Categories of reading

So I’ve been feeling a little … frustrated might be too strong a word, but something along those lines, maybe more like overwhelmed … at the fact that there are so many different types of books I’d like to read right now, and I can’t do it, even though I’ve got more reading time than usual at the moment. I’m not even talking about individual books; I’m talking about categories, within which there are dozens if not hundreds of individual books I want to read.

This is partly an issue of feeling pulled between reading widely and reading deeply, both of which I’d like to do, of course. But if I read widely, I will only read occasionally within each category, and if I read deeply, a lot of categories will get ignored. So what do I do?

I thought I’d compile a list of the categories that interest me at the moment, just for fun. This list might look entirely different on another day though. I won’t even try to make these categories mutually exclusive.

  • Eighteenth-century and Romantic novels, such as the Mary Brunton one I read recently, and also Maria Edgeworth, Charlotte Smith, and Elizabeth Inchbald, plus earlier novelists like Eliza Haywood and Sarah Fielding;
  • Victorian novelists — more Trollope, Eliot, and Gaskell, plus Harriet Martineau, Margaret Oliphant and late Victorians such as Galsworthy and Gissing;
  • Contemporary fiction of all sorts, whatever strikes my fancy;
  • Lesser-known modernists, particularly modernist women of the sort discussed here (especially Stein, Larsen, Mansfield, and Smith);
  • Persephone and Virago books, such as Elizabeth Taylor, Antonia White, Radclyffe Hall, plus tons more;
  • Mysteries — for my book group, but also just for myself, including finding good series and reading them all the way through;
  • Random classics I’ve missed, such as Russians like Oblomov, Turgenev and more Chekhov, French writers such as Balzac and Zola;
  • Okay, nonfiction. Good literary criticism, especially of the novel. More books like Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature, critical essays by people like D. H. Lawrence or Forster, and more contemporary criticism by people like Nancy Armstrong or Michael McKeon, also more philosophical stuff by people like Elaine Scarry;
  • Essays and more essays — Montaigne, Bacon, Lamb, Hazlitt, Woolf, Orwell, McCarthy, Wallace, etc. etc.;
  • Books on theology and spirituality, particularly ones that look at the subject from a comparative perspective;
  • Science books — Brian Greene, Lisa Randall, and others;
  • Biographies, particularly of writers, and most especially those by great biographers such as Richard Holmes and Claire Tomalin;
  • Quirky, unclassifiable nonfiction, such as the kind of thing Geoff Dyer and Jenny Diski write;
  • Poetry — Romantic and Victorian poets among the older things I’d like to read, and also contemporary poetry by writers such as Louise Gluck and Mary Oliver.

What would your own list look like?


Filed under Books, Lists, Reading

24 responses to “Categories of reading

  1. It would look scarily similar. I wish I had more time to read…a full time reading job would be just about right. I too worry about only reading one category, even if it means it would be an exhaustive study, over reading a bit of everything.


  2. First, if I can put in a good word for Zola… he’s amazing. Carrying on…

    My own list… hmm… probably long. That is, probably incredibly long. Full of historical texts, medieval sword codexes (I actually found one I wanted to read in, oh, seventh grade? Unfortunately, I discovered later that there are about 100 copies in existence. And these were done a few hundred years after the original was published. Something weird like that… I don’t fully remember the story…), classics, books about music (fiction or non), essays, biographies, some poetry, some plays… And everything included on your list, of course.

    In a word, “What would [my] own list look like?”: neverending.


  3. Magnificent list! I find myself agreeing with many but adding a bunch of my own mentally. I think I might have to make my own list to post. It makes me anxious/frustrated/despairing to think of all the books I want to read but don’t have time for. On the other hand, I can’t help but make lists and plan and hope that somehow I will have time. Oh and manage to live forever, because really, that’s what would be required. πŸ™‚


  4. P.T. Smith

    This is a frustration I share, so so strongly. I sometimes enjoy reading wildly and widely, picking up random book after random book, only making sure that one is somehow different than the one that went before. But then, sometimes, I want to read as deeply as possible. In the past the most I’ve done is read all of an author’s work in a row, but I recently decided to be read as much Japanese fiction as possible. I made it through all of Abe, Kawabata, and a number of individual books by scattered authors before needing a break. Still coming are more single books, and then Mishima, Soseki, Tanizaki, Murakami…

    Other catagories are genre books, SF, noir, and the like; and contemporary…oh, and old Russian…and modern Latin American….and maybe WW I+II era French…


  5. Fiction. I’m SO LIMITED! Well, plays, I do like plays. And occasionally I read books on writing. You put me totally to shame, missy.


  6. wait, wait. I also read letters, diaries, and notebooks of writers. There. I feel a little better.


  7. I feel like I need to make a copy of your list to have on hand for when I don’t know what to read next πŸ™‚

    My reading whims currently are pretty much limited to women’s fiction and mysteries. But I’m going to go into some Classics soon. At least I keep promising myself that!


  8. This list would look different from day to day. There is simply not enough time. I blogged my list at:


  9. I relate strongly to this sort of frustration; for me it sometimes gets almost to a mild panic. I usually deal with it by focusing on one category in-depth for a given time (usually interspersed with other stuff for a bit of variety). I make a sort of project of it, but one I know has a limited time frame, so as not to freak me out about all the other categories waiting in the wings. I spent one year memorizing poetry, for example (mainly early-to-mid 20th century stuff, like H.D. and Wallace Stevens), and another year I read as much biography as possible. I think next year I’ll try to read and think about essays in a more organized way. But yeah, choosing is hard. Sometimes I get overwhelmed and spend so much time trying to choose, that I don’t get any reading done!


  10. I totally understand your frustration! My reading tends to go all over the place–I think I’ll read one sort of book or period but then something in one of those books or maybe a post I read on someone’s blog will pique my interest somewhere else and off I’ll go on a tangent! At the moment it’s Anglo-Irish lit as expemplified by Molly Keane, but I also want to read lots and lots of mysteries, oh and definitely Persephones and Viragos (though am doing that via Molly Keane)…and…and…


  11. Poetry, mostly contemporary, though sometimes not, though I might be taking a bit of a break from this after having read a lot of poetry in April, May, and June.

    Fiction: contemporary, or literature in translation. I’m slowly reading Proust — I finished Sodom and Gomorrah in March and am taking a break but it might be time for the next one.

    Travel literature or books about travel, or spaces/places/cities.

    General nonfiction/art/cultural studies-ish stuff – Alain de Botton, Jed Perl, but also things like Free by Chris Anderson.

    Books about or set in England, which I guess sort of overlaps with spaces/places/cities/travel, but I’m thinking more of things like Brian Lynch’s The Winner of Sorrow and The Printer’s Devil (both of which I just read) and Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising books (which I might re-read soon) and Jenny Uglow’s Nature’s Engraver (which I read when it came out — I’m thinking of picking up The Lunar Men soon) — so anything from fiction to kids’ books to literary/smart biography.


  12. My kids love to watch DVDs of Friends, and recently we all watched the one where Monica/Rachel and Joey/Chandler play a trivia game based on their own quirks/history (Monica/Rachel end up losing the apartment because they lose the game), but one of the questions Ross asked J/C was how many cateogories of towels Monica has–the answer is 25.

    I’m not saying you are compartmentalizing books more than me, but I have 5 categories:
    Reading currently
    TBR this year
    TBR before winter/spring/summer/Xmas
    TBR when hell freezes over
    TBR on a plane

    I find everything fits neatly into these categories, and as new interests arise they are easily accomodated πŸ™‚


  13. musingsfromthesofa

    I have my TBR shelf, but I keep buying more to read because there’s nothing on the TBR shelf that fits the immediate need. So, categories: British WWII history; Persephone books; recommendations from Slightly Foxed; trash fiction, for reading on the train when tired, at weekends, or whenever I feel like it; Proust; detective fiction; more sci-fi or fantasy if I can find a good series; novels that are referred to in other novels; random stuff that catches my eye in the bookstore.
    Really, it’s never ending but I don’t get depressed by the thought.


  14. Jenny

    Everything Michael Dirda has ever recommended;
    Classics I would have read if I’d been an English major in college;
    World literature, especially from Asia;
    Travel, exploration, discovery and survival memoirs/ histories;
    Biographies, especially of writers and strong women;
    Modern and contemporary poetry.

    This, of course, is just a beginning, but it’s the short list of things that appeal to me most and the areas I want to read in most deeply (as opposed to most broadly.)


  15. This list looks exhaustive… I can fully appreciate your ambivalence about reading widely and reading deeply. Because of limited time, and to pursue my own interests on a whim, I tend to go for the wide, thus, the battle between ‘popular’ and ‘literary’ persists.


  16. Here are my favorite categories, in order of wanting to read as of this moment:

    1. Travel fiction and nonfiction — stories set in Europe like Home to Italy, Bella Tuscany, and In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor. This is my rest-of-summer book list.

    2. Mysteries — they are coming out of my ears.

    3. Books about writing.

    4. YA fiction — more Sarah Dessen, and some of my old favorites.

    5. Classics — all the books I didn’t encounter in high school and college. Virginia Woolf especially.

    6. Vintage fiction — I collect old popular novels from the 1930s like Emilie Loring and Sarah Ware Basset, and would like to read more of those. But they are not very portable; I wouldn’t throw them in my purse or take them to the beach.

    I also have two books of essays I want to read, the Ann Fadiman you loaned me, and the Judy Blume essays. Maybe if I could give up sleep???


  17. Melanie — well, I end up choosing reading widely over specializing — at least these days that’s what I do; in grad school I had to be more specialized, of course. So I should probably make peace with that decision πŸ™‚

    Biblibio — Yeah, ultimately my list would be never ending too, if I kept going with it. That’s good though — I don’t want to ever be in danger of losing interest. Thanks for the Zola recommendation!

    Stefanie — yeah, immortality would help with this project quite a lot πŸ™‚ I’d love to see your list, if you decide to write one. It’s better to have the interest and curiosity than not to care much, I suppose.

    P.T. Smith — your Japanese reading sounds really interesting; I’m familiar with some of the authors, but not all of them. I like the idea of reading one author thoroughly, and I’m sort of doing that with Virginia Woolf, but I’m not moving very fast.

    Bloglily — well, it’s not like fiction as a category is really limited! There is so, so much of it and so much variety. Letters and diaries I’d like to put on my list at some point — your earlier suggestion of the Bishop/Lowell letters was great.

    Iliana — well, it would be cool if my list turned out to be useful! I love women’s fiction and mysteries as well, and also classics. I hope you enjoy whatever classics you decide to pick up!

    Anthony — yes, the list is absolutely not definitive. On another day it would have different categories, although there would be some things that are consistent too, of course. I’ll make sure to check out your list!

    Emily — yeah, sometimes the uncertainty can get in the way of actually reading, which is totally counterproductive, but I do it too. I like your idea of a project that’s limited in scope. And I love the idea of focusing on essays — I’d love to see who you choose to read!


  18. Danielle — my efforts at focus, when I make them, are pretty much doomed too. It’s made difficult by the book groups I’m in, not that I’m complaining about them. But tangents are good — you can get surprised that way. I’m with you on the mysteries and the Persephones and Viragos — in fact, you’re the one who got me into the latter two categories, or at least one of the ones!

    Heather — I’m glad you read The Winner of Sorrow — I thought it was a great book. And yay for Proust! And travel literature! Etc., etc. Your list is intiguing.

    JaneGS — 25 towels? I couldn’t name what they all were for, I’m afraid. I really like your classification scheme — why get more complicated than that? πŸ™‚

    Musings — well, it’s definitely better not to get bothered by the never-endingness of it all. Abundance is good. I like your category of novels mentioned in novels — it’s got to be fun to follow references like that.

    Jenny — I like your list very much, and could agree with everything on it, with some modifications, especially since I WAS an English major in college. But I could say I want to read all the classics I wasn’t assigned, and that would leave me with plenty.

    Arti — I go for wide, too, at least within some limits. But the truth is that I’ve gone for depth in the past, when I was in school, so really this makes a nice change, to be able to be all over the place. And who knows — perhaps I’ll go back to depth at some point.

    Debby — very nice list! I tend not to think of travel fiction as a separate category, but it’s interesting to separate it out to think about reading as traveling. I hope you enjoy your “rest of the summer” list! I’m glad you have V. Woolf on the list, and I’d love to hear which one you are thinking of reading.


  19. Pingback: Wishful Reading « So Many Books

  20. My own list might be something like:

    * Avante-garde theology.
    I have tons of unread stuff by John Shelby Spong, Marcus Borg, Tom Harpur, Joseph Campbell, Karen Arstrong… stuff like that.

    * Shakespeare. There was a time in my life where every six months or so I was reading Shakespeare, and it is something that nags at me. I have not yet read all of his plays.

    * Biographies. I have several biographies on my shelves… Einstein, Gandhi, etc. CANNOT GET TO THEM. No time!

    * Novels novels novels. Old, new. I’m not really a bestseller sort of reader, but wow…. there are about a thousand great novels on my To-Be-Read List. A list that has no sign of diminishing, no matter how much I read!


  21. 1. Japanese novels
    2. Japanese history books
    3. Details about Shinto (actually read one recently)
    4. Japanese laws regarding employment conditions and contractual issues
    5. Sci-Fi just for fun

    List goes on and on. Internet connection coming next week; promise to comment more.


  22. Cipriano — I love that avant-garde theology list! There are some names on there I’m not familiar with and will have to look up.

    Bikkuri — Everything you list sounds interesting except for #4 — I’ll leave that one to you!


  23. I wholeheartedly second the feeling of frustration/being overwhelmed at the thought of missing out on all those books. I often think about Samuel Johnson who was considered so well read in his period because he had read most of the books in print. Imagine the complete and utter futility of trying to do THAT these days. Though, I’d love to try.


  24. Pingback: Categories That Amuse | Time's Flow Stemmed

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