It wasn’t until recently that I thought there might be something wrong with my impulse to read widely. Do you ever have one of those moments where you feel like you just woke up and everything you know is different? I had a chill come over me in the last month when I started paying more attention to what books I was buying and borrowing and realized you could say absolutely nothing concrete about the person who was reading them. I have a pretty elaborate system wherein I determine whether or not to read a book, and from there, to borrow it from the library vs. request a review copy vs. purchase new at a bookstore or used bookstore vs. buy from Amazon. And then there’s the second or two when I can’t remember if I’ve already purchased the books. Ultimately, however, it’s hard to say what kind of reader I really am. This revelation has made me rethink the supposed merits and drawbacks of reading widely and of reading narrowly, of having tightly constrained “canon” vs. a free for all, and what is best when using reader’s advisory to help readers find their next favorite reads.
To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, let’s take a look at a typical “haul” (pile of books, bounty, loot, etc…) of my pre-orders, most of which arrive every Tuesday (new release date for just about every publisher).
All of the books in that stack I pre-ordered, some months in advance. If you were to read my reading, what would you say? It’s kind of a big mumble jumble mess! Looking at it objectively, I guess you could say I like literature in translation, somewhat experimental literature, old standby author of contemporary literary fiction, horror / supernatural, and historical fiction. I’m not sure it says much more than that, except maybe someone who “reads widely.” I used to take reading widely as a complement, but lately I’m starting to rethink how I read and how I can improve my relationship to the reading and writing of books by selecting what I read with more intention. Doing so means reconciling the disparate parts of my education and training, first as a student of literature, and second as a student of readers.
raised on dusty books by dead white men
As I grew up the daughter of a revered and legendary high school English teacher, the “Dead White Male” author canon of British and American literature dwelled in my home. The tomes hugged the towering shelves of my father’s bookshelves in his office. These old school textbooks and cracked-spine classroom paperbacks, still smelling faintly of my father’s pipe tobacco from my childhood, stared down at me: Shakespeare, Tennyson, Shelley, Yeats. My father inherited many of these books from his parents, both high school English teachers themselves, and some were even older than him. These were the names I grew up memorizing when I couldn’t sleep because I was scared about monsters and would go to him seeking comfort. I found no sympathy from my father, who made me stand in the corner while he worked late at night, the local classical music public radio station playing night time jazz. I’d read and reread the names on these spines on the books on those shelves until I grew drowsy. My father made it clear he didn’t care what I was reading as long as I left him alone and stayed quiet, so I would often pick up tomes like Major British Writers, my dad’ s bible, and hold the big, heavy book up, flipping through some of the most influential poems, plays, and short stories in the history of English literature. Eventually, as minutes wore on, I couldn’t hold the book up anymore, and the weight of it had tired me out, anyway, so I’d put it back on the shelf and go back to sleep. The monsters I feared were nothing compared to the terrifying creatures and demons of Milton’s Satan, Coleridge’s albatross, and Yeat’s “widening gyre.”
The first time I heard that there was maybe such a thing as a “canon,” a group of agreed-upon essential, canonical works that anchor a body or movement of literature, was in high school. When I went to high school, I was very confident and cocky and pretty obnoxious in English class because I thought I knew everything, dropping outside references and obscure vocabulary I had literally picked out of Franny & Zooey, since Salinger was my favorite author. At the time, in the early-to-mid 2000s, our high school English curriculum was caught between the grey-and-white-haired old school teachers like my father (who had retired before my freshman year) and teachers who advocated for more diverse literature on the syllabus. Diversity was welcome by me, but unfortunately the works that were chosen were pretty sanitized and subpar, and I gleaned from faculty allies and mentors, books that were fiercely debated on among the cliques of the English department. Personally, my attitude was “fuck it,” and since my parents had never censored anything I read and I could literally walk up the street to the library and check out any book I wanted. I was against being told what to read anyway. My breaking point, though, was when I went to an interview in New York City as part of the application process to study at Oxford University. A prim, stiff woman gave me a poem to read and, without identifying it, asked me questions to help me analyze it as a kind of test. She asked me if I had an idea when it was written. I didn’t. She asked me if I could identify the movement it belonged to. I couldn’t. She asked me if I could identify any of the allusions and references in it. That I could do. The poem, I ultimately found out, was Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” which was canonized in Major British Writers. If I had been in my father’s class even five years earlier, I probably would have been taught that poem. But by the time I got to high school, the dead, white male author curriculum was out of fashion. Instead, we had a Frankenstein-like mashup between older classics and offensively unoffensive, boring selections that could barely even be called “diverse.” I remember taking the train home from my interview in New York City and feeling mighty pissed that someone had chosen to replace teaching that poem with fucking Baghdad without a Map. I took my revenge in college by going in the opposite extreme by taking a narrow specialization in Tennyson’s era.
with no canon, can you still have a core?
At the University of Pennsylvania, I had a super specific “concentration” within my English major: 18th and 19th century British literature. The English major was only 12 classes, and if I hadn’t transferred to Penn from Columbia, I probably would have taken an additional 12 because I just loved being an English student in Penn’s phenomenal English Department. Thanks to my concentration, I graduated having read most of English literature’s biggest hits from the 1700s through 1950. I felt cooly comfortable at having such a specialized knowledge, but I did feel I missed out on a survey of English literature in general. Because of the way Penn’s English major was structured, which involved taking six core classes within six “sectors,” or distribution areas (such as a course in literature before 1600), I was able to drill down on the Victorians and Romantics, but skip over entire periods and movements. For example, I only took one class about American literature, and it doubled as my 20th century – present credit. Yeah, I took a Shakespeare class to fulfill my early literature distribution, but I was disappointed to graduate without learning anything about Old English and Medieval literature.
So when I looked at the questions in my prep book for the GRE in Literature, I felt dumb. How could I know such a nitty gritty topic like Victorian penny dreadfuls but be unable to answer any questions about literary theory? I had read just about nothing by Melville, Twain, Faulkner, James, Wharton… all these big name authors that some would say an English major was incomplete without. Perhaps this was the downside to specializing. Surely there was a lot to know about English literature, about 2,000 years to cover, but I had an ultra-concentrated sphere of knowledge and a big gap for the rest of the time. I was and am a feminist and a reader and promoter of diverse writers, literatures, and revolutionary radicals, but it still would have been nice to be able to know I could have a conversation with a fellow English major and find we had some common ground at all. And I don’t think those two feelings are mutually exclusive.
advising you to ignore reader’s advisory theory
After college, I was still recuperating from the mega intensive reading of my major, and it took me a while to find out that I could read for pleasure, anything I wanted, and I could try out new genres and authors. This feeling, like you’re giving a key to a candy shop, was thrilling for me. I enjoyed the structure of my undergraduate studies, but, turned loose, now I could read without limits. It was simply overwhelming, especially since my narrow concentration left me without any frame of reference for contemporary literature. So for several years, before I started working with books professionally, I pulled whatever I thought looked interesting off the shelf. Books I would probably never pick up if I were the reader I am today. And that’s good, to have that messy workspace with no rules. I took chances and became more confident at selecting my own reading choices and researching everything I could about books in my spare time since I hoped to one day become a professional book recommender or reviewer. This led me to reviewing at Kirkus Reviews as a freelancer and deciding to go to library science graduate school in summer 2014. I was excited since libraries were a passion of mine, and when I learned there was such a thing as “reader’s advisory”—the art and science of recommending books to readers—one day during my lunch break at my office job, I just about fell out of my chair. I made it a point to finish my application to Clarion University’s online program in master’s of library and information science that night.
In library school, they teach you to be a generalist, someone who is fluent enough in several topics that they can help just about anyone looking for books, research, or information. I remember reading about this in one of the introductory textbooks during the earliest weeks of my first semester, and it was doubly reinforced by my work as a reference intern at the University of Pennsylvania’s Van Pelt Library. Penn has 12 schools—12! Imagine having to know a minimum about the library’s policies, collections, and resources to help a veterinary student, an electrical engineering major, and a freshman writing her term paper on Greek art for a Classics course all in one night, in person, over the phone, or on web chat. At the same time, Penn’s librarians doubled as subject specialists and bibliographers, having developed expertise or two or three and become authorities on certain knowledge and how to find it. That’s usually where having a second master’s came in handy, though one of the librarians told me he knew nothing about his subject specialty when he was hired and had to give himself a crash course.
But even my winter session elective in genre fiction and reader’s advisory encouraged a broad approach, reading as much as you can in a wide variety of areas, concentrating on specific genres, authors, or age groups as you go. With reader’s advisory, librarians are trained to read widely, to hit targets throughout the year to develop a bank of knowledge to help readers connect with a new book. To be truly dedicated to reader’s advisory, you’ll want to pick up books in all the major genres (like, say, romance) as well as narrow down some subgenres (like contemporary romance) and sub-sub-genres (like bad boy billionaire contemporary romance). You’d also want to skim through blogs and articles related to books and publishing, and hell, if you’re really game, you will follow bookish thought leaders on social media and sign up for niche genre newsletters. The idea is to know as much as possible to be prepared for any situation where someone would be looking for a new book to read, whether they only read police procedural mysteries and want something they haven’t already heard of or they are that dear patron who is “just looking for a new book, maybe one about love?” I still love giving book recommendations, but I’m starting to rethink the generalist approach and read books I would recommend to myself. Huh?
A Personal Canon:
reading to keep your heart beating
Fast forward several years to 2017. I am continually surprised at the breadth of my home book collection and what I choose to buy and check out from the library. Lately, I’ve been looking at these piles and hauls and realizing there’s no real coherent thread. I am a generalist, for the most part, but I love mysteries / thrillers (especially British), literary fiction, contemporary YA, contemporary and historical romance, chick lit / women’s fiction, fiction or nonfiction about politics and current affairs, and graphic novels and comic books. It’s fun to read without abandon, but I’m starting to realize that I am reading without structure, without intent. For example, I know next to nothing about science fiction, and I regularly get questions from readers about science fiction recommendations. Maybe it’s time to reign it in a little. Even though I treasure reading without restrictions, it is starting to bother me that my lack of strategy has made me read not deeper, but shallower.
What I’m starting to realize about reader’s advisory from my conversations with fellow librarians, readers, and book journalists is that recommendations are best when they are passionate and personal. The books I have told others about that they enjoy the most are recommendations that come from the heart and soul of the recommender. It’s true I could probably list some names of popular authors in different genres on command if someone was looking for generic mystery books, but the books that others can’t wait to read are the ones I gush about, the ones I hold to my chest or implore people by saying, “It’s just so good. So good. And I can’t even tell you why. You just have to read it. It’ll change your life.” My own ringing endorsement for a genre or author a reader might otherwise not pick up is enough to push them over the edge. Those are the recommendations I want to hear from other readers. The books they treasured, they devoured, they savored one page read slowly at a time, they stayed up all night reading, they missed their train stop because they were lost in the book. These are the books I want to read. The books that moved the readers I admire, the bookworms who might be difficult to impress, who can tell me about a book in under a minute and convince me to read it, even if it doesn’t seem like my thing. I’m not as satisfied when others list books they think I would like. I am more likely to do anything to get my hands on a copy of a book that a fellow reader cannot shut up about. Whether it’s a pulpy thriller or a sprawling historical epic, I don’t care. If you can sell me on why you loved it, I will track it down as soon I can.
I am calling for a new kind of reader’s advisory and a new approach to literary canons, one where you read whatever you want at the cost of being a generalist, that every time you want to fall down the rabbit hole to chase an exciting whim or subgenre, you do it. That if you don’t want to create some arbitrary goal to read three books from different genres (really, the same thing as “sectors” or “distributions”), you feel comfortable if you keep on pursuing your addiction memoirs kick. You say, I’m going to prioritize my first reader—me—the most. Rather than trying to learn a little bit about different genres in case a patron comes in and someone needs to be around to recommend a western, librarians should feel more comfortable recommending the books they enjoy the most, regardless of genres or age groups or niches. After all, a love of reading of any kind is contagious. I dare you to try to resist reading a book a fellow librarian, reader, patron, friend cannot stop talking about. That passion shines through and will make many readers like myself just itching to return to a good book.
Maybe there is no defined canon anymore. Maybe nobody can agree on which works are most influential. Maybe we need to rip the pages up of our English textbooks and set them on fire. But I do know that the books that move us, that take our breath away, those are the books we remember more. If you think back to your life as a reader, those books are the ones that are most influential, that stand out like bright lights along the long dark highway of your life. Librarians, readers, bloggers, writers… all should feel confident creating a canon of their own, the books that mattered most, the books that pulled you through a hard time, the books whose random passages and descriptions and dialogues stick with you after all that time. I advocate for creating a highly individualized reading list, a personal canon. Read to live, read to breathe. The books that change your life reach into your own beating heart, your core, and rewire your arteries. These are the books we need to recommend to others with great urgency. Sharing across personal favorites creates a new syllabus, a new textbook, a new reading list of books that matter, that transform us, that we trade amongst our reading community, books that will keep breathing into our lungs. The books of passion—these are our new canon.