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A Change for the Better: on reading habits

Books and reading 300x231 A Change for the Better: on reading habits

In Susan Hill’s A Change for the Better Deirdre Fount finds herself traversing a path that is not the one she intended to venture down. Though she might have stumbled upon it of her own accord, her marathon trek along it is due to a mix of personal inertia and the pressures and expectations of others around her.

This is how I’ve been feeling about this website for some time.

I began Read in a Single Sitting in response to series of reading assignments I’d set myself: a holiday spent working through Herman Hesse, Shusaku Endo, Kenzaburo Oe and other works. I’d been reading voraciously, furiously, making up for the literary starvation endured during my university years, when most of my reading comprised textbooks and linguistics articles.

These reading habits had led to a sort of cerebral imbalance, a deficiency of creativity, and in response I gorged on all manner of worthy tomes, attempting to redress this balance.

I am prone to overdoing things.

After spooning down the final mouthful of the ten-course meal that is the The Glass Bead Game, and washing it down with a slug of post-modern something or other, I found myself doing the literary equivalent of collapsing supine on the floor and unbuttoning my jeans button.

And like many have done in the same situation, I decided to make a change to my reading diet. No longer would I binge on bookish fois gras and black truffles; instead I would opt for a more moderate approach. And sure enough, I did: though I took to grazing on this and that, I was cautious about my portion sizes, eschewing reading anything that was likely to give me a hernia were I to pack it up and carry it around with me.

All was well for a while.

But then things started to change (including that extended food-themed metaphor, which has been extended so far it’s about to break through a neighbour’s fence…)

The site began to grow, and with that growth came review copies and approaches from PR agencies, authors and so on. It was a delightful novelty at first, and I was happy to intersperse my reading with this or that new release–at this point largely only titles that I’d requested.

But this is not a slippery slope I recommend attempting to navigate. The review copies started to pile in, arriving with the vim and profligacy of lemons on a tree, and soon I had more than I knew what to do with. Like an introduced pest species, they began multiplying until they reached plague proportions, burying beneath their gloss-finished pelts the hundreds of books I’d lovingly purchased of my own volition.

I began reading as though I were bailing out a boat: as much as possible, as quickly as possible, motivated by both guilt and obligation. Of course, the faster I read, the faster they piled up, a tetris nightmare from which there was no escape. Meanwhile, all the books I’d been actually wanting to read–the literary fiction I so adore, the classics I’ve longed to get to, the fusty Penguin modern classics that fill whole shelves–continued to languish. They were a mirage-like oasis in the distance, getting farther away the more determinedly I approached.

Was I doomed to die of thirst in this literary desert? (Oh, the irony of living a Borges-like existence while scarcely having dipped into the Borges on my shelves…)

Then I read Joe Queenan’s One for the Books, an unswervingly curmudgeonly rant that resonated with me on a number of levels (not least that I am myself an unswerving curmudgeon), but in particular in his calculations about how many books he had left to read before his death. I did the maths for myself, and assuming a long life with plenty of reading time, I have some 10,500 books remaining.

That may seem like a lot of books, but in fact it’s not.

Since starting this site three years ago I’ve reviewed just under five hundred books, and a good deal of them have been mediocre; many of them have been truly, eyeball-excoriatingly terrible. If I’d been left to my own reading devices I probably would have read a good many fewer terrible books and many, many more wonderful books. Books that are not only objectively better–books that have, say, stood up against the erosive forces of time–but that are suited to me as a reader.

And to me as a writer.

Writing is how I make my living, and by consuming all of these mediocre books at the (polite) behest of others I am doing myself a disservice. I’m tired of having others directing my reading choices. I’m tired of trying to drag meaning out of superficial pap and of being blinded by endless sandstorms of woeful writing. I am tired of tiptoeing along the very thin line between critique and public relations.

And so it’s time that I make a change before I become a Deirdre Fount myself.

The direction of this site will be changing from books that are ostensibly long enough to be read in a single sitting to books that are worthy enough that I truly want to read them in a single sitting. I’ll be writing fewer reviews and more personal responses and reflections–and the books I’ll be reading will be those that invite that sort of response.

After three years of living largely on junk food, I’m ready to return to what is, for me, fine dining.

But this time around I’m going to do it a little more slowly, a little more restrainedly…and perhaps wearing the literary equivalent of elastic-waisted jeans.

21 comments

  1. Sounds like you have come to a very sensible decision and I hope it improves your reading enjoyment!

  2. I’m happy for you! I was wondering how on earth you managed it and stayed sane. I couldn’t have. Mind you, I’ve never liked reviewing, or been good at it, but even if I had been, the relentless pace would have done my head in. I love to read and read quickly but to do it to order would take at least half the fun out of it. I’m looking forward to those personal responses and thoughts. It’ll be fun!

    • Thank you! I’ve spent the past week musing on The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and it’s been wonderful to have the time and space to actually dedicate to a book that truly needs it. :)

  3. Woohoo!! You write so eloquently, I enjoy your personal posts. Looking forward to reading more of them.

  4. Oh Stephanie, I feel your pain! I’m very strict with my blog. I tell people, I read only for pleasure! I choose what books to read and what books to review. I only review books I like, and harassing me will not make me like your book any better. I’m so glad you’ve made a decision to return to only reading for your own selfish pleasure – your blog will only be better as a result! (although, of course, I’ve always loved your blog just the way it is)

    • Thanks for your lovely words, Kate! I think this is one of those instances where it pays to be selfish. The result will be fairer not just for me, but for any books I review/discuss. :)

  5. Whew! When I started reading your post, I was afraid you were saying goodbye. I’m getting to be at the same point you reached, although for a while I was being very careful not to overload myself. Congratulations on your decision! I may be following you down that path shortly.

    • I think I’ve just changed so much as a reader (and a person) over the past few years, and the site needs to change to reflect that. I expect and require something different from books now from when I started, and I think the disconnect has grown ever more obvious recently.

      I’m so glad to hear you’ll be sticking around, Laurie–your blog is one of my favourites. Best of luck with any changes you choose to make. You can bet I’ll be cheering you on from the sidelines!

  6. I love your metaphor even if it did extend beyond its own bloated existence. I hope you enjoy your new journey in reading the books you want to read! I love your reviews and all of your reflections, and so am quite relieved that the changes do not mean a cessation of your delightful posts, but a conscientious turn-about. I was worried for a moment. Hurrah to reading what you want!

    • Thanks so much, Jami. :) I’ve definitely changed a lot as both a reader and a writer, and I think I’ve dragged out the site in its current incarnation way too far. I’ll probably post less frequently, but hopefully when my posts do appear, they’ll be better quality. :)

  7. Great post, good luck with the change in focus, obviously will be a change for the better and a good message to book bloggers everywhere not to fall into the trap of review copies. While I like them, I don’t want to fall into the trap, I want to read those classics and book’s I’ve missed as well, I hope I’m on the right track.

    • Thanks, Michael! I think you’re doing an excellent job of sticking to your guns, as are some of the other local bloggers.

      It was other change the direction of the site or shut it down altogether, and I enjoy writing about books far too much to do that. That said, I can see why so many bloggers do shut down: the constant PR requests become really draining after a while, and it becomes so hard to maintain an impartial approach.

      I want to be able to honestly discuss the books that I love and appreciate, rather than feeling as though I’m some unpaid PR agent. It does begin to feel exploitative after a while…

  8. Thank goodness you had the courage to speak out about that. Andrea Goldsmith once told me – ‘There are too many good books to waste time with bad ones.’ I too have suffered a reading diet of empty calories in the past 12-18 months and I too am balking at continuing with it. I LOVE literary work. And reading above my writing ability, rather than reading equivalents or worse, is only going to do me good. I hope it does you good too. Good luck and enjoy the awaiting banquet.

    • Thanks so much, Kate. You’ve articulated exactly how I feel about reading and writing. I want to be inspired and challenged to write things that are beyond my ability…and not all books can do that. Best of luck with your own reading and writing. :)

  9. Good on you Steph. Sounds like you’ve made a wise decision. I always enjoy reading your posts and I wholeheartedly agree that book blogging has meant I read a lot of books I don’t particularly like!

    With my wedding in a couple of weeks I’ve been far more strict about what I’ve been reviewing these past couple of months, declining books I haven’t personally requested or planned for. Because I was getting too overwhelmed by numerous books turning up on my doorstep each month that I hadn’t accounted for. Cutting back also means I’ve been able to read books on my personal TBR shelf, books that I choose and books I know I’ll like.

    Look forward to your future posts!
    Happy reading :-)

  10. Good on you! I was scared for a sec you were going to shut down the site but I’m glad you’re sticking around and focusing on books you want to read. I definitely get the stress of not having enough time to get through an ever-growing pile. I’m such a mood read I can’t force myself to read review copies. I don’t actually get many ARCs, the ones I do get are usually via netgalley, and somehow taht feels less “real” so I don’t feel as much pressure to read them by a certain date. I probably should, but as soon as I have to force myself to read something I’m not in the mood for I lose all interest and it won’t end up being a good review anyway, so I figure it’s probably best to leave it til the time is right for me. That’s what I tell myself anyway.

  11. JessB /

    Great idea Steph, I think it will be really interesting to see what takes your fancy! There’s something quite challenging and cool about having a theme to what you’re reading, but there must be something incredibly freeing when you think you can read anything – anything! – you like that holds your interest.
    Like I said, I look forward to it.

    • Thanks so much, Jess! Who knows, maybe I’ll overdose on literary fiction again, but I’ve been having such a wonderful time reading all of these tremendously worthy books. I’m a very happy reader right now!

  12. Good for you! When blogging becomes a chore to the point of thinking about shutting the site down, then it is time for a change. The blogging scene would have been poorer for your absence so I am glad that you decided to refocus rather than close down!

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