What To Read, What Not To Read, and How To Choose

In Barnes & Noble bookstores all throughout the country, the Summer Reading tables are up and overflowing with mass market trade paperbacks. Or, if someone’s high school English teacher is evil, hardcovers. Every spring, local Barnes & Noble bookstores receive the summer reading list from local high schools, stock up accordingly, and stack these strategically placed tables with the classic literature we read as teenagers … or that we feel we probably should have read as teenagers.

Like most high school kids, I did all my summer reading the week before school started. This helps to explain my failing grade on A Passage To India (it was set in England, right?) and taught all high school kids (okay, me) that renting the movie is not the same as reading the book.

From teaching creative writing and composition at the university level for a few years now, I think it is safe to say that the only two books that students are guaranteed (or at least really close) to have read by the time they have graduated high school are The Great Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird. Other than that? Who knows? In this BN that I’m writing a portion of this blog post from, the Summer Reading tables have titles such as The Bell Jar, The Sun Also Rises, Catcher in the Rye, and Night. All of which I’ve read.

They also  have The Killer AngelsGrendel, The Secret Life of Bees, The Fountainhead, and The Diary of Ana Frank. I’ve never read any of these books.

Recently, hoping to fill a gap in my contemporary literature, I decided to follow the lead of Rebecca Schinsky, who runs The Book Lady’s Blog, and re-read all of Toni Morrison’s books leading up to the release of Morrison’s new novel, Home, which came out last month. It was a good idea. It was motivation. It was interactive. And I managed to read several Morrison books—The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, and Beloved—before flaming out, meekly glancing at the stack of Morrison books I bought, sitting on top of my bookshelf, spines exposed, collecting dust.

How do I choose what to read? Lately, I’ve been reading one new book followed by one re-read, and then read another new book, then another re-read, and so on. Mostly, I’ve been lucky that the books I’ve read for the first time—The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris and Tinkers by Paul Harding—are excellent. There is also the delight in re-reading a classic and seeing it anew each time, the things that I didn’t notice or fully appreciate, perhaps because I couldn’t see them, perhaps I’m making them up, who knows, the pleasure is new even if the narrative is not. I love this. Some people have a reading plan. Most people I know have a TBR (to be read) stack, or several stacks, throughout their home.

So, let’s keep going backwards. Before Harding and Ferris, I re-read The Phantom Tollbooth, which was the first book I read that felt like was written just for me. Before that, I was visiting my mother in Cincinnati, and snagged a used copy of The Great Gatsby and blew through that in a day. I had just finished Mrs. Dalloway. Someone close to me urged me to re-read it, thunderstruck by the fact that I had never even finished it, let alone liked it. She was right: it’s a beautiful, lovely, perfect novel. Next: The Marriage Plot. It was one of the It Books of Literary Fiction in 2011, and one of my friends had talked to me about how the novel was more of an argument than a narrative, and I wanted to know what he was talking about. He was right: an interesting idea but not a particularly memorable novel. Next: several Toni Morrison novels for the reasons listed above. I skipped around simply because one day heading out the door I grabbed the wrong book, and started reading them out of chronological order. Whoops. Next: Portnoy’s Complaint. A writer-friend always talks up Roth, and I haven’t read much Roth, and I bought this in hardcover for twenty five cents last summer, so, yeah, why not? (verdict: yuck). Next: The Best American Essays 2011. I assigned this to my internship class, along with BASS, which I had already read.

And so on.

Do you see a plan there? Neither do I. I see a variety of interests that spring up for a variety of reasons and, despite any planning or best intentions, some that require immediate attention and others that do not.

Here’s the thing: even though I know I can’t and won’t read everything, I still feel anxious about the fact that I haven’t. How can I really know what I’m doing as a writer if I haven’t read everything? How can I really know what’s going in contemporary literature if I’m not up on every single new thing that is published? And, if I can’t get into both of these camps, how am I doing my job, how am I following my passion (writing), if it all often feels far too exhausting to keep up?

This feeling of anxiety never fully goes away. But here’s the weird thing: I don’t really want it to. I don’t want to be comfortable with my reading choices. A certain amount of discomfort keeps me sharp, keeps me open to reading a book I might have dismissed five years ago, or re-reading something that hadn’t impressed me, or dropping everything else I’m reading because of the enthusiasm someone has for a book she just finished and that I must read RIGHT NOW.

I may never get through all of Dickens, or Nadine Gordimer, or Thomas Pynchon, or any other writer that you could name. I also might never be comfortable with the fact that I won’t. But a little bit of discomfort and emotional browbeating are two different things. Read what you love. Don’t waste time on the books that don’t move you. With an open and curious mind, there will always be new books to read, old books to re-read. One particular book or author will never make us feel we “get” modernism or post-confessionalism or whatnot. A little bit of humble (“No, actually, I’ve never read that …”) and a little bit of curiosity go along way. There’s always something terrific to discover for the first time.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye