Sam van Zweden




How Do I Choose Books?

Today when I went to the library, I was approached by a training librarian who asked some questions about how I choose my books.

It’s a pretty simple question, yes, but it’s also hard to answer, and it made me stop and think. Poor librarian, I’m sure she was after a simple answer! I think what I gave her was something along the lines of, “I look at displays to see things I wouldn’t otherwise consider, for anything eye-catching, but otherwise I keep a list of books I want to read and I work my way down the list”. She asked a follow-up question about whether I find authors I like and spend extended time reading more of their work. My answer, sadly, is that often I don’t have time to do this. I do a lot of reading toward my writing, whether means research for articles or the blog, or reading works like my own WIP to get a sense of context or some inspiration – not to mention assigned reading for uni. Now that I’ve finished uni classes until 2014, though, I probably will have a lot more time to do things like getting properly obsessed with one author and spending weeks in their back-catalogue.

All this has me thinking about the extended answer to the librarian’s question – how do I choose my books?

There are two main sources: work and word-of-mouth.

This source is made up of books I’m sent by publishers or publications for review. I always dreamed of having a Meyer-esque Tower of Hope, and my desk is slowly starting to develop one. Of course, now that I’ve got one, it’s impossible to reach the bottom of. These books usually take priority, depending on whether there’s a deadline (magazines) or not (blog). 

The Mini-Moleskine:
I have a teeny tiny Moleskine that fits in the front pocket of my bag. It’s the size of my palm. And it contains a list of all the books I have been recommended by a friend (or at least, the ones I intend on chasing up), or read an interesting review of, or not understood a reference to and felt silly so need to read in order to increase my literary nous, or … so many things lead to a book ending up in my little notebook. I stole this idea off Veronica Sullivan, when I saw her scribbling away in a baby notebook at the library. This system ensures that I don’t miss anything. And it feels so good to cross a title off the list!

It’s also a great grab-bag of surprises – the list currently contains about 150 books I still haven’t read, and by the time I get around to crossing the title off I may have forgotten why I wrote it down in the first place, just that I knew I wanted to read it. This makes a lot of the titles a really pleasant surprise.

It also decreases reading anxiety. It reduces the hugeness of all I haven’t read to a finite list of things I need to chase up – like a never-ending “To Do”. Yeah, it’s old-school to do it in a book, but I like it. It’s a handy habit. No, I’ll never reach the end. But I’ll always be adding things and crossing things off. I’m never stuck for what to pick up from the library – just open up the book and pick one!

And then there are the other sources:

The last source of my reading material comes from necessity. Today’s library trip was to look for gift ideas for Christmas: recipes. Of course, I ended up with two accidental books, because there’s always the Can’t Say No category. I saw Julie and Julia just staring at me from the shelf, and I couldn’t leave it there. I need some indulgent holiday reading!

So those are my sources for reading material. How do you decide what to read next?

Library Greed

I’m quite a fan of libraries. Especially since the Kew library is only a ten minute walk away. Even on wet and cold days, I can make that trek relatively unscathed and unsweaty. Libraries are warm and wholesome places – good for the soul.

However, a strange sort of greed overcomes me at the library.

Yesterday I went in to pick up a book I’d had a reservation on (Lark and Termite by Jane Anne Phillips), and to print some school work.

“Ten minutes,” thought I, “and I’ll be out of here.”

I picked up my reservation. I printed my work.

Then I thought I’d check for any books relevant to my current school work. I came out with Borges: A Life by Edwin Williamson, and Borges on Writing by Giovanni, Halpern & MacShane (eds). While one of these books might be handy, there is no reasonable way that I will get all my school reading done plus a biography, plus a collection of short stories, plus a book of interviews, plus some fiction book I picked up last week…all in the next three-ish weeks before the due date.

Libraries do this to me though. I get in there and the fever overcomes me. I see a book and panic that it won’t be there when I come back… This is ridiculous of course; it’s a library, the books will always come back and I’ll get a chance to read it when I actually do have time.

It’s almost like an ownership thing, only I’m well aware that borrowing a book doesn’t constitute ownership. Perhaps it’s my reading anxiety at work again, trying to get as much in as possible, even if it’s an unreasonable amount.

My library isn’t helpful in this matter either. They have lovely displays of “featured books”; themes and new acquisitions which take on a certain importance and urgency. I tried taking a smaller bag yesterday, but my library even provides free bags… I’m running out of ideas. Reason simply doesn’t suffice. My library-mind is a reasonless grab frenzy.

Is anyone else out there suffering from this curse?

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