Questions to ask yourself about your reading life:
1. What books have made the most impact on your reading life in the last year, or five years, or twenty years?
2. Are you should-ing yourself to death?
3. Are you a planner or not?
4. When is the best time for you to read?
5. What is the best way for you to read?
6. What are your personal rules around reading?
7. Who are your reading people? Who do you want to talk to and listen to about books?
8. Is there a genre or an author or a topic that you just need to quit?
9. What books have you been meaning to get to but never quite make it?
10. What does reading bring to your life?
On a recent episode of the podcast What Should I Read Next for the Modern Mrs. Darcy book club (Ep 265: 10 questions to ask yourself about your reading life), host Anne Bogel interviews guest and fellow podcaster Laura Tremaine about her favorite books (and one book she hates). Given that Tremaine’s podcast is called “10 Things to Tell You”, Anne decided to borrow that same template as a way of using this episode to kick off a new year with a kind of resolution or goal oriented leaning focus. They walk through 10 qesttions to ask yourself about your reading life with the aim of fostering reflection on how to make it more fruitful and meaningful.
Near the top of the episode Anne encourages listeners to take the time and walk through these questions for themselves. And so I figured that I would take the time to do just that:
- What books have made the most impact on your reading life in the last year, or five years, or twenty years.
I took the long form approach to this question, reaching back into my early days as a reader and locating significant reads that had a profound impact on my reading life.
The first book that comes to mind is Charlotte’s Web. As a young reader this grew my love not just for human-creature relationships like Call of the Wild, Hatchet, Where the Red Fern Grows, My Side of the Mountain and Beautiful Joe, or more recently The One and Only Ivan, but for stories with an interest in examing the constant push and pull between childlike wonder and adult cynycism. I love stories with a fantastical edge but still with an element of what one might call “realism”. I love stories that are not afraid to entertain the idea that there is more to this world than just what we can see on this surface, that our modern, Western enlightenment ideals don’t and can’t capture the entire narrative of human existence and spiritual truth. For me, this story about a pig who grows up into a world where things like death and loss and very real sparked a sense of wonderment about how we must then seek the innocence of hope and faith in the everday miracles. These miracles hold meaning because they point us to something greater, something universal, and something eternal.
This same love for fantastical realism allowed me to get swept up into a book called the Paradise War, the first book in a series by Stephen Lawhead, my favorite author. Lawhead has a passion for seeing the fantastical in the ordinary, something that drives his interest in celtic mythology, mysticism and history. Every time he releases a new book it returns me to my safe place, to the comforting idea that there is more to know about this world than what we see on the surface. That it doesn’t have to be simply fantasy to believe in fairies and magic and gods (or God). I love stories with a mystical and spiritual dynamic.
This love of wonder and the fantastical also drove me towards a love for those darker edges as well. Horror became a cherished genre when I read The Green Mile by Stephen King, and those same horror elements were definitey present in one of my favorite series as a young boy, Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising, with Over Sea, Under Stone being the first one.
As I got older I also came to embrace stories with a more obvious existential concern. like Enders Game by Orson Scott Wells and The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, and later books like Silence, Never Let Me Go, The Sense of An Ending, Children of Men, The Son, The Road, Anxious People/A Man Called Ove and most recently a book like The World To Come.
And of course I love grand adventures like Narnia and Lord of the Rings along with personal favorites like 100 Cupboards, Mortal Engines, The Knife of Never Letting Go The Hunger Games, The Sisters of The Winter Wood, Exit West, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children, and The Luster of Lost Things.
Lastly, I love time travel narratives (11/22/63 is my favorite as a big King fan), and as a kind of outlier, the book The Brave really hit an expected sweet spot with its fusion of the western with an examination of the relationship between our stories and the creation of art. I haven’t found any other books that are quite like it yet, but if I did I would be all over it.
- Are you shoulding yourself to death?
Whe I first started to consider this question my initial answer was no. But a more recent example popped into my mind. Well, two recent examples really, the first one being my struggle to get through Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and secondly struggling through Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, both classics and much celebrated within their old world language and their poetic prose. I appreciated the prose, but that is different than enjoying them, something that made me feel guilty or less intellectual for not connecting with them the way I thought I was supposed to. I think it is alright to accept that these kinds of books and narratives just weren’t necessarily for me, even if I appreciated the challenge.
- Are you a planner or not?
This one was easy for me to answer. What I have come to understand about myself is that I don’t like to plan out my reads, nor do I necessarily need a plan to get my reading life into gear. Rather, what works well for me is simply planning a starting point and then letting the year unfold from there. I like the sense of adventure that comes with not being tied to a list or a reading plan or a set number of must reads.
- When is the best time for you to read?
I can also say I have a pretty good system in this regard. As a school bus driver it is easy for me to work reading into my down time during the days, which is where I tend to do most of it. As well, with my recent embrace of audio books, those work very well for me while I’m driving.
- What is the best way for you to read?
For the longest time I resisted any form of digital reading. This past year I finally caved and made a purchase through my kindle app. The reason I did is becuase a title I wanted to read was exponentially cheaper in digital form. And then I discovered the ease with which I could highlight and keep notes and document my study. What I have discovered for myself is that the Kindle app works best for non-fiction philosophical and theological and academic books, largely becuase they are so much cheaper and also for the ease of notetakaing and documenting. When it comes to fiction books, it just isn’t the same experience unless I am holding a book in hand. And when it comes to audio, my mind wanders listening to fiction, whereas when I am listening to non-fiction books like history and autobiographies where I don’t have to take notes, audio works perfect.
- What Are you personal rules around reading?
I don’t have too many rules, except that I have become more and more willing to skim or put down books I am not enjoying, depending on how much value I find in getting the scope of the sttory or the idea. I typically have one audio, one non-fiction on my kindle and one physical fiction book on the go at the same time.
- Who are your reading people? Who do you want to talk to and listen to about books?
This is sad to say, but I don’t actually have any. Finding people who are avid readers who like to discuss books is difficult enough. Finding similar tastes or even conversations that are willing to discuss across different tastes and genres that much harder. I am in a couple reading groups, but those are mostly just posts of the moment, not real discussion. And I listen to a couple podcasts, but that’s not really reading people. So that is an element that desperately needs attention. How that happens in a digital age, who knows.
- Is there a genre or an author or a topic that you just need to quit?
Old world poetic prose the likes of Blood Meridian maybe? I’m fairly open, and generally am good at avoiding stuff that I know I won’t enjoy. But I do sometimes get caught in the trap of feeling like I need to read something I won’t enjoy just becuase it is prestigious or high art. I need to be okay knowing that those aren’t always my thing and don’t bring my joy or fulfillment. Also, I know that I need to avoid nihilsim in books. Life is too short for that to steal away the life I feel I do have.
- What books have you been meaning to get to but never quite make it?
I am three books into Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children, a series that I wasn’t initially over the moon for after reading the first book, but upon the advice of someone to keep going I fell in love them after the second. Why they keep falling off my radar after I finish the next in the series I have no idea. But the good news is I have book four ready to go and book five on order and in the mail. I have a couple series on my list as well that for some reason I have just never pulled the trigger on, and another one on my shelf (Children of Blood and Bone) that keeps getting pushed off my reading agenda. This is the year.
- What does reading bring to your life?
Joy. Escape. Wonderment. It expands my view of the world, broadens my perspective, allows me to travel to different places in the world, to see the world through different eyes. It is also therapeutic in many ways. A chance to understand that imagination is still possible in a harsh world. Reminds me that hope is still real in a cynical world, that light is still visible in a dark world, and that faith is still possible in a nihilistic culture.