Reading resolutions

I can’t possibly resolve to read more. I will have to either quit my job or stop sleeping. But while that option is out, I can resolve to read differently.

I don’t want to make resolutions like ‘I will only read women authors’. Instead, I think my resolutions should be more like ‘I will read fewer/none white straight cis dudes’. Because I can resolve to read only women authors, but should I not also read gender-nonconfirming/non-binary/trans folks? Let us not make our reading resolutions binary.

I want to read more POC authors. I read a bunch in 2015, but not nearly enough (especially given how much I read).

I want to read more speculative fiction. It’s my original love, and it’s been somewhat neglected in 2015.

I want to read more short stories.

And yes, I will be doing Read Harder challenge 2016.

We’ll see how this works. We’ll also see how this works with whatever ARCs and galleys publishers throw at me.

On reading challenges (or lack thereof)

Reading challenges are not my jam. They normally don’t pack enough actual ‘challenge’ for me. I read too much (#bookbrag). Or I forget about them. It’s occasionally fun to do a themed month (hello, vintage sci-fi month in January), but mostly I get distracted by yet another shiny galley or cover and wander off to read for hours without any requirements or readathons.

IMG_0655I did, however, pick up the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge list at the Read Harder book group in my city (there might be one in yours!). The purpose of this list is to make you read more widely, to pick up books you normally would not pick up. There are obviously a few categories where I would like to put down ‘see attached spreadsheet’ (graphic novels, LGBTQ lit, sci-fi), but there are four that I am missing completely (I feel rather guilty about missing an author from Africa; I can name at least five off the top of my head, yet I read exactly zero books by African authors this year). And while you can use the same book for multiple categories, I am a reading overachiever and aim to avoid this. Audiobooks are hard for me because I don’t have a commute and also forget to pay attention when listening, at least with fiction. I might try non-fiction and pretend it’s a long podcast. Romance novels aren’t particularly difficult, I just don’t read them, which is basically the exact situation this reading challenge is supposed to rectify.

I also don’t read self-help books. Not because I think I don’t need help (or that I am beyond it), I just can’t stand most of self-help literature. So I am sort of cheating and listing Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson as a self-help book. It technically is. It’s helping me right this moment by saying that having irrational fears and depression most of the time is not weird. Plus, there is this amazing chapter titled ‘Things My Father Taught Me’ that is chock-full of useful life advice such as ‘Always shoot first. Because bears don’t shoot. They just eat you. You’ll never win if you wait for the bear to get the first shot. This is all basic hunting 101.’ I am Canadian, I feel like this is advice I can use.

Alternatively, I might listen to Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed on audio. Because that’s also good advice.

Genre fatigue and how to cure it

I have never been a strictly speculative fiction reader, but for many years, spec fic comprised probably about 80% of my book diet. For the purposes of this post, I am going to assume that fantasy, urban fantasy, many flavors of sci-fi, and variations on the new weird belong in the same broad category. I don’t want to get into the quagmire of ‘what is genre?’ discussion at the moment, and I want to have room for my pretty varied reading tastes even within said genre. I started with fantasy (the book that started it all was Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams, if you’re curious), slowly making my way into sci-fi territory, and finally settling somewhere in the weird and slipstream area. At this moment, I can only describe my reading preferences as ‘books where strange stuff happens’.

I wrote about my genre reading here for many months (which is basically decades in Internet years). I run a sci-fi and fantasy book group. I read a lot of genre blogs. I voted for Hugos (though not this year). I still gravitate first to sci-fi and fantasy section in any bookstore I visit. But for many months now, the genre has not been my best friend. I have what I call ‘genre fatigue’. It’s not just a fantasy fatigue or hard sci-fi fatigue. It’s this generalized unwillingness to read widely in what I previously considered my area of expertise. I burned myself out on swords, dragons, spaceships, AI, nanotechnology, cyberpunk, dystopias (though I think everyone must be burnt out on those), you name it. Maybe I feel like I’ve read every possible permutation of character/setting/plot one could have in speculative fiction. Maybe I just need a heavy dose of reality in all my reading.

What genre fatigue might look like

What genre fatigue might look like

Part of this deviation from genre is due to having a vast sea of non-genre books in my vicinity. Most of the galleys in my room are not genre. Most of the books I buy and sell at work are not genre. Even my library hauls are now heavy on things like plays and poetry. For a while in the past few months, I read mostly non-fiction. Or only poetry and comics. Sci-fi and fantasy were paradoxically still okay in comics form (even though, as Warren Ellis says, there is even less realism in those*).

These days, the fatigue seems to be abating. Perhaps I’ve had my fill of what one could call mainstream fiction. I picked up a fantasy book last week to deal with some depression crap. But I still read very widely outside of the genre, and I doubt speculative fiction will comprise as much of my reading as it used to. There is no real cure for genre fatigue. I don’t think there needs to be one, it’s not a life-threatening condition. Now, general book fatigue, that’s an emergency situation, but I’m not there yet.


*Here’s the full quote from Ellis’s Orbital Operations newsletter from 8/16:

Suspension of disbelief is inherent in the comics form because we pick up a comic already understanding that we’re seeing a heavily filtered and codified representation of the world.  Real and irreal use the same visual codes.  Unreal figures in comics are made of the same stuff as the real ones.  Talking about the systems of the world is just telling stories that try to explain how the world works.  Picking up a comic, you already know that at least one person is essentially lying to you.

Lists of books!

For those of you who like Lists of Things, I did some blog maintenance thing yesterday and updated my ‘Read in 2014‘ list and created ‘Read in 2015‘. Go see! They are sort of terrifying, aren’t they? How much free time do I really have?

If you want to know why I keep lists of things I read, it’s because I am one of those People Who Like Lists, because it’s fun, and because I tend to remember events in my life through books. A book can remind me where I was or what I was doing when I was reading it. I read Anthony Marra’s The Tsar Of Love and Techno while camping this summer. I read Benjamin Black’s Christine Falls while waiting for a plane to Toronto in January. I obviously went through some period this summer when I wanted to read only emotionally wrenching books, judging by this lineup:

  • Lidia Yuknavitch, The Small Backs Of Children
  • J. M. Ledgard, Submergence
  • Lyudmila Ulitskaya, The Big Green Tent
  • Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life

All of these are very good, by the way. But not light.

Other reading trends:

1) There are some graphic novels I read and reread in a span of a few weeks. I am a dedicated comics rereader. A) they don’t take a long time and B) I like to binge on series in comics. I have my annual reread of Warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan whenever I start feeling too good about people.

2) There is way more poetry in 2015. Me reading poetry is something relatively new. There was an entire period in my life when I was convinced I could only read poetry in my native language. Now it’s more or less a staple of my reading diet.

3) More plays in 2015, also a new phenomenon.

4) There is way less speculative fiction in 2015. I had what I call ‘genre-fatigue’ for a few months (one of the reasons I stopped writing here). I could only take my sci-fi/fantasy in comics form.

5) Apparently I read Alex + Ada volume two, but not one? Doesn’t seem right.

6) I don’t list single-issue comics. It’s a personal preference.

7) I’ve read 192 books in 2014. Didn’t quite make it to 200. TOTAL FAILURE. Kidding.

So there you go. Lists. Now onwards to read 200 books this year!

Some thoughts on book enjoyment as a function of time

The other day I had a brief Twitter conversation with Memory from In The Forest of Stories about whether one’s enjoyment of a particular book is related to the amount of time it takes to read it. It doesn’t seem like something that should make a difference, yet for me, how long it takes to reach the last page is actually a big factor in how much I’ll like a book. Perhaps it is simply because books that do not engage me take more time to read. I keep putting them down and then picking them up, then putting them down, sometimes to never pick them up again. It doesn’t really matter whether the book is long or short. I remember times when I spent days reading a tiny 150-page novel and two days whizzing through a 650-page doorstop.

Picture of books of diverse length. From top to bottom: read (enjoyed), read (enjoyed somewhat), read (loved), did not read. There, now my dirty secret is out.

Books of diverse length. From top to bottom: read (enjoyed), read (enjoyed somewhat), read (loved), did not read. There, now my dirty secret is out. I have never read The Stand.

Here’s an infographic on how long it takes to read 64 popular books. It uses 300 words per minute as the measure, and doesn’t really take into account complexity of narrative structure, for example (i.e. something like the Lexile measure). I am probably on the higher end of reading speed (though absolutely not as far as Larry Nolen at OF Blog of the Fallen), and that might be another reason why I don’t like to spend a lot of time reading one book. Maybe it’s specifically a fast reader problem.

You might ask: ‘ok, you can read pretty fast, but do you retain anything?’ Personally, I do have a really bad memory for books. But it doesn’t seem to matter whether I spend just a few hours with a book or a few days trying to read it ‘closely’. In fact, I think my bad memory is another reason I read books quickly. If I spend too much time with one book, that means there is a day or two when I don’t touch it, and those couple of days are just enough for me to forget what happened in previous ten chapters.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to Dan Jones’s Wars of the Roses before all those dukes and earls get mixed up in my head and my enjoyment of it takes a dive.

January reading tally (with book pr0n)

Nick Hornby used to write a monthly column for the Believer magazine, where he would list books purchased, books read, and various notes and observations on that month’s reading. All those columns, by the way, are now available in one volume, Ten Years In the Tub. They are  funny and very honest about the author’s reading habits. One quick look at books bought and books read lists will tell you that those two are usually drastically different. I personally know (maybe) one person who reads books bought right away. To me, this seems amazing. I never do that. I mean, if I read everything I brought home immediately, I would have never created this Mt. Everest of advanced copies of stuff that is already out in paperback.

Anyway, below are the results of this month’s reading efforts.

Books acquired

These are divided into two categories: books borrowed (i.e. the ones I don’t get to keep), and books bought/received as gifts/wheedled out of gullible sales reps/etc (i.e. the ones I get to keep).

Borrowed this month:

If you think I only took 5 books out of the library this month, rest assured that this is not a complete stack. I excluded obscure non-fiction, depressing Scandinavian literature, odd Japanese literature, and other areas of my reading interest. I will be happy to include those in the future posts if you would like to see them.

Adopted this month (click to embiggen):


It’s leaning ever so slightly, threatening to collapse and kill me as I walk by.

This actually does not look so bad, and that’s because it doesn’t include non-speculative books that also somehow ended up in my house.

And now, a list of books read (sans photos, since some of the books have gone on to bigger and better things), but with links if I reviewed or blurbed a particular book:

1. Jeff Smith, RASL

2. Robert Sibley, The Way of 88 Temples: Journeys on the Shikoku Pilgrimage (aka the book that allowed me to show my coworkers where I actually used to live)

3. Margaret Atwood, In Other Worlds

4. Jack Vance, The Dying Earth

5. Various, Buffy The Vampire Slayer Omnibus # 4

6. Nicola Griffith, Hild

7. Will McIntosh, Love Minus Eighty

8. Jo Walton, What Makes This Book So Great

9. Robert Pohl, Urban Legends and Historic Lore of Washington, DC

10. Wesley Chu, Lives of Tao

11. George Saunders, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil

12. Elizabeth A. Lynn, A Different Light

13. Takashi Hiraide, The Guest Cat

14. Ray Jayawardhana, Neutrino Hunters: The Thrilling Chase for a Ghostly Particle to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe

15. Warren Ellis, Darick Robertson, Transmetropolitan, Vol 1: Back on the Street (re-read)

16. Lara Vapnyar, Scent of Pine

17. Chuck Wendig, The Blue Blazes

As is usually the case, the borrowed books got a quicker read than the ones bought. Reading of borrowed stuff is largely motivated by the fact that I have to return these volumes to avoid being chased by angry librarians and to allow some other person to have their history knowledge tested by something like Hild.

Unsurprisingly, I almost entirely failed to read from the bought pile, with Chu being the obvious exception. Well, there is always next month.

So, thoughts? Anything from my to-read stacks that I shouldn’t have put off till next month? Anything on my list you’ve read or want to read?

A Love Letter (#2!) to Jo Walton

whatmakesthisbookWhat Makes This Book So Great is out and you need to get it now. That’s it, review done. ‘But, but’, you say, ‘what if I don’t like reading lit crit? What if I think it’s silly to publish blog posts in paper format?’ Well, keep reading then. I’ll tell you what makes this book so great.

First of all, it’s not lit crit. At least not the kind you’re thinking of. As Walton herself says in the book and also in this guest post at Civilian Reader, it’s essentially fan writing, reactions and impressions sans jargon and lots of references to what other critics thought. It’s similar to what I and other book bloggers write. Which brings me to my next point. When blog posts are published in a book, it does result in a loss of that part of blogging where people tell you how wrong you are. But do not despair. What Makes This Book So Great is still full of excellent essays even without the ensuing discussion, and if you really want to say something, Walton advises you to dig up the post in question from the site and comment away (she still reads the comments!).

Now, a couple of caveats. Number one, there are some spoilers strewn about in the book, though Walton is pretty good at telling you where they start. For a lot of books in this collection, the statute of limitations on spoilers has long passed, but you can still avoid them.

Number two, Walton recommends reading the posts in order, as some later ones reference the ones before them. I didn’t jump around, although I did skip a few entries altogether. There are chunks of this book devoted primarily to one specific author or series, Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga being one. Now, if you haven’t read any books in that series, you might not want to read ten or so entries devoted to it. Or maybe you want to read the saga first and then come back to the essays (this was my reason). In that case, read entry #49  (‘Choose again, and change: Louis McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga’) and then come back later to read the other ones. And if you didn’t want to read these books, #49 will magically make you want to do so.

In fact, most of the entries will magically make you want to read the books mentioned. As I mentioned previously, Walton even makes me want to re-read books I know I did not like (and there is an essay that discusses why occasionally you might want to read books you didn’t think were good). What Makes This Book So Great is a journal of re-reading, a compendium of reactions to books read more than once. If re-reading is something utterly alien to you, there are essays about it in the book, and you can also read Walton’s latest post about it on Fantasy Faction. I personally really like re-reading. I blame being a bookseller for the fact that I don’t do it as much anymore. I am overwhelmed with new books on a daily basis, and while I don’t really want to read most of them, what’s left is enough to send me into too-many-books-too-little-time reading despair. Walton reminds me why that this kind of despair is silly (of course you won’t be able to read all the books in the world, so just relax and read what you want) and why it’s usually a great experience coming back to books you loved (but not always!).

Apart from posts that make you want to read all the books, Walton also has essays on reading and genre in general. These are probably my favorite, particularly #95, ‘SF reading protocols’. I think she is absolutely spot-on in this one — SF reading is a essentially a skill you acquire by reading SF. Walton is very astute when she talks about what’s going on in the genre, or when she compares it to ‘mainstream’ fiction (see #7, ‘”That’s just scenery”: What do we mean by “mainstream”?’).

All her posts are worth reading, even for books you don’t care about. She is that good. And now, go get the book already.

The hard life of a reader

Reader’s life is hard. There are all these books, and only 24 hours in a day (sleep is for the weak). My TBR pile could actually be used as structural support in my house.

Ok, I’m obviously not entirely serious, even if ‘so many books, so little time’ despair strikes me at least once a week.

A few days ago Lev Grossman penned a great article or, as he calls it, a meditation, about liking/not liking books and about reviews.  He writes: “Why do I hate it? Part of the problem is that I know that I’m supposed to like it. It’s a terrible thing for a book, when you feel like you’re supposed to like it.”

I know the feeling. There are books that just everybody seems to like, and yet I cannot get through them. And I’m not talking about books that also have a huge crowd of haters, like Fifty Shades of Grey — I am talking about books people whose literary tastes I respect have loved and recommended. And then they mention them and you go ‘umm, dude, I’m sorry, I fell asleep after 20 pages.’

Here’s something else I hate. I pick up a book, read the first 50 pages, like them, then I put the book down and absolutely do not want to pick it up again. Despite the fact that I was enjoying it while actually reading it. I have a book like that on my nightstand right now. How is that possible? I don’t know. Maybe the story is not so interesting, but the writing is beautiful. Maybe it’s just not memorable enough. So it sits there, mentally nagging at me every day: ‘come on, Ellie, I know your OCD will not let you get away with not finishing a book you actually enjoyed’.

I’ve been recording every book I’ve read since 2005. It’s a nice list, and I like to go over it occasionally to see if I can remember where I was at a particular moment in time. Books are apparently good memory markers for me. And yet every year I write down books I do not remember reading  at all. Did I read them in my sleep? Did my clone read them?

Then there are books I remember reading, but I will never be able to tell you what they were about. No character names, no plot points, nothing. Which in itself doesn’t actually mean much, because I have terrible memory for books and movies. I can reread the same book twice in the same year. I sort of remember the general idea, but details are gone. New book in a series coming out? I have to reread all the ones before it. I got away with going to see Dark Knight Rises today without re-watching the other two. I don’t know how I pulled that off. But still, it is a little sad that I spent some time reading something that is now completely gone from my memory.

Notice that, like Grossman, I don’t mention what books caused me such hardship. Because your mileage may vary. I recommend and handsell books to people every day, and it always amazes me how much they are willing to trust a stranger with their book choices. All reviews I write are just my own thoughts, even if those thoughts also do not exist in a vacuum — I might be predisposed to like a book because a friend liked it, or I might hate it because I read it with headache, who knows. You have no way of knowing all the reasons why I liked or disliked something. And neither, really, do I. But I at least try to tell you why, and I simply like telling people about books I read, which is basically why I write this blog. Thanks for reading. Now go back to reading all those books, chop chop!