its magic. Although there were some rough spots, I liked the book enough to look forward to the promised sequels.
  3. Read a book out loud to someone else: Go the Fuck to Sleep by Adam Mansbach. I assure you, I read it only to consenting adults.
  4. A biography (not a memoir or autobiography): The Greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca by Emily Williams. I don’t usually read biographies, so I was wondering how I would find a good one, when Amazon made this one of their Kindle Daily Deals and I grabbed it.
  5. A book over 500 pages long: Carry On: The Rise and Fall of Simon Snow by Rainbow Rowell. More fantasy! I learned about this book after reading Rowell’s Fangirl last year. Sure, Carry On alludes heavily to the Harry Potter books, with a sprinkling of Twilight thrown in. But it would be a strong book in its own right if neither of those other series had ever been written, I liked it better than Fangirl, and I’m glad I tracked down a copy.
  6. A book under 100 pages: The Spook Who Spoke Again by Lindsey Davis. A novella set in the world of Davis’s Flavia Albia mysteries. The story is told by Albia’s brother Postumus, age 12 (or maybe 11¾), and after a while, I decided it was as if Flavia de Luce had been born a boy in 1st century CE Rome. I mostly enjoyed the story, but Postumus got annoying pretty quickly, and it’s just as well this wasn’t a full-sized novel.

March is imminent. I’m hoping to go read some non-challenge books for a while. Except that I have the challenge on the brain, and I can’t stop considering possibilities. Hey, maybe if I read a middle-grade horror novel, I won’t be traumatized for life…

The nonlinear reader

We generally consider reading books to be a linear activity: begin at the beginning and read one chapter after another until you reach the end. Me, I’m more of a nonlinear reader. It took a while for me to notice this about myself because I don’t go to the extreme of turning every book I read into a Choose Your Own Adventure book (turn to page 40! now turn to page 27! now go to page 189!), but maintain a general forward momentum and the illusion of linearity while in reality my reading goes off on all sorts of tangents.

Early on in my reading life, I was seduced by peeking. I’d start off reading a book the normal way and make it through a few chapters. But if I reached the end of a chapter a few minutes before I needed to do something else, I was stuck. I didn’t want to stop reading but I also didn’t want to stop partway through the next chapter. So I’d jump ahead a bit randomly and read a scene. Not too close to the end, but further ahead. And the next time I did it, I could be in a completely different part of the book. After a while, I’d have an assortment of unconnected scenes floating around in my head: nonlinear reading that gave me the impression of a book, but not the story as the author intended it. But not being completely nonlinear, I’d also continue to read the book front to back as I had time, slotting each disjointed scene into its proper place in my memory as I came to it.

17208721416_9bd13ab869_nOnce, just to see how nonlinear I’d gotten, I put a rubber band on the unread pages of a novel. This drove home the point of how often I peeked because I was wrenched back into awareness every time I tried to skip ahead and couldn’t. (Also, having to slip each fresh page out from under a rubber band is a really annoying way to read a book. I finally freed up a chapter at a time for reading comfort.) What hit the hardest, though, was feeling blindsided when a major character was killed. Apparently I’d been getting more warning from my peeks than I’d realized, and in other books, I’d braced myself emotionally for plot turns like this. With that book, I’d had no warning and I was probably as shocked as the author hoped I’d be.

Enter e-readers, and suddenly nonlinear reading got a lot harder, for the same reason I don’t like using e-book editions of reference books: it’s blasted difficult to skip around with an e-reader. You have to get out of the text, pull up whatever feature lets you move to another section, and decide how far to move. It’s a far more calculated set of actions than just letting a chunk of paper pages slip by and reading wherever you’ve cracked the book open again. Indeed it’s enough of an effort that basically, I don’t bother.

So for the past four years (wow, I’ve been reading e-books that long?), I’ve been reading novels the way authors have expected me to. I don’t need to skip ahead to figure out obvious plot twists, but now the clever, devious ones really do come as a surprise and without the annoyance of having to wrestle a rubber band. This hasn’t broken me of the peeking habit. I’m reading a print book right now, and this afternoon I finished a chapter four blocks from my bus stop and peeked for the next two blocks. But most novels I read now are e-books, and I think overall, the linearity has been a good thing. Even if it’s conventional. And hard on the nerves when favorite characters are in danger. 😉

So am I the only nonlinear reader out there? And if you read e-books, have they changed how you read books in any noticeable way?

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photo credit: Bookmark via photopin (license)

Fiction and non-fiction

When reading for fun, do you usually choose fiction or non-fiction? Do you have an idea why you prefer one over the other?The Daily Post

Non-fiction. Yes.

(It’s tempting to end the post right there.)

books

photo credit: ~Brenda-Starr~ via photopin cc

I read both fiction and non-fiction, but not equally. There is only so much time in any given day to read, time spent reading non-fiction is time not spent reading fiction, and I’m reading more non-fiction nowadays, so the amount of fiction I read has to drop to compensate. My favorite genre is fantasy, but the older I get, the harder it is to find satisfying fantasy novels. This isn’t that whole debate about whether adults should be reading YA books—I’m talking about fantasy novels intended for adults. Much of the time I feel like I’m reading the same story over and over again. Probably a lot of this is life experience: what was new to me when I was in my teens isn’t new thirty years later. Of course it’s possible to make a great work out of the most well-worn plot, but a lot of fantasy isn’t that ambitious. Apparently I want to read fantasy, complete with most of its genre conventions, written to the standards of literary fiction. There isn’t that much of it around.

Meanwhile, the amount of non-fiction I read for pleasure continues to grow. It’s probably just a sign of growing up that I’ve figured out that a book can be interesting even if it’s not fiction. Like not being interested in certain fiction genres, lots of non-fiction doesn’t grab me either. I seem to gravitate towards textbooks (that calls to mind college textbooks, but I don’t have a better catch-all term for books that teach you how to do something) and essays, while memoirs almost never entice me. As long as I keep developing new interests, I won’t feel like I’m reading the same non-fiction repeatedly, which will be a great motivator in its own right for me to be open to new things.

I have this model of the ideal reading balance in my head. First, I’d read a non-fiction book. When finished, my next book would be fiction, so that anything I’d learned from the non-fiction book would have time to soak in. Then I’d read another non-fiction book because it takes time for me to mentally leave a fictional world I’ve been living in while reading a novel, and it’s often jarring to leap straight into another fiction book without a break. In reality, though, I end up reading library books that are coming due or the first book on the shelf that catches my eye as I’m getting ready to go to work or whatever. Oh well, it’s a goal.

Lost in a book

Imagine reading a print book. Most of your attention will be on the content itself, but you’ll be aware of the book itself at some level. Your hand regularly flips a page. You can see how much of the book lies ahead of you, while the pages you’ve read pile up in your wake. With an e-reader, you regularly touch it to advance to the next screen. And while you won’t see the bulk of the pages moving from one half of the book to the other, if you had my old Kindle Keyboard, a progress bar along the bottom of the screen would slowly advance, and it would show you what percentage of the book you’d read.

Last month, I got a Kindle Paperwhite. Most of the new features are definite improvements, but they don’t really change what using an e-reader feels like. Not surprisingly, the Paperwhite has more options for showing you where you are in your e-book. In addition to the standard location or page numbers, you can get an estimate of how much time it will take you to read the rest of the chapter or the rest of the book. There’s no progress bar, but the Paperwhite still shows you what percentage of the book you’ve read. But unlike other e-readers I’ve used, this one lets you turn off that entire part of the display.

Kindle Paperwhite, showing progress indicators.

The Kindle Keyboard’s progress bar was a distraction. Every time I reached the bottom of the screen, there it was, informing me that I was X% of the way through the book. The bar itself millimetered its way across the screen and I ended up studying it rather than staying in what I was reading. How far had it moved since I’d started reading this time? If it was just a smidgen away from the next chapter marker, how far was that in reading time? So I wasn’t sad to realize it had been removed from the Paperwhite, and besides, its replacements were cool in their own right. Page numbers and location numbers are crucial for navigation, but the “Time left in chapter/book” option was fascinating. It’s meant to help you decide if you have enough time to start a new chapter or finish your current one before you have to go do something else, and I’ve found it useful for that. (Can I finish this chapter before we get to my bus stop?) But then I got sidetracked again. How fast was I reading? Had I lost reading speed because I’d gone back to reread a section? Why did it still say I had three minutes left in the chapter when it felt like I’d been reading for five minutes since the last time I looked? So I turned the whole thing off.

That’s the point at which reading got slightly eerie.

With the progress indicators turned off, I can’t tell where I am in the book. Much of the time this isn’t an issue because I’m caught up in the story itself. It’s a sign of a bad reading experience if you’re constantly checking to see how much longer the book is going to last (“Are we there yet?”). But I do come up for air every now and then, and each time, it’s disconcerting to realize that I don’t know where I am, story-wise.

Many of the how-to-write books I’ve read lately talk about the three-act structure. People swear that this is a natural structure for story and that readers expect it at some level, so much so that a story that diverges wildly from it will rub most people the wrong way. Well, the Paperwhite or any other e-reader with optional progress indicators may be a good test of this theory. With practice, will I be able to tell from the events in the story where I am in the book overall? Or will I be surprised when the story suddenly ends or wonder why it hasn’t ended yet? Can you tell?

Reading up

My hometown public library, like most public libraries, grouped fiction by age range. It was a two-story library, and the first floor was home to the easy books in one corner and juvenile fiction over against the far wall. Teen books were on the second floor. You were old enough to read YA when you could go upstairs without your parents. (Adult fiction was also on the second floor, so your parents might be upstairs too, but they weren’t with you.) I was reminded of this while reading Ruth Graham’s now-infamous article, “Against YA.” Mixed in with that headline-grabbing pronouncement about embarrassment and the general tone of frustration that so many adults are reading books meant for teenagers, I found her markers of reading maturity to be interesting, even when I disagreed with them.

But I remember, when I was a young adult, being desperate to earn my way into the adult stacks; I wouldn’t have wanted to live in a world where all the adults were camped out in mine. There’s a special reward in that feeling of stretching yourself beyond the YA mark, akin to the excitement of graduating out of the kiddie pool and the rest of the padded trappings of childhood: It’s the thrill of growing up.

reader and book

photo credit: Kelsey Weaver via photopin cc

My objective in youth was to graduate from the first floor, and once I made it upstairs, I was in no hurry to leave the YA section I’d just earned my way into. But why didn’t I yearn to make that next move as Graham so clearly did? Maybe it was just that there was no staircase involved, no obvious rite of passage—all I would have had to do was walk across the room to get to the adult stacks. But also, I expected adult fiction to be boring. Over the years, I’d looked at the books my parents read, and they weren’t promising. Dad never read fiction at all. If adult fiction was so wonderful, why wasn’t he reading it?

But the YA and “new adult” boom may mean fewer teens aspire to grown-up reading, because the grown-ups they know are reading their books.

What happens, of course, is that when you’re ready to read something, it becomes interesting. I don’t remember deciding that I was too old for the teen book section; I just found myself looking for books I’d heard of and wanted to read, and finding them in the adult section instead. So I’m not worried that teenagers will fail to move to adult reading simply because adults are reading YA. See, here’s the corollary: when you’ve outgrown something, you lose interest in it. The problem is predictability, the feeling that you’ve read this story a few hundred times before. There are times I envy teenage readers, because with their comparative lack of reading experience, they still have so much to discover. But when they want to read something beyond YA, I’m sure they’ll make the leap.

And why must it be a one-way progression? Yes, I read YA. My favorite genres are fantasy and science fiction, and a lot of YA books fall into those genres, so yeah, I’m interested. But I also read adult SF/F. And New Age books. And poetry. And philosophy. Heck, I read The Day Tiger Rose Said Goodbye last month, a book in the easy books section of my hometown library. Really, why limit yourself? (Come on, it wouldn’t be a reaction to “Against YA” without a statement that you should read whatever interests you.)

But crucially, YA books present the teenage perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way. It’s not simply that YA readers are asked to immerse themselves in a character’s emotional life—that’s the trick of so much great fiction—but that they are asked to abandon the mature insights into that perspective that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults.

Okay, people, as much as many of us adults love reading YA books, we’re not the intended audience. No one will force you to suppress your mature insights, but an adult perspective can’t be a requirement for enjoying YA books or teenagers will be shut out of the very books meant for them. It seems to me that here Graham is holding YA books to a higher standard than other works. For example, many books present a white male perspective uncritically. It doesn’t mean they’re badly written. It doesn’t mean that readers who aren’t white males won’t enjoy them or shouldn’t read them. Some of them are classics of literature, masterpieces of language, characterization, and plot. But it doesn’t work to fault YA for a trait that a lot of fiction shares.

Googling “Against YA” not only turns up the article itself, but pages of links to reactions to it, most of them negative. Okay, I’m writing this—obviously I cared enough to spend time thinking about it. I don’t seem to be able to work up as much anger about it as many people had, though, because I don’t think she’s entirely wrong. The tone of the article is off-putting and I hope the assertion that adults should be embarrassed to be reading YA was mostly meant to get people’s attention (it worked!). But the core argument, that people should be willing to grow, to try books that are out of their comfort zone, is sound, and it would be a shame if it was lost in the kerfuffle.

Reading women, part 1

Last fall, a Facebook friend posted a link to The Year I Stopped Reading Men, an article by Anna Szymanski on what it’s like for her to read a book written by a man after spending a year only reading books by women. It was interesting, and some of us had a lively discussion about it, but between one thing and another, it drifted off to the back of my mind until that same friend posted a link to a similar article. In The Women We Don’t See, E. Catherine Tobler writes about her realization that a best books of 2013 roundup by a (male) friend of hers includes no books by women. At which point, I really began wondering about what I myself read and how I read it.

First, I needed to see what I’d been reading. So like Tobler, I counted how many authors of both genders I’d found over the past three years (and like Tobler, I skipped the anthologies). Fiction and nonfiction, I’ve been reading more stuff by women authors than by men.

authorsgender

Since I haven’t been consciously taking the author’s gender into consideration when deciding what to read next, apparently I find male and female authors both simply by reading what I want to read. (I’m guessing it’s not that simple. I’ve probably got unconscious preferences a-plenty, and I’m likely to be paying a lot more attention to an author’s gender from this point forward.) I can see from the comments to Tobler’s article that several people are aghast that her friend managed to not find any books by female authors he wanted to read for two years. I’m mostly bewildered, myself. Aren’t they just there? Don’t you just glance up and see them when you’re at the bookstore, or scanning the new books section at your library, or browsing online? Don’t your online booksellers recommend a few of them to you? Enough about Tobler’s friend: how did I find 52 female authors last year, anyway?

Well, that, at least, I could look into, not that I found an obvious pattern. Several of them were authors I was already familiar with, and I was reading more of their good stuff. One of my favorite authors had a new book out last year—had to read that, of course. There were new additions to two series I’ve been reading—didn’t want to fall behind. I read several writing books last year, and many of them were written by women. I discovered a few new authors via the Kindle Daily Deal and Amazon.com’s recommendations. One book was recommended by someone whose blog I read. I read a lot in the New Age Body, Mind, and Spirit genre and I suspect that has a higher percentage of women writers in it to begin with; ditto for knitting books, which I read a few of last year as well. But I’ve read more fantasy than anything else for the past two years, and there are plenty of men who write in that genre. I still found books by women.

Tobler asks good questions: How do female authors still go so very unnoticed? How is it their books aren’t getting in front of eyes that would enjoy them? How can we make it so they do? The commenters make good points: books by women are marketed differently than those by men; they have different covers; when people make recommendations, they recommend books by men. Maybe some of those things have worked in favor of the female authors I chose to read—perhaps the different marketing was what got my attention or I found the different cover to be more to my liking than if it had been the kind of cover male authors get (whatever that would be). It’s hard to tell anyone Do what I did! when you’re not sure what that was.

When you’re deciding whether or not to read a book, do you take the author’s gender into consideration?