The Populist’s Soapbox: My Reading, My Quirks

I’m a firm believer that to be a good writer, you must read, and read a lot. I don’t read nearly as fast as many people do, but I manage to get in 60 – 70 books a year.

Sometimes people ask what I read. Other times they assume what I read. Whenever I answer either side of the question, the person on the other side seems surprised.

Some people assume I read only LDS fiction. That one surprises me. Why would I read only this market? Sure, there’s a lot of great stuff in it, and a variety of genres, but I’m not sure why they think I don’t read other things just because I publish in this market.

The truth: I do read a lot of LDS fiction. That’s largely because many good friends also publish here, and I want to read their work. Also because I need to keep abreast of my own market. And finally, because I’m part of the Whitney academy, many (although definitely not all) of the Whitney finalists will be from the market, and if I’m going to vote, I need to read the finalists.

I spend some of my reading time throughout the year making educated guesses on which books might be finalists, so that come February, I don’t have 30 finalists to race through in 2 months. It’s not unlike trying to guess who might be nominated for an Oscar; there are always surprises, but you can also make educated guesses in some cases. For example, Stephanie Black has won two Whitneys for Mystery/Suspense, so you can bet I’ll be adding her new release, Cold as Ice, to my to-be-read list.

The Whitneys have opened my reading to new areas in the national market. There’s a good chance that without them, I might not have picked up Dan Wells’s I Am Not a Serial Killer when I did (a book that tied in this year’s Whitneys for Best Novel by a New Author with the self-published Gravity vs. The Girl, by Riley Noehren). So hey, I read a horror novel and loved it. Who knew? Thanks to the Whitneys, I’ve also been introduced to national writers like Brandon Sanderson, Jessica Day George, Jaime Ford, and more.

What do I read besides straight LDS market fiction and national Whitney finalists? I keep a running list of books as I read them. It goes back about 15 years, and it’s fun to look at.

A smattering from the past couple of years, purposely leaving off all titles by LDS writers, both national and LDS market:

  • Anne of Ingleside, by L. M. Montgomery (I regularly throw in an LMM book about once a year. She’s a favorite of mine.)
  • The Man Who Was Poe, by Avi (YA historical)
  • The Word and the Void trilogy, by Terry Brooks (urban fantasy)
  • Dombey and Son, by Charles Dickens (another favorite author)
  • Plain Truth, by Jodi Piccoult (NY Times Bestselling author, several times over)
  • Walking on Water, by Madeline L’Engle (great book on writing and inspiration from a Christian viewpoint)
  • Crown of Swords, by Robert Jordan (That’s #7 in The Wheel of Time series. One day I’ll get to Brandon Sanderson’s final volumes of the epic fantasy.)
  • A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini (Wanted to like this NY Times bestseller better than I did. Maybe it’s because I already knew more about the Afghani culture than the average American so I felt spoon-fed. Or maybe it’s because I felt that parts from a female POV were obviously written by a man.)
  • Columbine, by David Cullen (Nonfiction. Sobering–and rather surprising–account of what really happened before, during, and after the tragedy)
  • Catch-22, by Joseph Heller (Quirky classic I felt I needed to have read. Glad I did.)
  • Chanters of Tremaris Trilogy, by Kate Constable (great YA fantasy)
  • The Forest of Hands and Teeth, by Carrie Ryan (never, EVER thought I’d like a book about zombies!)
  • Artemis Fowl series, by Eoin Colfer
  • The Uglies series, by Scott Westerfeld
  • The Help, by Kathryn Sockett (More on this below.)
  • The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins (I’ll be fighting my daughter for the final book when it’s released next week)

Other years, I’ve thrown in mysteries, forensics books, biographies, science fiction, romance, journals, and more. When someone asks “what” I read, I tell them, “everything.” It’s a rare genre where I can’t find something I enjoy in it. (That’s not to say I love very book I read, not by a long shot.)

One quirk I have that I’m currently unaware of anyone sharing, is that I refuse to read the back cover copy of a book. I hate going into a book with any clue what it’s about. I pick what to read based largely on recommendations from people who know me and whose opinions I trust. Some things I read because I need to (I have three daughters coming up the pike. I needed to know firsthand what’s in the Twilight books before my girls came asking to read them.)

A reason I avoid backliners is that I don’t always like how much information is revealed in those of my own novels (the author doesn’t usually get to write those things). For one of my books, the backliner reveals a spoiler that I really wished would have been kept a secret, a surprise to the reader. So I’ve stopped reading them. I’ve learned to love going into a book totally blind.

Such was the case with The Help. I knew plenty of people who loved it. I saw it everywhere. I figured it was probably a good book. Had no idea what it was about when I bought it. As is my habit, I slipped off the dust jacket so I couldn’t read the cover copy. In this book’s case, that also meant I’d unknowingly slipped off the author’s photo and bio on the back flap.

I read the book, coming to realization around page 16 or so what kind of “help” the title refers to and getting immersed in the story. I remember wondering whether the author was black or white; based solely on her characters, I couldn’t tell. She got so fully into every character’s head, heart, mannerisms, and even ways of speaking that I personally had no clue who the author was. And I loved that.

If the author was white, I figured she’d taken a risk, and that she’d probably gotten flack for writing in several black women’s voices. But from the novel, she could just as easily have been black. And I didn’t know her race until I finished the book, tears streaking down my cheeks, when I picked up the dust jacket. Turns out that Kathryn Stockett is very much white.

And as I suspected, I’ve since found reviews where people are upset at her writing “stereotypes” (which floors me, since each of the black women is so different) and claiming that she can’t know the dialect that was used then (in spite of the fact that she grew up in the area at that time). I’ve wondered if those people would have complained (or enjoyed the book more) if the exact same words had been penned by a black woman.

I had to wonder: Would they be as upset if they’d taken off the dust jacket before reading it and went in blind, not knowing the author’s race?

Of course, there’s no way to know. But I do know that I probably would have read the book with a different perspective if had I known going in that the author was white.

It was confirmation to me about why I love going into books blind: I go in without any preconceived notions beyond hoping it’ll be good, thinking that it probably will be because of who recommended it or how I found it. As much as the experience can (it’s tough to take off the writer/editor hat), it gets to be a feast for the imagination as I discover and experience the story.

So what am I reading now? I’m taking turns between books I want to read for fun that aren’t LDS at all (up soon: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, The Fountainhead, and Water for Elephants. I was annoyed to find out when and where Guernsey takes place. Don’t ruin the rest for me!), books by friends and other LDS writers (just finished H. B. Moore’s Alma the Younger and Jessica Day George’s Princess of Glass, am about to finish Jeffrey S. Savage’s A Time To Die) as well as other books I think just might be Whitney finalists.

Am I the only one with this “I don’t want to know” quirk? On the total flip side, I know people who actually read the last page of a novel before they ever start it (something I can’t fathom). I know others who read the back cover copy, the first page, and reviews before deciding to read a book. I’m sure there are as many ways to decide what to read as there are readers.

Tell me I’m not the only quirk out there. What are yours?

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13 Responses to The Populist’s Soapbox: My Reading, My Quirks

  1. The back cover of Robert Hass’s "Human Wishes" is pretty much my favorite part of the book. I don’t actually recommend the book, in fact, but the back cover is some of the best romance writing I’ve ever encountered. It’s filled with bits like: "Robert Hass is so intelligent that to read his poetry or prose, or to hear him speak, gives one an almost visceral pleasure."

  2. Eric Samuelsen says:

    I have a reading quirk: I hardly ever read fiction. I read a lot–75-100 books a year, probably–but they’re almost all non-fiction. I read a lot of history. But my real love is weird quirky non-fiction books. I read a book about poop, for example. It was called End Product, and it was about sewage treatment over the years. I just finished a book called The Worst Car in the World, about the Yugo. I read a book called Cod. It was about cod, the fish, and it had wonderful recipes in addition to good writing. I go to the new books section of the library, and I check out the weirdest titles I can find. And I read ‘em. My wife’s great at finding them for me too.

  3. Thanks for the mention, Annette!

    I would never want to read the back page of a book first, but I do confess to sometimes peeking ahead a bit if I get bored. I do read backliners, but kind of wish people wouldn’t read mine–I’d rather have everything be a surprise for them :)

  4. Melinda W. says:

    Eric – If you want to read another book about poop, pick up "The Ghost Map" by Steven Johnson. It was about a cholera epidemic in London, and how sewage and sanitation made city life possible. Very well-written and interesting.

    I like reading books about dysfunctional people. I plowed through an entire library shelf of books about things like Borderline Personality Disorder, schizophrenia, eating disorders, cutting and so forth.

  5. Eric Samuelsen says:

    Melinda,
    I [i]loved[/i] the Ghost Map.

  6. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    I have to confess that I need to know what the book is about before I decide to read it. As a t-shirt, that I am eternally grateful to Tristi Pinkston for and that I love to wear as much as possible, says, "So many books so little time."

    I have a friend, Barbara Hambly, who writes wonderful books about a free black man in pre-Civil-War New Orleans–books that are meticulously researched, for which she receives flack because she is a white woman writing about a black man. And she does an amazing job from which I have learned fascinating things about being free and black and male in such a time and such a place. So I didn’t have a problem or concern about whether Kathryn Stockett was black or white. My two main thoughts as I was reading THE HELP was "oh, I can imagine what will happen to these women if they are caught, and I’m not sure I want to read that" and "isn’t it interesting that this book, about a book written and published during the civil rights movement years, has actually only been written and published now–could it really have been written and published, as the work of fiction that it is, back then?"

    I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction, and some mysteries (I love Anne Perry and Sue Grafton and miss Tony Hillerman very much), and I read some locally published LDS fiction, too. I love books on forensic medicine and have even read the FBI’s Crime Classification Manual and several books by FBI profilers (I loved I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER). I also read various nonfiction books, especially about certain sciences (I really liked Neil Shubin’s YOUR INNER FISH, A Journey into the 3.5-billion-year History of the Human Body, and Levitt and Dubner’s FREAKONOMICS and SUPERFREAKONOMICS) and certain periods of history (I recently enjoyed THE POISONER’S HANDBOOK by Deborah Blum about the history of toxicology). I also love books that help me understand and learn more from the scriptures (I miss Hugh Nibley even more than I miss Tony Hillerman).

    Isn’t it wonderful that there are so many possibilities out there for reading, and that we have the opportunities and abilities to read and enjoy so many different kinds of books? What would we do without libraries and friends to recommend books to us? What would we do without books?

  7. Eric Samuelsen says:

    Melinda,

    I do want to make clear, I don’t only read books about poop. I read books on other subjects too!

  8. Annette Lyon says:

    You know, I think I’d actually enjoy a book about poop. :)

    I’ve read profiling books as well. Like you said, so many books, so little time!

  9. Jonathan Langford says:

    I loved the book on Cod! Except that it started getting depressing by the end, in the way that all those nature documentaries get that wind up talking about "the greatest threat–Man." I’m not arguing, necessarily; I just find it necessary to ration the amount of ecologically based depression I expose myself to.

    And now for my weird quirk: Pretty much anytime I read a book where I start worrying about what will happen to the characters, I have to flip ahead to the end to find out what happens to them. Then I go back to where I was before and read ahead normally — most of the time. Every now and then I’ve read a book essentially from the two ends simultaneously, working forward from the beginning and jumping backward from the end (usually a chapter or so at a time). Not surprisingly, knowing what will happen in a book doesn’t ruin it for me, and indeed I can reread books often with more pleasure than the original reading experience.

    Part of this, I think, is that I identify very strongly with the characters in stories. If the tension level gets too high, I have to bail. Skipping ahead to the ending gives me more control over the reading experience, allowing me to distance myself somewhat from what the characters experience. Knowing where we’re going lets me enjoy the journey. Even when the ending is dark, I handle it better when I know where things are headed.

  10. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    I’ve checked the end of a book before, and I know others who do it as well.

    I’ll do it for the same reason Jonathan describes (did that when I was reading THE HELP, for example), but I’ll also do it to see if the book is worth plowing through to the end (So many books, etc).

    I don’t think doing that necessarily "ruins" the reading experience because watching the author get the story to the ending I know is coming can be even more interesting than getting to the end and being "surprised."

  11. I generally read the first two sentences of a blurb, then the first page. If it intrigues me, I’ll give it a go. I never read the end first. Like you, I am extremely puzzled by those who do.

    My next door neighbor, a retired Lit professor who grew up in the South, recommended The Help to me so I knew it would be good. No blurb needed for that one.

  12. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    Oh, I don’t recommend reading the ending first. I’m with you, Tanya, on either reading the blurb and the first page or accepting a recommendation from someone I respect.

    I intended to convey that I may read the ending after I’ve read quite a ways into the book and become concerned for the characters, as I did with THE HELP.

    Or I may read the ending after I’ve slogged a good ways through a book that I had to read for a reading group, and I wanted to know if the book was worth more slogging.

    One book that had chapters that alternated between the past and the present became extremely irritating to me because of the pettiness of the characters in the "present" compared to the horrendous experiences of the characters in the past, so I quit reading about the one set of characters until I found out what happened to the other set of characters, and then I went back and read the chapters I’d missed.

    Actually, I probably do that more than skip to the ending. With multi-character points of view, some authors like to end a chapter with a cliff-hanger involving one character and start the next chapter with an entirely different character. If I don’t care all that much about the new character, I will skip the next chapter and find where the story continues involving the character in the cliff-hanger that I do care about. (I did this in THE DAVINCI CODE whenever the author started a chapter on the mad albino monk. I mean, really! I couldn’t have cared less about the guy, and Father Ring-around-the-Rosy was almost as bad.)

    After all, it’s my reading experience. Why should I let some author jerk me around with cliff-hangers and then not tell me what happens next in the following chapter? All too often I find cliff-hangers to be a kind of lazy contrivance on the part of authors who can’t figure out how to make me care about their characters in any other way–but I usually don’t keep reading those books.

    Hmm. Well, anyway.

    I didn’t mean for that to turn into a rant.

  13. One of the reasons I prefer books to movies is that I CAN control the reading experience. I’m infamous in my family for leaving the room (or the movie theater) if things on the TV or movie screen get too embarrassing or stressful or whatever. (I don’t generally have that problem with plays. I wonder why? Maybe because the physical theatrical space helps me to distance a little bit?)

    I think that if we all understood more about how different people read, we might have a better insight into why different readers enjoy different kinds of books and writing. I’ve commented before on the fact that for me, I tend to "hear" the words of a story in my head, more than I "see" the scenes of the story in front of me. Understandably, conversation and internal thought are very important to me in my reading experience, while too much physical description is (if anything) a turn-off — although I do enjoy good worldbuilding and a nice lyrical phrase now and then.

    I’ve also gotten more testy over the years about people who seem to imply that there’s a single right way to write a story, particularly since my own experience (with my own writing and that of others) suggests to me that the very things some readers like will be some of the things other readers complain about. I think that if we understood better the very real diversity among readers, we might be better able to make informed writing decisions and critiques.

    Hm. There’s potential there for a future essay/blog…

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