What Leads You to Choose the Next Book You’ll Read?

I’m grateful to The Washington Post for publishing on Saturday my letter to the editor. My beef was with the paper’s nonfiction book reviews. With novels, the reviewers break down both the story and the writing. But far too often, for nonfiction books The Post recruits an expert in the field, who then critiques the book’s thesis and arguments, without telling me if the book is actually a good read.

This distinction matters to me, as a reader, and as a writer.

In the less than 200 words The Post permitted me, I could only hint at my broader thesis, that I am inclined to read books on topics I wouldn’t normally explore if I know the reading experience will be magical. Last year I read Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve not because I was intrigued by the story–a 15th Century papal official discovering a 1500-year-old poem that had been lost to history–but because it won the National Book Award. As it happened, Greenblatt did an excellent job bringing to life his story through skilled writing, techniques I analyzed in a critical essay I wrote in my MFA program. I also, as it happened, enjoyed learning new insights on the evolution of the Renaissance.

My hope is that other readers are inclined to make the same choices. After I complete the travel memoir I’m writing, I intend to write biographies. My particular obsession is on the role of cartography in the Golden Age of Discovery. I’d like to think that queues will form for blocks for a biography of a 17th Century Dutch father-and-son mapmaking duo. But I suspect I’ll generate a few more sales if I can produce a book that is a pleasurable read even to someone who has never looked at a map that wasn’t on her smartphone screen.

I loved reading The Swerve. But I’ll confess I selected it in part because I felt I could learn from it for my own writing. Had I not been pursuing this MFA–had I not been seeking to learn how to write biographies as true creative nonfiction–would I have read it? I don’t honestly know.

In fiction I am inclined to read authors and genres with which I am familiar. I do at times break out of that pattern, however, usually at the recommendation of a friend and fellow reader whose opinion I trust. How adventurous am I? Perhaps not as much as I should be.

Were I to ask you, “Is good writing important to you in selecting your next book to read?” I would assume you would say “Yes!” So let me ask you a tougher question, or rather two: What genres or subject matter do you find yourself choosing as a reader? And when you do migrate from that comfort zone, what causes you to do so?

I ask as a reader, and as a writer.

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

30 Responses to “What Leads You to Choose the Next Book You’ll Read?”

  1. When I leave my areas of personal interest, it is usually because someone I know has recommended a book as intellectually interesting or a great read, with some appealing explanation of what made it such a good read, or because someone I know has written the book.

    • Ah yes, the latter is true for me as well. Take Jessica McCann (who commented below). I read her book because I got to know her through social media, not because I seek out historical fiction, and loved it!

  2. When I was working on my degree in English I read lots of great stuff that was well written and I really enjoyed them all. Even after I finished I continued to read Charles Dickens and have read almost everything he has written. For years I read nothing but Literary Fiction and learned a lot from that. In the last couple of years I have started to read more widely and have once again included science fiction and crime novels to my reading. Though the quality of these genre books may not be as great as the Literary Fiction, if I find the story good and the characters compelling I enjoy the book all the same. As a writer I think I can learn from anybody who had the talent and tenacity to get something published.

    • John, I think you nailed it on the merits of both genre and literary fiction. I came the other direction, being a heavy genre writer (particularly suspense) and then discovering literary fiction. I love a good plot, and I’ll tolerate less-than-stellar writing and characterization in a quick-moving thriller, but I savor the prose of a beautiful work of literary fiction even when nothing is happening in the plot.

      This is gold: “As a writer I think I can learn from anybody who had the talent and tenacity to get something published.”

  3. What a great observation, Patrick. I’m glad the Post printed your letter, and I hope they take your advice to heart. In reading, I tend to stick to historical fiction, though that covers a pretty broad range. When it comes to nonfiction, I lean toward topics I’m interested in or am researching for a project. When I venture into the unknown, it is most often through a recommendation from a friend and/or book blogger I’ve met through social media. For example, I recently finished reading TIGER LILY, a YA fantasy romance about the relationship between Tiger Lily and Peter Pan before Wendy came along. NOT my typical reading material. But I was tempted by a review from a fellow author who’s opinion I respect, and I’m so glad I gave it a shot. The writing was evocative and the approach with the narrator was unique. It’s a book I never would have read had this other author not pointed out those qualities.

    • You know, the reviewer I criticized in the letter is a freelancer, the critic I praised is on staff. I found myself wondering if they ran the letter because I was giving a backdoor shoutout to Post reviewers!

      As I pointed out to Kate above, I read your book through meeting you through social media, despite not reading your genre a lot, and loved it, so yes, that is one way of finding books to read. I would have been more likely to read a nonfiction book on slavery, but I loved getting a ficion-based-on-research version as well.

      I’m so glad you found something outside of your reading world. Perhaps one of the unsung benefits of social media is discovering new writers to read.

  4. What a question! As an author of fiction and narrative non fiction, I tend to read novels that deal with similar themes as I do and that are written in the style of writing I strive to create. Terse, comedic, tragic books like St. Aubyn’s series. There are times when this helps me creatively, but only when I am confident in my vision. Between projects, I shouldn’t read books that I admire, or else I feel paralyzed by that all too familiar self-doubt. That’s when nonfiction is what I ‘should’ gravitate to.

    • Julia, glad to have your comment here. Can you share with all of us more about your fiction and narrative nonfiction? I’d love to know more about both, and the extent to which they intersect.

      “Between projects, I shouldn’t read books that I admire, or else I feel paralyzed by that all too familiar self-doubt.” I have been teaching myself not to be discouraged by another’s remarkable prose, but instead to be inspired. It’s not always easy, but I pull it off sometimes!

  5. I read mostly science fiction and fantasy but I often drift out of those genres on suggestions from friends on books they are reading or have read. I care little for written reviews.

    • “I care little for written reviews.” This is interesting to me. I need to reflect on what extent I actually rely on written reviews when selecting a book to read. I can’t answer that, in all honesty, although I read a lot of reviews. There are certainly times a review will trigger me to buy a book, but I’ll also say I often find myself in disagreement with the reviewer.

  6. I was reading Sunday’s NYTImes Book Review and saw a RARE review of poetry. Victoria Redel was reviewing Branda Shaughnessy’s new book Our Andromeda and when she paraphrased Emily Dickinson’s famous saying that truly great poetry takes the top of your head off – and that is what happened to her upon reading this poet’s third collection, well, that is good enough for me.

    • Hi Georganna! Well, the NYT Book Review would be the place I’d hope to find a review of poetry. I would think that it would be impossible to review a poetry book without talking about the actual writing, so in that sense my complaint to The Washington Post likely wouldn’t apply here. So glad to learn they reviewed poetry.

  7. Great questions Patrick! I read horror novels growing up I’m sure because I modeled my family. I never considered nonfiction until my dear friend and colleague named Dawn opened the world of nonfiction to me with Stiff by Mary Roach and The Omnivores Dilemma by Michael Pollan. I LOVED them. After that, I never really looked back. I love obscure topics, but only when they have the voice and engaging manner of something like Roach’s writing. I love the down to earth, colloquial science-speak interjected with her humor and clear voice. Now I read Crime fiction/horror novels/sci fi when I want a real escapist read. If friends recommend a book I’m willing to try on other genres. I love this question, I could keep going! Really, I’m obsessed with reading and I don’t read much when I’m working; in the summer I must read nearly 2 books a week. I’m open to crossing most genres and trying them on for size, but for me the author’s voice and passion has to come through. If I feel that connection, I’m hooked!

    • “I love obscure topics, but only when they have the voice and engaging manner of something like Roach’s writing.” Yes, yes, yes. The key is, how do you find those authors when you don’t normally read nonfiction? You found it through Dawn. I’d like to think book reviews should be another avenue.

      Interesting that you don’t read when you’re working. Is it because you fear it will muck up your creative vision? I know writers who don’t want to read others’ works when they’re in the heat of writing because they fear they’ll start channeling that author’s writing, but you are a visual artist (although I know also a writer).

      • Honestly reading fiction for me is all-consuming so its hard for me to put a book down and put my energy into my art. Its a good break, but nonfiction is then better when I’m making art for me because I find it easier to break from the book. I try to read, but I guess with a full time job and my art, its a bit harder to squeeze in!

  8. Patrick… I read every genre. I often go on binges of a type. Last year it was “spy” fiction and non-fiction, from Ian Fleming to William Boyd (who I understand is writing a new James Bond novel), and in the process read one of my all-time most startling reads (non-fiction): “A Man Called Intrepid”. But it’s my wife, a voracious reader, who is largely responsible for my forays into hitherto undiscovered fields of literature. I’ll see her enjoying something and I’ll enquire what it is. F’rinstance, she recently loved Paul Theroux’s latest novel set in Malawi, “The Lower River”. I’ll probably go there next. Of course, I’m a sucker for stories set in Africa.

    • I’ll have to check out William Boyd when I wrap up my MFA; I love good spy fiction, and I’ll be liberated from my semester reading list as of July.

      So great you’re married to a reader. My wife and I pass along recommendations to each other; actually, we share a Kindle account, so it’s easy to “pass” books back and forth.

      Theroux is pretty darned good, no question about it. I haven’t read “The Lower River,” but I suspect it’s a good read.

  9. I’m going to go low-brow on you, Patrick and say, I don’t read reviews at all, I find books by browsing in book stores. Yes, it’s old school. I recently posted a funny on FB; a pic of a button on which it says “I can’t be trusted in a book store with a credit card”. I should get this button printed for real because it’s me to a tee. Many’s the time I’ve teetered into debt because I couldn’t leave the store without a certain book. My addiction, yes, I freely admit it, is to large, glossy, non-fiction books on ancient history, and mythology. I own a library of these and have to restrict how often I return to the store. I love to pore over them with a hot cuppa. Bliss! Fiction, I love a good mystery, I’ve read Agatha Christie’s books, and I enjoy a good spy novel, I have read all of Ian Fleming’s books and some of John le Carre’s. I mostly read speculative fiction though, and/or those in my genre. I find these through old-fashioned word-of-mouth and through who I know. So, at present I’m reading Roxy by P.J. Reece and Princess Kandake: Warrior by Choice by Stephanie Jefferson, and loving them!

    • I too love large, glossy, non-fiction books on ancient history and mythology; what fun! Glad to see you’re reading PJ! He’s on my to-read list after I wrap up this MFA.

      And yes, I’ve found many books by browsing in bookstores. I like the sense of serendipitous discovery, the same that I find in a bookstore. I find as I buy more books online now, however, that online “browsing” involves books that are “similar to” the one I’m looking at; a bookstore (and a book review section) puts books near each other that Amazon wouldn’t pair, for example. Now I think I may be looking at a new blog post, how do we find books in a bookstore vs. online.

  10. I’m glad the WP published you letter Patrick! I agree it’s valuable for the reader to know if a nonfiction book is a good read and something the reviewer should clue us in on. Nonfiction is mostly what I read and it seems that one book points me to the next. I use the “look inside” feature on Amazon to estimate if it’s going to be readable.

    When I’m taking a breaking, I love to get lost into some fiction but I’m embarrassed to say (as a non-English major) I don’t exactly know where to look. Suggestions are welcome!

    • Hi David! Good to hear from you. I was just responding to Yvette above about shopping in a bookstore vs. Amazon. I use the “look inside” feature of Amazon, which is of course what we can do quite literally in a bookstore. I have not bought book I thought I would–and bought books I wasn’t inclined to buy–after conducting that test. There it’s not just the writing but the author’s voice I’m curious about, and voice matters in NF as well as F.

      David, as to fiction, I’m not the best advisor, but I did crowdsource the question of must-read novelists awhile back, and the results are here: https://artistsroad.wordpress.com/2011/04/18/three-authors-every-writer-should-read/

  11. I read biographies, autobiographies, diaries, collections of letters, and classics.. I read them over and over again too, for the sheer joy of enjoying their voice and/or their beautiful writing…I’ve just finished re-reading Bruce Catton’s series of books on the Civil War, and the beauty of his writing, his insights and his clarity makes that complicated history a joy to read…
    I remember reading somewhere that a truly great book inspires you to start writing yourself, and I’ve found this to be true… so I don’t find reading the greats to be intimidating, but to be inspiring.
    Unfortunatly I don’t often get this spark when I read modern fiction…. Booker prize type stuff…I feel embarassed to admit ir,, but it is so… I rarely want to re-read them…which to me is the yardstick….

    • Valerie, I love what you wrote about Catton’s writing. Beauty, insight, clarity–all things I look for in a great biographer or historian.

      I’m intrigued by your yardstick of wanting to re-read them. I wonder if it’s possible to distill what makes us want to re-read a book vs. not. Quality of writing would be a key factor, but what about the writing in particular? And I’ll confess to having re-read books where the writing wasn’t as good as others but something else drew me back. Hmm, I need to reflect on this.

  12. Please update us from time to time on how your own writing is going. I enjoy your posts and the conversation here. Peace and all good things for you in writing and in life.

    Diane

    • Thank you, Diane! As to your request, I appreciate it. I feel at times I do too many posts about my own writing; I’m hesitant to come across as self-indulgent, but I recognize that readers find those of value, because they can connect with me as writers themselves. Short answer right now is I’m hanging in there!

  13. Good point about the differences between the Post’s review types. Hopefully they’ll reconsider it after your letter. I read mostly all fiction genres, though I do avoid YA and Fantasy, having read a lot of it when my kids were growing. Now I tend to read more eclectically. The Swerve looks really interesting. Although I rarely purchase anything on Amazon, I do love their Look Inside feature.

  14. I have to buck your assumption about quality. I am a truly voracious reader and my standards are not always all that high. After I finished my undergraduate degree (which I did as a working adult) I took a year and read nothing but totally mindless fluff fiction. I couldn’t face another book that even hinted of textbook!

    Now I am more measured and I read lots of nonfiction on topics like science and technology, language and linguistics, histories of quirky things from cartography to beer to cities to empires. Like Valerie, I particularly I like reading collections of letters–currently I am reading the first of Benedikt Sarnov’s 4-volume Stalin and Writers. Mostly, though, I read fiction.

    I read good fiction, bad fiction, science fiction, romance, historical fiction, thrillers, you name it. I mostly don’t read horror stories because once I put the book down I like to actually SLEEP, but I break that rule sometimes too. I intentionally choose to read some not necessarily top quality self-published work too, because in doing so I can identify problems in my own writing that I am unable to recognize directly because I am too close to it. I study it to determine what works and what doesn’t. And I sometimes discover some interesting risk-taking authors that I think are going to develop into something wonderful.

    The biggest problem is that when I am procrastinating on my writing, I dive into reading. I have absolutely no will-power when a good story is waiting. Reading is a much more passive skill than writing, so when my brain is tired or resistant, I am guilty of picking up Terry Pratchett or Nora Roberts or some unknown and escaping into their finished manuscript!

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