Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Guest Post by Tess Taylor: How Do You Decide What to Read Next?

By Tess Taylor

NBCC member Tess Taylor responds to the third question in the “Next Decade in Book Culture” series.


At the risk of playing the luddite, I’ll say that I keep on looking for books to read next the old fashioned way: I keep a notebook full of my fascinations and then try to keep up with them.  And while I read for the scant money it pays, certainly, and the limited fame and glory I get by getting my name out there, I also do it for far more personal reasons.  And while I have pieces of me that read for work and pieces that read for pleasure, and though they sometimes cross, I try to keep the piece of me that reads for pleasure sacred, so it doesn’t feel it’s a pundit, endlessly commenting on stuff for sale.

Still, I am feeling compelled to answer this question, in a sidelong manner. How do I choose what to read?  Well the person who reads for pleasure, who I get to be especially now that I am on a writing fellowship this year, reads in a way that I associate most with childhood and I wish that we all got to read more—associatively, freely, making sandcastles, or rather book piles— around her.  She’s got more reading projects than she can keep up with. She is always trying to read something modern and something not modern. That person gets lost for the sake of getting lost.  That person says: Hey, I just read Virgil’s Georgics about farming and beekeeping—might as well check out the even older Hesiod poems about farming and see how they chime. Hey, John Clare’s a farm poet, too. Hey, maybe I’ve got something to think about. I am thinking about labor and writing, and I am losing myself in books and moving one to the next.  I am being what Virginia Woolf once hopefully wished for, and what all writers wish for, and what literature needs lots of—“a common reader.” And so far this reading is for me, now, and not an essay for anyone. It is merely fertilizer for good thought.

As for how to hear about the hot new thing, that’s work. It’s good work, and I am glad to have it—I try to get all the book catalogs I can and bookmark books that look like they’ll inspire/ fascinate/ further those fascinations.  I gossip. I hope that my other writer friends point me in the right direction. I look to read the kind of reviews that inspire me to write reviews—not just the breathless kinds of “hot new thing” blather that we are so often surrounded by, but things that actually make me feel somehow nourished as a reader and a writer. That help convince me that I am also playing.

I am not so cut off that I don’t surf around every day looking on facebook and trying to be part of its conversations. Goodness knows I am an online narcissist like the rest of us and I want to google myself and exist online and so I play online and I read online and I do check what’s being reviewed on facebook, because I have friends who poke and paste one another’s things and sometimes—even often— they look good. I post my things there too. It’s nice to be thumbsed up.  I like my friends’ taste in various articles. I bounce around there pinging and ponging and poking and liking and thumbs-upping, usually for half an hour a day. And when I am proud of people, I am glad to see what interview or article has been done with them or to taste the current.  But when an article looks good and I want actually to read it, and it strokes my fascinations, I print it out and it goes to a file in my office and it awaits time that really allows reading—a day with not too much email, not too many deadlines, hopefully some exercise and whatever unique combination of productive openness and restfulness that allows thought to sink in.  I’m back in that zone between work and play.

I’d like to say that all of this feels secondary to being sent an article directly by a friend, or say, actually discussing a book in person, over a glass of wine, the way my friend Jasmine and I got to discuss Peter Ackroyd’s new Canterbury Tales prose translation over wine in Rome.  That really made me feel that books mattered and I was in a conversation with another who had gathered in their name and that we had a small congregation of readership.  I may get more pings on facebook, but talking to Jasmine is still better fun.

I mention this because, somehow, I feel that we get so obsessed with the publicity of reading (or perhaps feel so irrelevant because public outlets keep telling us that we are) that no matter how playful I feel on facebook,  (which, let’s admit it, also feels a lot like work) it’s just not as satisfying a way to read and think about reading as sitting down with a nice long article and then sharing it with a friend. Facebook is not the same kind of play—it’s like passing notes in high-school, or, more specifically, passing haiku, which I actually once did with my friend Jon Bloch. In tenth grade we created and passed public haiku around anatomy class instead of dissecting cats.

I never learned to dissect cats.  Meanwhile, however fun facebook is, it isn’t usually about dissecting books, or even really thinking about them. We can thumbs up them, which is fine, but the surfing doesn’t bring me close into my nice bookish intimacies, my zones of associational pleasure, the feeling I have of building a castle of words or being in one.

For that, I would say to all of us—remember? You too had one, or you wouldn’t be in this otherwise thankless, semi- unremunerative field. Slow down! We have the slow food movement—what about the nice slow reading movement, in which we went back to the days of endless John McPhee articles about the nature of soil? I half jest about that long article, a famous one in the Wallace Shawn New Yorker, but I don’t jest about the nutritional value of thought and it’s ability to enrich the mind’s fertility.

For good thoughtful reviews, I would recommend most recently Sven Birkerts’s leisurely and also keenly observed essay on reading Bolano in the journal of the Assocation of Literary Scholars Critics and Writers, or Maud Casey's review of  three historical novels in that same journal. Because they are long and meaty and light and are more thoughtful than they are timely—not heavy in the way the New York Review of Books can become, and not breathy in the way sometimes certain blurbly reviews can be—but are generous and thoughtful meditations on reading.

But at risk of sidestepping the question entirely: Here’s the bigger question I am thinking about:  It may the opposite of what everyone wants to hear. So what if we are alone while we do this? Why have we readers and writers become so afraid of being alone? It’s as if our interconnectedness makes us more paranoid about the isolations required to think and read as a mind, as a self, to slow down long enough to gather thoughts and then be able to share them with others. But isn’t that why we got into it in the first place? Because we love those isolations? Because we value these thoughts?  

Is jumping on to the bandwagon about the web– that everyone ought to be reading faster and in a more fractured way, really the answer? Or should we actually try, those of us who read and write, to cultivate our own attention spans? To preserve them? To share what we have left of them with our friends and colleagues? To do the deep work we long ago set out to do?

There’s a lot of hand-wringing about literature and literacy at large, which basically say that a lot of people don’t read a lot of the time. This has been true for most of human history and is likely to continue to be so.  We are better off than the monks in the dark ages, certainly, and yes, it would be wonderful if everyone read. But perhaps it is no help if our model of everyone reading is everyone reading shallowly. Those of us who can and want to, let’s read, for real.  And then let's keep helping to create the conditions—in our lives and in the lives of those around us—that can support this seemingly radical behavior. I actually don’t lack for books to read. They are stacked up beside me. What I lack for and what I try to build in myself is the long time to take them in.

I hope very much to write something of use about them when I have.