Reading patterns

Danielle posted a great set of questions recently (I find Danielle’s blog a great source of inspiration — uncertain what to blog about? Go check it out and you’ll find an idea):

Do you read a certain type of book more than others? … Do you choose books mainly for the story? Or do you just try anything at all? Do read outside your comfort zone often?

I’m not sure if I do read a certain type of book more than others. I do have a certain kind of book that’s a comfort read; this year that’s meant authors like Anita Brookner and Elizabeth Taylor and Curtis Sittenfeld — these authors write character-driven books that are fairly introspective, quiet, domestic, and most often about women.

But I don’t know that I read this type of book more often than others. I suppose I’m drawn to contemporary literary fiction of the prize-winning type — think Alan Hollinghurst, Alice Munro, David Mitchell, Kazuo Ishiguro, my recently-bought-and-still-unread Kiran Desai — but obviously these examples don’t really fit neatly in a category.

And if I read too many of this type of author, I start to get a bit restless and begin to long for something different. I’ve been feeling this way lately. My current novel, Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, is providing me with something a little different, as it’s set in Turkey and it’s a novel in translation, but I could easily have listed it in the previous paragraph as contemporary literary fiction of the prize-winning type.

The other kind of book I turn to frequently is the 18C or 19C novel. This year I’ve read Frances Burney and George Sand and Bram Stoker and Jane Austen and Henry Mackenzie, and that’s pretty typical.

All these types of books are easy for me to pick up, and they are what I’m drawn to most naturally. But I do try to read things outside this pattern — most often when I’m consciously picking out something different, it will be a work in translation or something modernist or postmodernist that feels like a challenge, or maybe a classic that isn’t necessarily as easy to read as Dickens — say, The Tale of Genji, which I read earlier this year. I’ve got Samuel Beckett’s Molloy on my list of things to read, which fits into this “stretching myself” category, as does Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives and Cortazar’s Hopscotch. Boccaccio’s Decameron fits in here, as does Boswell’s Life of Johnson. I expect to enjoy these books, but they don’t bring quite the same kind of effortless enjoyment the other kind of book does. But I’m not always in this for effortless enjoyment.

Danielle asks if we choose books mainly for the story, and I don’t, really — I choose them based on what category I think they fit into, and there are tons of categories I use when I’m thinking this way — for example, a 19C novel that’s not as famous as Dickens or Eliot (Elizabeth Gaskell maybe), a lesser-known novel by a famous author such as Virginia Woolf (The Voyage Out), serious contemporary fiction that deals with important social or political issues (Snow or maybe something by Coetzee), not-quite-so-serious contemporary fiction that sounds like a lot of fun (Kate Atkinson?), experimental fiction (Delillo perhaps). The list could go on. When I’m choosing books I don’t usually think about story; rather, I think about what I know about the author, the author’s reputation, and what category I place the author into and whether that category is different enough from the book I just finished. I don’t just try anything at all, as Danielle asks — I generally know something about how to place an author in the literary world, and I use that knowledge to help make a decision.

And all this doesn’t even cover my reading patterns in nonfiction — that’s another issue entirely. Do you have recognizable reading patterns?

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