On choosing

My book club met last night to discuss Bittersweet by Nevada Barr. As always, it was a treat to get out of the house, hang out with friends, consume wine and cheese, and talk about books. The book, however, left much to be desired.

sounded like a good idea: lesbian lovers out west in the late 19th century search for social acceptance. But the plot was pat, the prose clunky, the characters undeveloped, the coincidences improbable. In short: don't bother reading this one.

I've read several clunkers in a row now. Bittersweet was no one's fault -- Doulicia heard about it at work -- how were we to know?

I'm thinking I need to change my method of choosing books.

Method? Do I have a method?

My current method is to take the Tempestuous Toddler to the brand-new Pittsfield Branch of the dear old Ann Arbor District Library. The new building has this . . . contraption . . . that lets you shoot a ball high up a chute, and then it comes back down, around and around and around, thereby illustrating some property of physics. Toddler heaven. And bless their hearts, the library designers placed this contraption smack in the middle of the adult area. So I can browse while Daniel operates the contraption. The only problem is, if there is another child present (and there always is) I have to keep half my attention on Daniel because he tends to get rather territorial. This is how I ended up with Goodnight Nobody a few weeks ago. It's how I ended up with Drop City, which I am enjoying to a certain extent, though hippie communes are not my number one choice of subject matter. So, perhaps this isn't the ideal way to choose books.

I used to subscribe to the New York Times Book Review. However, I rarely if ever felt inspired to read any of the books they reviewed. In fact, the opposite was true. First of all, I got a little tired of the word "luminous." Why is it that all the best books have "luminous" prose? Second, the reviews give away way too much plot. Third, don't even get me started on their reviews of biographies -- which tell all about the subject and nothing about the biography qua biography. Fourth, it comes too often. If it was a monthly I could keep up, but every week? No way. So that's out.

Another possibility: go down the list of Pulitzer, Booker, etc. award winners.

Or do what Ella's doing: read the Modern Library.

Here's another idea: we have a copy of the complete annotated list of all the Penguin Classics currently in print. I've been studying this list (okay, we keep it in the downstairs bathroom). What I like about the list is that it's in alphabetical order by author, which lends it an appealing randomness. If I did this, A to Z, I would have to start with Flatland, by Edward Abbott and end with Thérèse Raquin, by Émile Zola. If the titles were in chronological order I wouldn't even consider it.

There are some drawbacks to this plan. First, and this is huge, I hate Penguin Classics. They just aren't very nice books to hold in your hand. Margins and leading: way too small. (For those not in the know, leading is the white space between the lines. In olden times the typesetters used strips of lead to make the spaces even and uniform. It rhymes with sledding, not bleeding.) Font: ugly and too small. Contrast: too low. The second drawback is that this isn't just a list of novels here. There is No Way I'm going to spend my precious reading time on, say, The Portable Machiavelli, even if it is an "essential collection" and even if I am married to a history teacher. I'm. Just. Not. But I could skip over the philosophy, economics, poetry, plays and short stories. Novels only. I'm prejudiced that way.

I think I'll give it a try. Flatland, here I come!


  • And also, there is such a disparity between men and women writers! I mean, come on. This gets my goat every time.

    posted by Blogger Martha on 3:33 PM  

  • Hmmm. Me again. This should say between the NUMBER of men and women writers. Just thought I'd clarify.

    posted by Blogger Martha on 3:35 PM  

  • I like your plan! I'm a fan of big, huge plans like this one -- how many novels are we talking about here? I usually don't stick to my reading plan all that long, but I'm hoping this one works for you!

    posted by Blogger Dorothy W. on 4:34 PM  

  • Yeah, Martha. (Your "clarification" -- ha ha!) And the Penguin Classics are not exactly diverse, either.

    Dorothy, welcome, and thanks. I have no idea how many of the 1,300 books are novels. I don't usually stick to reading plans either. We'll see what happens.

    posted by Blogger Julie on 5:59 PM  

  • Julie, we must have been mind-melding across the states today. I was at Borders looking for something new . . . I browsed and browsed, getting more and more frustrated. I really hate this new thing about listing wonderful comments for three pages at the front of the book. Who are these people who think these books are luminous anyway? Sure, I recognize a few of the names or magazines, but most of the time, it could be the author's cousin for all I know, using those reviewerly words. I left wishing I could hire a reviewer who knew my tastes to recommend things just for me. I left with Puddin'head Wilson (our next book club choice, talk about un-P.C.) and The English Patient under my arm. A funny combo.

    posted by Anonymous Laura on 12:01 AM  

  • I've tried reading plans before but can't seem to stick with them. One year I had a calendar with a picture of a woman writer each month and I made it a point to read a book by that author. It was fun but didn't last past the calendar. I have all kinds of lists including the book The New Lifetime Reading Plan, but use them for ideas when I'm looking for something out of my usual realm of choice. The Penguin list should be fun though. I look forward to your reading! :)

    posted by Blogger Stefanie on 9:22 AM  

  • Julie, if the design drives you crazy - and I have a few Penguin Classics, I know exactly what you're talking about! - read a few before you commit. Either it'll stop bothering you or it'll get worse.

    One of the things I love about the Modern Library is that they are just heavy enough to feel good in your hand and the margins are reasonable. (I really think they're perfect reading copies; I'm probably biased, though) But I do have a soft spot for those old orange Penguins. They're so friendly.

    Oh, and I really enjoyed Flatland, too. It's goofy.

    posted by Anonymous Ella on 12:31 PM  

  • I've also tried reading plans, and have sorely failed. Read the 100 best books, read the award winners (I've been pretty successful with the Newbery ones, though). The best plan -- find a source (friends, the blog!) and read everything that everyone recommends. I like Chinaberry's recommendations; I usually find something I like. And then whenever someone that I trust/like says they liked a book, I usually run out and read it.

    But, then, I'm often at our little library wondering what to check out, because none of the books I'd really like to read are in.

    posted by Blogger Melissa on 3:38 PM  

  • Good luck with the plan! I love the idea of plans, but they don't work for me. Inevitably, the second or third book on any list makes me say Ugh, and then there's another a couple books down and I figure what's the point of sticking to a list of 100 if I really want to read only 7 of them. So I just sit around and wait for inspiration to strike.

    I WAS inspired to read Flatland a couple years ago. Odd, but very enjoyable.

    posted by Blogger Isabella on 9:40 AM