The other morning, as always, I sat down at my computer, clicked on my daily email from Literary Hub, and opened, with eager interest, a link called “23 Books To Be Excited for in March.” My first act was to scroll through the page in its entirety, looking for titles or authors that I recognized; I found none, and with a noted decline in interest, continued halfheartedly to flip through the list.
A few hours later, I discovered a new series by PEN America called “The Book Report.” This weekly series, according to the website, “challenges the notion of ‘best of,’ ‘top,’ and ‘seasonal must read’ lists and the default books and authors that regularly appear on them.” Contributors are asked to share books “they turn to over and over again, ones that both inspire and challenge how they engage with the world.” This time, as I flipped through lists of books and authors I had never heard of, I was entirely captivated. I realized with shame that, despite my efforts to seek out books by female writers, writers of color, and non-American writers, I am a reader whose literary pastimes are almost entirely determined by established gatekeepers. I take great pleasure in walking through bookstores and the promise of happening, serendipitously, onto a fabulous book—but in reality, I’m just scanning the shelves for authors I know. Books on my “must-read” list are books I’ve seen praised in The New York Times, The New Yorker, etc., which isn’t to say that they aren’t worth reading, but one wonders if a book must rely on its publishers’ marketing resources, rather than its exclusively literary merits, in order to make it onto such publications’ radars. How many hundreds of thousands of books sit on shelves having been minimally reviewed, minimally publicized, but are just as—if not more—rewarding as, say, James Joyce’s Ulysses?
There is a risk in buying a book you’ve heard nothing about. I find myself so overwhelmed by the number of “great books,” as we call them, that I haven’t yet read—the aforementioned Ulysses, Crime and Punishment, Great Expectations, The Old Man and the Sea—that it sometimes feels not worth it to take that risk. What if this unknown book turns out to be unfulfilling, and I’ve wasted all that time I could’ve been spending on a book that generations have proclaimed worthwhile? Countless of articles, blog posts, and professors tell me I can’t possibly be a writer without having read the notorious “literary canon” that has more recently come under scrutiny by those accurately assessing its lack of gender, racial, and sexual diversity. With countless books being published each year by authors from all walks of life, isn’t it a bit unrealistic to think that the list of “great books” shouldn’t welcome into the fold some of these new and outstanding titles?
As a writer and a reader, how can I balance the need to stay up-to-date with contemporary authors that are flourishing, contemporary authors that are brilliant but unnoticed, canonical works that, yes, are important to read, and authors of the past who didn’t make it into the canon, but whose works are important to discover and understand? There certainly aren’t enough hours in the day. I don’t know what the right balance is; but I do know that so long as I continue to exclusively read books recommended by certain media sources, or certain academic beliefs, then I will continue to miss out on a whole host of works that could give me the intimacy I often miss when reading oft-praised books (Ex: Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow was entertaining in the way that all challenging books are entertaining, but it can be hard to invest in a book whose female characters feel underdeveloped.).
So here’s to scanning bookshelves for general intrigue, and not exclusively household names. Here’s to wandering through a library and checking out a book you’ve never heard of. Here’s to series like The PEN Book Report that encourage us to engage with works that challenge and inspire, and not just works that land on The NYT Best Seller’s List. Here’s to taking risks—and seeing what we’ll learn.
How do you balance reading ‘old faithfuls’ with ‘new unknowns’? What strategies do you use to make time for reading a wide variety of works? How do you determine what titles make it onto your “must read” list?
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