I Don’t Read to Like

August 23, 2017 | 8 books mentioned 12 4 min read

“What do you like to read?” It’s a perfectly reasonable question, but it always makes me flinch. I am a reader—that is my identity before anything else, including writer, partner, or mother—but I have no idea how to answer that question.

covercoverFirst of all, just right off the bat, the question assumes that I am a coherent person from moment to moment with a consistent and legible taste in literature. That I chase after books which satisfy some sort of personal criteria for literary bliss, and as I read, I measure the pages in front of me against this ruler. Fair enough. One of my friends looks for books about messy, tangled family dynamics that end with all the loose strands woven in: The Nix by Nathan Hill. Another only reads books with a strong sense of place: The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley or The Shipping News by Annie Proulx. A third prefers introspective or philosophical novels with a spiritual dimension: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. They wield these criteria like extensions of their names: “I am the one who reads [fill in the blank].” But I have no—and I mean no—such criteria. I’ll read anything.

covercoverBut a very specific anything. I’ve never in my life read randomly. I’ve never—not once—walked into a bookstore and come out with a book I hadn’t heard of before. Usually I am in the midst of a reading project. Some of these are self-determined, like when I mined a vein about evolution and the link between animal behavior and ecosystem in The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner and The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen. And some choose me, such as when Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet demanded that I read the novels of Christa Wolf. Sometimes I read to draw closer to a person—and sometimes that even works. My grandmother recently began reading again after emerging from a years-long depression, so I’ve been reading and sending to her a steady stream of David Balducci thrillers and novels about the Greatest Generation like John Crowley’s Four Freedoms.

Part of the problem is in the word “like,” that little heart we tap ten thousand times a day. I like lots of things, so many things, but I am not guided by what I like. I regularly read books that I know I’ll dislike, not to hate-read, but because I’m just plain curious—because there is something in there I need that is not pleasure.

covercoverAfter reading Claire Dederer’s memoir, Love and Trouble, and feeling disappointed by its surprisingly timid take on the dissatisfactions of middle-aged marriage, I picked up Sarah Dunn’s The Arrangement, a novel about the rueful complications that ensue when a couple decides to open their marriage for six months. My suspicion that any chance of the characters developing true dimensionality would be sacrificed in the quest for a punchline was amply confirmed. The book read like a novel-length screenplay treatment with nary a moral qualm and, strangely, no sex. But that was entirely beside the point for my reading project. Female desire is having a literary moment—have you noticed?—and I wanted to know the content of that conversation. Now I know.

You can see how exceedingly rule-bound my reading is. And yet I still haven’t described it to you, haven’t even come close to a polite, conversational answer to the question, “What do you like to read?” It is a deeply uncomfortable subject for me.

We’ve come now to the real risk at the heart of any honest answer to this question, the social stakes of it all. I sound like an incorrigible snob: I can see right through all the books that most people like; I am better than they are; I am guided not by pleasure pleasure but by some higher impulse.

That’s not it, though. Perhaps there is a distinction to be made between readers and Readers. Between people who read books, just as easy as that, and people who use books to build their entire selves. The distinction here has nothing to do with the number of books read per month, hierarchies of taste, or education. Those who are simply readers are people who are made happy by books, people who like to talk about what they’ve read, people for whom joining a book group makes sense, because it is straightforward for them to translate the solitary act of reading into a social connection.

Readers with a capital R, on the other hand, read from a sense of absence, of pursuit, of perturbation. Reading is too deeply personal to discuss with others, in part because it is the personal: reading as interiority. I read to listen to myself think. When a book is open in front of me, I am anonymous to the author, oblivious to my own face, and completely self-conscious: criticism as life.

As Pierre Bayard theorizes in How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (a book whose mordant wisdom is not captured by that inapt title), reading must always entail loss. Bayard is about as far away from Roland Barthes‘s plaisir du texte as a Frenchman can get. For him, we are forever searching for a book that can never precisely match our own “inner book,” what he calls a “phantasmagorical object that every reader live to pursue, of which the best books he encounters in his life will be but imperfect fragments, compelling him to continue reading.” And, for some of us, to begin writing.

coverYet even those best books, the ones that interlock with our own need for them, are always receding from us, never again coinciding with the text we first read, disintegrating in memory. A constituent part of reading—for the Reader, at least—is this “anguish of madness.” I am reminded of Audrey Niffenegger’s The Night Bookmobile, and the character Alexandra’s harrowing quest to inhabit the chamber containing every single book she’s ever read. Those of us who read to voice our own interior monologues are doomed—yet also privileged. Ours is an urgent project that will take a lifetime to complete, and our material will never be exhausted.

I’ve recently come up with a standard answer to the question, “What do you like to read?” and I experimented with it at a book club I visited when they read my book and at a dinner party with new friends. “I like novels with unreliable narrators,” I said. “Like me.” Both times I got puzzled looks and head tilts. Failed experiment. But you know what I mean, don’t you? You know what it feels like to be both disordered by and constructed of books, right? If the answer is yes, nod your head from behind your book.

What do I like to read? Anything, but not everything. What do I like to read? Books that I like to analyze. What do I like to read? I’ll know it when I see it. Or, better, I’ll become the person who wants to read that book when I see it.

Image: Wikimedia Commons


  1. Oh, I recognize myself in this and I’m somehow surprised I do…that’s because I never really reflected on what it means to dislike that question, to find a book club a terrible idea, to feel reading so personal I feel uncomfortable when people start sharing platitudes about a book I loved … I read anything but not everything… and I’m always in search of…

  2. I like to read the way some like having lunch or dinner with interestingly brilliant friends or acquaintances… but, in reading, I have the power to revisit the same rich experience as many times as I like: the subtle joke I’ve always enjoyed on page 94 will always be there for further delectation and new shadings. And how many witty lunches last for days or weeks? How many last for more than an hour or two without wearing thin? It’s even more magical when the evening’s raconteur is dead, no? That’s what I get from it: enchanted dinner dates with ghosts.

    Reading a trivial book is like lunch with a day trader or a life coach or on a blind date suggested by an ex. Life is too short, talk is generally too cheap.

  3. What is the deal with The Millions publishing this virtually meaningless babble? For God’s sake. I couldn’t have been more bored out of my mind at a Trump rally.

    Here’s a criterion you might start using to guide your reading. Ferrante: brilliant. Baldacci and Niffenegger: pure crap. Now, off you go.

  4. Steve I love your comment. Amy Reading, I too get uncomfortable with the question. Since what we read defines our personalities it is a loaded question, impossible to answer unless with a fellow reader.

  5. I am retired and living my dream life. I’m inclined to solitude and can go many days without human contact, without missing people. I read all the time. All The Time. I average about 130 books a year. I read about epigenetics, Holocaust rescuers, Bernie Gunther series, paleolithic teeth, Dickens, Wharton, Yehoshua, A. Gurnah, post-Stalin Russia, economic history, the 17th century, short stories of Edith Pearlman and Joseph Epstein, Caribbean fiction, immigrant fiction, books like Evicted and Ghettoside and Nickel and Dimed, on and on and on.

    Is this a life or what?

  6. H!

    Not to mention the fact that I met my Wife because I was reading “Speak, Memory”; she said, “You know Nabokov?” and I said (cheekily and flustered; who was this stunning woman?), “I even know how to pronounce his name properly!” We’ve been together ever since (I owe Vlad one).

    Re: Darren Crane’s comment: I don’t agree that this essay is boring and it’s obvious that comparing it, in any way, to even the most literate Trump rally is plainly bizarre but… I’m sympathetic to Crane’s animus to the extent that when Niffenegger’s “The Time Traveler’s Wife” debuted, critics would sort of off-handedly mention that Scott Turow was “a family friend”… it was Turow who helped to sell almost 3,000,000 copies of Niffenegger’s book by plugging it on TV. So many stories like that (if it’s not the luck of family/ class placement, it’s the marble hopping into the roulette slot of fetching looks) makes the Lit Game feel about as inspiring as Professional Wrestling, sometimes.

    An old Virtual Lit Blog friend of mine wrote one of the best books to come out in late 2011/ early 2012… better than the book that Martin Amis came out with that period, better than Will Self’s effort at the time, better than Zadie Smith’s… but my friend’s book (glowingly reviewed, btw: Google “Human Wishes/ Enemy Combatant”) sold probably 200 copies and went out of print when his tiny publisher folded. He had several other novels in the chute but the utter and swift disappearance of his first great book demoralized him… and then he died (this July).

    So, yeah. I understand that Snarl out there. Even if I don’t always agree with all the obvious targets for it.

    PS Irony of ironies: my friend’s book is now going for 65 dollars per copy on Amazon.

  7. Matilda, lovely comment as well. The conflict expressed in this essay is when someone (who does not read) asks you what you like to read. I recently read Grace by Paul Lynch, so upon describing the novel to the person who asked “what do you like to read”?, surmised that I lked historical fiction. I am say “no it is not that simple because I am half way through Coover’s Huck Out West,” which is hilarious and tragic BTW. I usually finally shrug and say “well actually I love Bulgakov and furthermore Crime and Punishment by Mr. D. killed me, and don’t forget Cancer Ward by Mr. S”. I was once told to “get a life” by a coworker who thought reading was a waste of time. So Matilda, to you I say, if reading is a waste of life, by god let me waste away.

  8. Steven A,

    What a shame, I would love to read that book you mentioned. Maybe his estate will allow for another publisher to give it a chance? Digital.

    In reading the above, I’m reminded of the panic attack I had after listening to Margaret Atwood describe her writing for the Future Library Project on NPR. Granted, I was a little hungover, but knowing that there is a work by an author I admire “out there”, and realizing that I will never get to read it, is both frustrating and a little foolish.

    But I’m a reader with limited time, who reads slowly. I read everything I can, but I gravitate to things that I think I will like. Life is too short.

  9. Erik!

    If I still had my copy, I’d mail it to you, but, as Fate would have it, an acquaintance with whom I’m no longer in touch made off with it years ago.

    Perhaps there’s hope and his widow or friends will digitize it. Contact me via the “about” page on my blog and I can send you the details needed to contact some relevant parties…

    It’s a great book and I hope it doesn’t die with him.

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