Yesterday on Twitter, Vasilly linked to this LA Weekly piece by Nathan Ihara about how new books seem to get all the attention. Pick up the paper or the latest magazine and turn to the book review section, and all the featured books are new (unless there happens to be a high-profile reissue of a classic). Go to the bookstore, and the most prominent displays are of new books. Libraries often place their new books right by the entrance. And yes, new books often get extra prominence on book blogs, too.
If you want to read something older (and I don’t necessary mean a classic), you may have to hunt for it. You’ll almost certainly have to already know about it—unless you’re a hard-core browser who always heads for the stacks, whether in your library or your local bookstore.
Like a lot of people, I enjoy sinking my teeth into a hot new release. One of the pleasures of book blogging has been getting a chance to read books ahead of their publication date. I’m so often behind the curve when it comes to popular culture that it’s nice to feel ahead in the world of books. But staying ahead of the curve has some drawbacks.
First, new releases haven’t been thoroughly vetted by the reading community, so those books are more of a risk. If there aren’t many reviews out there—or if all the reviews are by people predisposed to like the author or topic—I sometimes find it helpful to wait until more voices chime in before deciding whether to read something. It’s not, I hasten to add, that I don’t believe early reviews are honest, but people who love a particular type of book so much that they try to get an advance copy or go buy it on the release date are going to have a level of interest that I may not have.
Also, it sometimes takes a while to know if a book will have staying power. Certain types of books seem to always be around. Ihara talks about addiction memoirs in his article, but there are plenty of others—immigrant stories, Holocaust fiction, coming-of-age tales, dystopian nightmares, and so on. After a while, they can all seem the same. Why read an ordinary example of one of these books when you can read an extraordinary one? And how will you know which ones are extraordinary? Time. The best ones usually continue to get recommended while the others fade into the background. (It doesn’t always work out that way, I know, but it often does.)
And that brings me to the biggest problem with focusing on the hot new books: missing out on the great old books. I’m not just talking about classics (although y’all know I love me some classics); I’m talking about the backlist—older titles by authors working now. I’m talking about books released 5, 10, or 15 years ago. Maybe not old enough to have achieved classic status, but pretty damn good all the same.
So how do we avoid what Ihara calls “the tyranny of the new”? I certainly don’t suggest not reading new titles at all. And I’m not suggesting that publishers and bookstores and readers shouldn’t talk up new titles. If no one talks about new titles, how will any of them ever succeed and eventually become beloved older titles?
For me, I try to read at least two or three older titles for each new book I read. I don’t follow a precise formula or anything, but that feels like a nice ratio. It gives me a chance to be ahead of the curve, while also enjoying books that have been vetted a bit more. When I go to the bookstore or library, I try not to spend much of my time looking at the prominently placed newer books. I head instead to the stacks to see if a book I’ve been meaning to read for ages catches my eye.
I’ve also become more drawn to blogs that focus on older titles. One of the things I love about book blogs is how idiosyncratic they are and how so many bloggers read what they feel like reading—old, new, or in between. Some of my favorite bloggers do read a fair number of new books, but most don’t focus their attention there. And it looks like publishers might be seeing opportunities to promote older titles in the blogosphere. I was heartened this week to see that the TLC Book Tour for the paperback release of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna will also include some of her backlist. What a great opportunity to stimulate interest in an author’s complete body of work! (I’m not much of a Kingsolver fan, but that’s neither here nor there. It’s still a cool idea.)
So how do you balance old and new books in your reading? Do you lean toward the latest and greatest? The tried and true? A bit of both?
Notes on a Reading Life
- The Captive Queen by Alison Weir. Weir goes for sensationalism instead of psychological exploration, making this book about Eleanor of Aquitaine a big disappointment.
- When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson (audio). Another great Jackson Brodie novel, although Case Histories remains my favorite (possibly because of the excellent reader).
- The Outcast by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles (Morland Dynasty #21). A relief to return to some reliably good historical fiction after the Weir this week. And I’m interested to see how C H-E handles the U.S. Civil War!
- Howard’s End by E.M. Forster. I’m just over halfway done, and I hear my review will be nothing but quotes.
- Waiting for God by Simone Weil. A collection of Weil’s essays and letters that I’m working through slowly. I only have a couple of essays left, so I may finish in the next week or two.
- The Holy Vote by Ray Suarez. For my church’s book club.
- A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (audio). I’m skeptical that this will work out on audio, but I did love Burgess’s preface on about 1,000 different levels. And so far, I’m able to understand the story, despite the made-up vocabulary.
On My Radar
- The Tsar’s Dwarf by Peter Fogtdal. A dwarf in the court of Peter the Great tells her story. Catherine of Juxtabook says of the narrator, Sørine, “Her complex personality is handled with skill: whilst Sørine can be aggressive and unpleasant she is never repellent, when put-upon she never seems weak, when at a loss she never seems truly destitute.”
- Lit by Mary Karr. A memoir with about a writer who gets drunk, becomes a mother, and eventually finds God. This kind of thing could be terrible, but Frances at Nonsuch Book found it surprisingly compelling. Frances says, “where the reader finally arrives with Karr seems less improbable than originally conceived as even her faith sings smartass songs of doubt.”