The Way We Read

April 22, 2008 | 1 book mentioned 8 2 min read

One of my favorite aspects of working in a bookstore was recommending stock to customers. Since I’ve kept a tight grip on my “to read” list my entire literate life, I was always puzzled and delighted by these strangers in need of book advice. What great power a bookseller has! It’s incredibly gratifying to watch a customer purchase a novel or biography because you convinced them to do so; it’s even better when they return to thank you for the recommendation.

I’ve recently become obsessed with the book choosing rituals of those around me. Are you the type to buy a book recommended by the cashier at your local bookstore? Or maybe you’re like my friend Lisa, who falls down the Amazon rabbit hole, one recommendation begetting another. My friend Allison decides on books based on their last word. Seriously. Trusted Millions leader Max has an intense book choosing system known as The Reading Queue. Max’s process is impressive, but the lack of choice would feel burdensome to me. I only buy one book at a time because I can’t handle the expectation and pressure of so many unread books in my apartment, crying out: Pick me! Pick me! When I purchase something, I read it soon after – I scratch that reading itch.

Three years ago, Patrick wrote two posts (here and here) about his gender equalizing reading experiment, in which he alternated between reading books by men and books by women. The results were positive: the project broadened his reading habits, and he now reads authors of both genders pretty evenly. I haven’t done anything so regimented, but his experiment did encourage me to shake up my own reading practices. I now keep statistics of what I’ve read, so that I can keep an eye on my tendencies, and go against them if I need to.

covercovercovercoverFor instance, I’ve read 12 books since January 1st, 5 by women and 5 by men, the remaining two being anthologies. On the male-to-female ratio, I’d say things are looking good. So far, I’ve only read 2 books of nonfiction, but for me, that’s an improvement. Last year, my 3 books of nonfiction were all about food or food production, so this year I’m branching out to other topics; in 2008 I’ve read Bill Buford’s Heat (food, again), and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family (not food), and was incredibly moved by the latter. I always read a large number of short story collections, but this year those numbers will decrease because I want to read more novels (to help with writing one). Four months into the year, I’ve failed on my dead authors quota. So far, I’ve read only half of Jude the Obscure. Patrick has offered to assassinate Joshua Ferris for me, whose novel Then We Came to the End I’m currently reading, but I think that’s a little extreme. I hope to dip into Flaubert and Wharton this summer to make up for this deficiency.

My latest 2008 reading goal is to read more books in translation, something I rarely do. Good thing The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano is waiting in the wings.

What are you reading this year, and why?

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.


  1. Books about reading books. I'm reading Pierre Bayard's "How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read." Interesting insights for any lover of All books.

    Man Booker Prize Winners, I like the Irish authors…next up, Ann Enright's "The Gathering".

    I also see more historical fiction in my reading future.

  2. Great topic, Edan. I thought I was the only one (well, and Max) who was this concerned with keeping a reading list. Like you, I feel like I read too many novels (especially, lately, contemporary novels), and so I try to keep separate lists: classics, recent fiction, this year's fiction, nonfiction, re-reads, and also-rans. I'm usually triply procrastinating (reading off my back-up back-up list, rather than the main list), but at least listmaking keeps me from feeling I have to buy every title that interests me…instead, I put it on the list. And I also try to not go too long without reading something classic. What gets lost for me, too often, is the joy of reading multiple works by one writer in succession, and so this year I read all of Norman Rush in one go (about which more soon!), and am trying to indulge in Bolano and Henry James marathons. Again, for the former, I wish blogger made it easier to use the tilde. And I'd like to kick my New Yorker habit and read some book-length journalism. Any recommendations, anyone?

  3. I organize my unread books (I'm a hoarder) on my bookshelf in order of interest: books I most want to read towards the top, books I least want to read towards the bottom. The actual process of selection involves a lot of staring, pulling out a book, looking at the cover, reading the back cover, perusing the praise for the book sometimes included in the first couple pages, sometimes reading the first page or chapter of the actual book while standing there, putting that book back, staring more, repeating with other books as necessary. Most of the time I end up pulling from somewhere on the top shelf, but every so often a dark horse from below sneaks up and surprises me. It's time consuming, utterly non-scientific, and a lot of fun.

  4. At any given time, I have maybe twenty unread books in my apartment. I choose what's next according to mood, but in the back of my mind I try to balance fiction and non-fiction, and older books and newer books. Occasionally I'll binge – last year I went on a Chabon binge reading four of his in a row. (Which is the way I read when I was younger)

    I also make a mental note if someone, especially a Millions colleague, raves eloquently about a book that seems up my alley, and then within a week I'll either have completely forgotten about it, or I'll have actually written it on a piece of paper. (so Garth – thanks for Bolano. I can't even begin to express how astonishingly great I found The Savage Detectives. And Max – ditto for Mutis)

  5. Shannon, The Gathering is on my 'to read' list too, and I've read the intro to the Bayard but couldn't keep going. It seems his argument begins from an assumption that one doesn't enjoy reading. It does seem like an entertaining book, though.

    Thanks for commenting, everyone. I love hearing how other people decide what to read. Loyal readers have such idiosynchratic methods.

  6. I don't buy books to leave in my house for the most part. I order almost all my books from my library. I usually have about twelve books on hold at any given time. I get my books from blog recommendations, various literature like Publishers Weekly, and the New York Times Book Review. Because I like science fiction, I also read Locus Magazine online for the latest releases and sfsite as well. Last week, I was at New York Comic Con so I have a stack of graphic novels which I haven't read yet. The last book I read was David Hajdu, The Ten Cent Plague. People have been posting things which I should read in the comments section of my blog as well. Right now, I have too much to read.

  7. I recently created a shelf of "unread" books. I try to follow my list organically. I have an idea of the next 2 or 3 books I'd like to read, but I allow myself to be sidetracked. I'm trying to read more poetry. High on my list right now is Helen Oyeyemi's The Opposite House.

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