Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Guest Post by Matthew Tiffany: How Do You Decide What to Read Next?

By Matthew Tiffany

Another response to the third question in our Next Decade in Book Culture series, from Matthew Tiffany, whose literary blog is Condalmo.



The wording of the question points to the answer, for me – or maybe it would be more accurate to say that it points toward the overabundance of answers. We aren't simply being asked “What is your source of information about new books?”; on the surface, that seems to be what is being sought out here. I think the question is more indicative of a “problem” – how do you limit your intake of information about unread material?


I put “problem” in quotation marks because, by any standard of measure, it's hardly dire straits. An abundance of reading choices is hardly a crisis. At the same time, devoted readers are in a unique position. With even a marginal degree of internet-savvy, you can find any number of websites with enough reading suggestions to fill your hours for the next two years. As someone who experiences a precipitous drop in mood when I don't have a good read going, it's like an always-on  personal assistant/suggestion service. 


And yet. I've been reviewing books – purely freelance, on-the-side – for about three years now. I've maintained my own book blog; I've served as Book Reviews Editor for a fairly-well-trafficked online magazine. This has provided me with a fairly steady stream of review copies – some requested, but many just sent my way. Some of them are duds; many of them are not, as the publicists are savvy enough now to send review copies to writers who have shown an interest in that sort of material in the past. The thing is, though, that it isn't my primary vocation. I'm a psychotherapist, and this doesn't always leave me with enough energy at the end of the day to put in two or three hours of reading. 


So that leaves me with a backlog of reading-to-do. All good and fine, except an integral part of the satisfaction that comes from reading is derived from completing the transaction – learning about a book, acquiring it, giving myself over to it, finishing it. With knowledge/acquisition of more and more good books, there ends up being less of the final two steps in that transaction. It does me no good to get four books in the mail that each beg for my undivided attention, only to have three more exciting titles show up a day later. I get the excitement of seven new books to read, and then either try to read four of them at once (fail) or focus on one. Between work, family, and other interests, by the time I've finished that one book and am ready to get to one of the other six, I've received five more and learned about ten others. 


To return to the question: I think it's a valuable question to ask, because our near-limitless access to information via the internet has made it critical to find the connections between various sources of recommendation – to find the places that deliver the goods, nine times out of ten, for our particular interests, and then share that so that others with those interests will go there. It's the currency of links. It does no good to limit oneself to one or two sources of new book information; there is simply too much good writing you won't hear about. 



I'm trying to come up with the best possible metaphor for how I go about my consumption of information, but nothing seems to fit. There's an ebb and flow to it. Or, maybe the image of a bumblebee, busy with pollination.


I think the best thing is to state that I use Google Reader like a sieve. (For anyone not familar with Reader, here's the quick-and-dirty: most websites allow you to subscribe to them, so that whenever they post a new article or review, you'll receive it in Reader. That personal assistant I mentioned? His name is Google Reader.) I've used it for a few years now. I've had as many as 250 subscriptions going at once; most of those would publish, on average, one new item a day. Most of those subscriptions were book related. That was untenable; after you acquire 1,000 unread articles, Reader stops keeping count, and simply indicates “1,000+ unread”. There was simply no way for me to keep up.


These days, I've dropped down to a fighting-trim 74 subscriptions. It still provides me with more than I can keep up with, but at least I get around to reading new reviews of books before enough time has lapsed for it to be available in paperback (or heaven forbid, on the remainders table). The 74 have come to hold on by dint of interconnectedness: if a site provides me with quality writing about books that I appreciate, I subscribe. If that site and a couple of others that I trust point me in the direction of another, I'll give it a try. Many of the sites I frequent now also maintain a Twitter account, which they use for brief news pieces and links; it's a great way to find new paths. 


As for specific sites: I like the “Conversation” – The Quarterly Conversation, Conversational Reading, and The Constant Conversation. I like The Millions.  The Faster Times; The Second Pass. The Critical Flame. The Morning News. Three Percent. Bookforum. GoodReads. LibraryThing. Thumb Drives and Oven Clocks. Maud Newton's blog is where I started, years ago. If you're new to all of this, it remains a great starting point. 


There are other sites I frequent, along with paper magazines, but if you go to the sites listed above and look at their lists of other sites, you'll have enough to keep you quite busy.