For anyone who is a reader, the question of what to read arises from time to time. Book lists abound at the end of the year. There are challenges galore all over the book-blogging world. There are books like this or this.
On April Fool’s Day, I somehow followed a link to this blog post. It along with a few others gave a very clever response to some recent (at that time) essays that addressed the what to read question. Joel Stein in the New York Times skewered adults who read young adult books and Maura Kelly wrote a Slow Book Manifesto in the Atlantic.
The most recent New Yorker contains an ad to a new book blog, Page Turner. In general, I’m pro-book blogs and pro-New Yorker. But the ad read: “Introducing our new literary blog, with criticism, contention, and conversation about the most important books for the moment.” (emphasis mine) And the tagline is “Books that Matter.” I don’t know, something about that just make me want to go out and read a pulpy romance just to be rebellious. Interestingly, in the same issue Arthur Krystal has an essay about the pleasures of genre fiction that comes down more on the side of guilty pleasures not being so guilty.
On the other hand, I do think there is merit to reading outside of your comfort level, to challenging yourself. So where is the answer to what to read?
I’m not sure if he’d like to be used as an answer to that question but Alan Jacobs’ answer in The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction works for me.
So this is what I say to my petitioners: for heaven’s sake, don’t turn reading into the intellectual equivalent of eating organic greens, or (shifting the metaphor slightly) some fearfully disciplined appointment with an elliptical trainer of the mind in which you count words or pages the way some people fix their attention on the “calories burned” readout- some assiduous and taxing exercise that allows you to look back on your conquest of Middlemarch with grim satisfaction. How depressing. This kind of thing is not reading at all, but what C.S. Lewis once called “social and ethical hygeine. p. 17
Some readers may be puzzled to find that this book didn’t end several pages ago. Read at whim, I told you- What more is there to say?
Perhaps there’s a little more that could be said. “Whim” may not cover all the bases. But before I go any further I want to insist that it remains the foundation. It should be normal for us to read what we want to read, to read what we truly enjoy reading. p. 33
My only discontent with this book was that I didn’t read it before reading Moby Dick, which for me was absolutely the equivalent of swallowing down a vitamin that I somehow thought was good for me but tasted horrible. It also made clear to me why something holds me back from signing up for book challenges and the like. Or why the stack of books on my shelf given to me by people that told me I “should read such and such” is vaguely stressful to me. I’m a person who likes lists but I also get a little anxious if things don’t get checked off and finished. More and more, I’m looking to read by what strikes my fancy. To follow rabbit trails. To be more spontaneous. To allow for serendipity. To read for pure pleasure (with no guilt). To read according to my whim.