Thursday, May 04, 2006

Choosing books

Inspired by Julie's post on choosing books (from Bookworm), I've been thinking about how I choose my own. It can be an agonizing process sometimes. I usually don't buy books until right before I'm ready to read them (with a few exceptions), so while I own a lot of books, I don't own an out-of-control number, and I, or my husband, have read just about everything we own (with a few exceptions). I have a list of 18 books I own that I haven't read, not including anthologies for school and that sort of thing. I like going to the bookstore and buying something I can begin reading as soon as I get home -- that way I can follow the impulse of the moment and find just the right book for my mood. I'm not choosing from a shelf at home I feel I should read, but I'm choosing from a whole bookstore of possibilities.

The problem, though, is that I can't always identify what "just the right book for my mood" is. I will wander the bookstore looking at possibilities for quite a long time and agonizing over what I want to read, what I feel I should read, trying to find the thing I should read that I also want to read, or the thing I want to read that I also should read, and then feeling like "should" doesn't matter and I should just read for pleasure, and then thinking that life is short and I don't want to read something not worth while, and then agonizing over what "worth while" means. Do I want to read an older or newer novel? One by a woman or a man? Something experimental? Something more traditional? Something popular? Something obscure?

I remember one college professor of mine saying that when students have asked him what they should read, he tells them to read what they want to, to follow their curiosity and pleasure. I agree, but it's not that simple! Because there's pleasure in reading that's simple and there's pleasure that's complex. There's pleasure that you have to work for, that might not be pleasure in the beginning, but that after a certain amount of effort becomes pleasure -- perhaps a deeper kind than the more easily-attained feeling. Reading poetry is like that for me.

And I want it all. I want to read the books that bring fairly simple pleasures, like, maybe, a David Lodge or a Richard Russo novel (not that these authors aren't complex, but I don't find reading them difficult), and I want more challenging reads, like, say, Virginia Woolf, and I want to read poetry, both older poetry and contemporary stuff, and I want to read nonfiction -- books on literary history and on religious history and theology and on science -- and I want to read older novels and newer ones. A while back, I heard an interview with Zadie Smith on the radio, and she said she usually reads older, "classic" books because there's so little time and they are so great, and I agreed, at the moment. And then I read about all the tempting new novels out there, and I change my mind completely.

And so at the bookstore, I'm often in agony with all these possibilities and feelings. That's partly why I'm tempted by the kind of reading plan Julie describes -- she wrote about reading through the novels in the Penguin Classics list. That sounds great. I am very, very drawn to large, complicated plans, of all types. But I think that actually following through on such a plan would leave me a bit bored after a while. Because as much as I can agonize over my reading choices, I really do like the feeling of entering the bookstore without any idea of what book I'll leave with.

So with those two feelings -- wanting to be spontaneous and feeling deeply anxious about spontaneity -- I'm afraid I'm stuck.

But I think I can deal with it.