Sunday Salon: The Siren Song of the Shiny New Book

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

Books Completed

  • 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).

Currently Reading

  • 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.

New Acquisitions

  • None!

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.”
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56 Responses to Sunday Salon: The Siren Song of the Shiny New Book

  1. Alessandra says:

    Thanks because publishers, authors, and bookshops all need to sell new books, and can’t push only extraordinary books – otherwise, there would be a lot less books in print around.

  2. I don’t tend to run into this problem- not because I don’t add new books to my reading list, but because when I put things on hold, I try and do so randomly. Ideally, I end up with a good mix of things. In any case, relying on a library usually keeps me from getting the hot new book too soon, because of the hold system.

    • Teresa says:

      My old library used to let people hold books before they were even released, and I had that down to a science. So much so that I got a couple of Harry Potter books from the library *on the release date.*

  3. Carina says:

    I tend to read quite a bit of older books, though not quite classics … largely because I have so many unread books kicking around my house! I’m also very much a browser of the stacks – I almost always completely skip over the new releases in bookstores, for example … they’re usually way more expensive, and I can always find something interesting that’s older kicking around! That being said, the average publication year of books that I’ve read so far this year has been something like the year 2000, so I’m still not really reading books that are that old. :-) I’m only really starting to read newly published books more frequently now that I’m book blogging, and that’s largely because of review copies.

    • Teresa says:

      I have a lot of older books on my shelves, which helps me mix things up. And I suspect that the median publication year for me this year would probably be around 2000 as well, but that means that at least a good half of the books I’m reading are at least 10 years old, so that’s not so bad.

  4. Nicole says:

    I am one who heads to the stacks at both bookstores and libraries. A lot of that has to do with the fact that I have always had a preference for trade paperbacks, so I rarely even knew too much about new books prior to blogging. I still mix it up, but I think most of the new stuff ends up on my blog since I prioritize review copies there. I expect that will change as recently I have been reading according to whim rather than schedule. I have both Case Histories and When Will There Be Good News so I am so excited to see that you enjoyed them.

    • Teresa says:

      I tend to prefer trade paperbacks for buying too, but then in the bookstore, I almost always get tempted by the “new in trade paperback” table. On the rare occasion that I go to the bookstore these days, I’ve started walking right past it.

      And the Atkinson books are fabulous. She’s probably my favorite “new to me” author I’ve found this year!

      • Teresa says:

        And I totally understand about prioritizing new books for blog posting, since we do get those for review. I read slowly enough that I end up reviewing everything I read, so I don’t have to make that choice.

  5. Iris says:

    You’ve made some very interesting and valid points. I think I review mostly “older” books, by which I mean books that weren’t released in the last 12 months. But blogging has made me want to read more new books as well. However, like you, I like to wait a while before I read a new book that is being posted about a lot in the blogosphere (for example, right now, I’m nowhere near wanting to read The Passage yet).

    • Teresa says:

      The Passage is definitely one that I intend to wait a while on. I sometimes love that kind of book, but I’d rather wait until it’s less of a phenomenon before deciding.

  6. Steph says:

    I think one of the great things about varying one’s book buying locations can be the types of books that are highlighted. There’s a great indie bookstore in Nashville that frequently has “Our employees recommend” tables, where each person has hand-written a short blurb about the book they’re recommending and why and these tend to run the gamut in terms of age. You’ve got your House of Leaves alongside your Grapes of Wrath and your Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which I think offers a wonderfully eclectic mix and helps people find books that are “oldies but goodies”. As you said, the hot new releases are always prominently displayed, so it’s nice to have a venue for other books to be remembered!

    • Teresa says:

      That’s very cool! Since the indie in my area closed I’ve relied more on Barnes and Noble and Books a Million, although I do want to start going to Politics and Prose in DC more. It’s just a bit of a haul if I just need to grab one book for a readalong or something. There are some used bookstores near me and in DC that I haven’t gotten into the habit of visiting, but they can be great for older title browsing.

  7. Kristen M. says:

    I was sure that I was reading a wide variety of years but then decided to fill in my reading spreadsheet with publishing dates and found that I was starting to skew to the very recent. Now that I’m aware of it, though, I can choose my upcoming reads in a better way. Back catalogs of current authors is definitely one of the things I want to focus on. It’s fun to read the latest and (hopefully) greatest but I don’t want to miss the richness of the back catalog either!

    • Teresa says:

      My reading started to skew to the very recent last year (and often the very recent mediocre), so I’ve stopped requesting any review copy that appeals, which has helped me get things back where I want them.

  8. cweinblatt says:

    Speaking of a coming-of-age Holocaust love story, you might wish to consider Jacob’s Courage.Jacob’s Courage chronicles the dazzling beauty of passionate love and enduring bravery in a lurid world where the innocent are brutally murdered. This is a tender coming of age story of two young adults living in Salzburg at the time when the Nazi war machine enters Austria. The historical novel presents scenes and situations of Jews in ghettos and concentration camps, with particular attention to Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. Follow lovers Jacob and Rachael from their comfortable Salzburg homes to a decrepit ghetto, from there to a prison camp where they became man and wife. Revel in their excitement as they escape and join the local partisans, fighting their Nazi tormentors. Finally ride the crowded, fetid train to the terror of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Stung by the death of loved-ones, enslaved and starved, they have nothing to count on but faith, love and courage. From desperate despair, to unforgettable moments of chaste beauty, Jacob’s Courage examines a constellation of emotions during a time of incomprehensible brutality.

  9. Gavin says:

    Great post, great questions! I am one that tends to head towards the stacks in the library. I also frequent used bookstores and have made wonderful discoveries by doing so. My library hold list is a mix of old and new releases. There is nothing I like better then discovering and reading older books, then I can tell others about them!

    • Teresa says:

      Used bookstores are great for “new to me” books. If I can ever get my TBR bookcase under control, I’ll start visiting them more.

  10. Jen says:

    I actually keep a booklist. And because I’ve been doing it for 13 years now, a lot of things on it have become older by default! I started it because the last few places I’ve lived, I’ve either been going to tiny branch libraries, or high-volume libraries where things are constantly checked out. So I mostly get reserves, but I prefer older books because they don’t have long waiting times. I don’t actually have good luck with shelf browsing, for some reason, although every once in awhile I find a keeper (“Bellwether” by Connie Willis is an all-time favorite and total serendipity…)

    • Teresa says:

      That’s happening with my list too. I’ll see some new book reviewed and put it on my list, but I’ve got about five years’ worth of future reading there! And I like shelf browsing not so much for finding books I’ve never heard of but for finding books I’ve been meaning to read but forgot about because they’re stuck somewhere in the middle of that long, long list.

  11. Jenny says:

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I tend to read newer books lately too but have such a huge TBR that I would like to read more of. And it’s funny b/c I do tend to enjoy the blogs more where they read just whatever they want. While I have been reading a lot of review books, it gets boring when everyone is reviewing all the same books!

    • Teresa says:

      Exactly. I find blogging much more fun when there’s more of a mix. I like seeing some reviews of new titles (and reviewing new titles myself), but if that’s all there is, I do get bored.

  12. I was an early bookboxer. One of my favorites that went around many, many times was Small Favorites. Inside were placed lesser known books that were very well written. I discovered many wonderful books that way.

  13. Heather says:

    Interesting post, and not something I’d really thought of ’til now. I read a mix of new and old books – the “new books” shelves at the library are definitely the first (and sometimes only) place I head on any given visit, and I browse them with great glee. I hear about newly-published books in various ways – from book reviews in magazines or blogs (including publishers’ blogs), via Goodreads, or just from stumbling on them in the new books shelves at bookstores or (more often) the library. But I also do mix things up – I find older books on the sidewalk, or I read older books that I’ve been meaning to read for a while. Looking at the books I’ve read so far in 2010, 7 were first published in 2010, 7 were first published in 2009, and 14 were older than that.

    • Teresa says:

      I do enjoy the new books shelves, but I’m find it so easy to get stuck there that I’m trying to avoid it these days. (Actually, I’m avoiding the library altogether right now so I can read more of the unread books in my house!) We just all need to find the balance that’s right for us.

      • Heather says:

        Yeah, I also think I am ready for a slight break from the library: I’ve been reading mostly library books lately, and the unread books on my own shelves are definitely calling to me! I started with a book I borrowed from a friend months ago (in April, I think?) that I’m only getting to now.

  14. Tricia says:

    I try to read a fairly good mix of old and new – my bookshelf contains classics, contemporary novels and novels published this year. There are just too many great books to be read!

  15. Melissa says:

    Great post! I try to mix it up, although I’ll admit that the New Books shelf at the library is my first stop (and sometimes only stop, depending on how much time I have). My TBR shelves at home are mostly older books from used book stores as well as the bargain shelves at book stores.

    • Teresa says:

      My TBR bookcase is mostly older books as well (except for a handful of review copies), and reading from there helps me keep from focusing on the new too much.

  16. Vasilly says:

    Great post! I’ve noticed that I don’t follow blogs that feature mostly new books. I like reading new books but that’s not all I read. I’m more of a backlist person so I’m forever hitting the stacks for older books.

    • Teresa says:

      A few blogs that I follow read quite a few new books, maybe even mostly new books, but I think the bulk of them feature a mix of old and new, or even mostly old.

  17. Sasha says:

    Hi, Teresa. :) I knew that for years, I read the backlist because I had no choice, haha. There are a lot of books that had been published 5, 10, 15 years ago, that can be found in secondhand bookstores, and that’s where I got a lot of my books when I was a student — plus, the books that my mother buys, but I wouldn’t get to when they were still freshly pressed. These days, having begun blogging + getting some breathing space re finances, I can buy new books as soon as they’re released [if I love the author], get ARCs from publishers. But I find myself drifting to the backlist once more whenever I stray into a bookstore. :]

    • Teresa says:

      I totally get what you mean about enjoying the financial freedom of buying new books. There were years in my past where everything I read was older for the very same reason.

  18. JoAnn says:

    Great post! I tend to read more older books, but the shiny new titles at the front of the bookstore always grab my attention – even though I rarely buy them.

    Will look forward to your review of Howard’s End. It’s my favorite Forster and I’ve been contemplating a reread.

    • Teresa says:

      The Forster definitely stands up to rereading, but I’m finding I want to underline practically every passage (and my copy was already heavily underlined from my first read and from writing about it in college).

  19. gaskella says:

    I always plan to read books from my TBR, many of which are pre-2000 with a sprinkling of older titles, but the lure of the shiny new book is irresistible, and then I’ve been getting more freebies, and the older TBR ones are ignored. Note to self: Stop buying books. Self replies: Can’t!!!!

    • Teresa says:

      I have that same dialogue with “self” sometimes. I’ve been better about reading what’s on my shelf this year (mostly because I’ve gotten very choosy about review copies), but that hasn’t stopped me from adding to those shelves!

  20. Juxtabook says:

    Thank you for the link! My reading has also skewed to the recent in the last two years. I think this was because of blogging and being a bit more in the loop as a result. And also because as student (up to my eyes in classics) and as a used bookseller (up to my eyes in titles 10+ years old) the shiny-new-novel syndrome is not one I’ve got round to indulging in before.

    Whilst I think I will keep up a higher percentage of new novels than I used to, I can feel myself drawn again to older books, now I’ve had my flutter with the new.

    • Teresa says:

      I too have really enjoyed reading some new books in. It makes a nice change from years of feeling behind! One or two new titles a month is more than I ever read before blogging and is probably the proportion I’ll maintain.

  21. Jenny says:

    This is something I’ve thought about vaguely, but not really in connection with my own reading. I reread a lot, and I rarely buy new books without having read them first. So when a new book comes out, it’s usually not available right away at my library, and I don’t want to buy it if I’m not going to like it. This is what saves me from ending up in thrall to the shiniest new thing–plus, as you say, book bloggers are always reading books from five, ten, fifteen years ago. I don’t know that I’m reading the same amount from all different decades, but my reluctance to buy new books definitely makes a difference to my reading habits.

    • Teresa says:

      I rarely buy books until they’re out in paperback, but the new books at the library always tempt me. They put the shelves right next to where you have to wait in line to check out your books! How could I not look at them? That and the review copy possibilities tempt me.

  22. Frances says:

    Wish that I could say that I am actually mindful of this type of thing but when it comes to reading I am an id run rampant kind of girl. Or like the dog in the movie Up who stops mid-sentence every time her sees a squirrel (or a book in my case). No matter the publication date.

    Thanks for the link love, friend. Hope you enjoy it!

    • Teresa says:

      If I let my id run wild, I’d be overrun with shiny new books, battered old books, library books, and on and on! My tiny home keeps me restrained.

  23. Jeane says:

    I do just as much browsing in the stacks- picking at random whatever catches my eye- as requesting newer books to read at the library. And I pick up plenty of books from thrift shops and sales, so I have a pretty good balance of old to new. I love discovering old, mostly-forgotten books that are great reads. I hope when I write about them it encourages other readers to go hunt them down as well.

    • Teresa says:

      One of the great things about blogging is getting to see all the older books people are finding at thrift shops and in library stacks. It certainly encourages me to look past the new!

  24. Valerie says:

    I think most of the books I read and review on my blog are backlisted books. I review newer ones once in a while, but they’re usually ARCs sent to me. I don’t have so many ARCs (and I hope to keep it that way) that my blog would end up being a mostly new-book blog.

    I’d rather keep it mixed up, and I also prefer reading blogs where not every book featured is a new release. If all book blogs were all new-book blogs, they would end up being all about the same books.

    • Teresa says:

      I love getting ARCs, but I agree that I wouldn’t want to get so many that new books become my focus. It’s much more interesting to mix it up.

  25. I suffer from shiny new book syndrome, as like you I do like to be ahead in at least one area of culture! I am trying to read more older books, but it is hard when everyone is talking about the latest new release on twitter. I have always been tempted by the new book shelf in my library, but it is even worse now!

    • Teresa says:

      I’m pretty good at not seeking out the new stuff these days, but I get tempted. The funny thing is, the more people talk about a particular book the less inclined I am to read it. If I don’t read it *before* the talk starts, I’m unlikely to read it for years! (So no The Passage, The Help, Hunger Games, etc.–or at least not until long after the chatter dies down.)

  26. LIzF says:

    I know what you mean about The Captive Queen being a disappointment.
    I have read, and enjoyed, Alison Weir’s historical biographies, and was really looking forward to it but I’m afraid that I ended up abandoning it after only a few chapters because I thought it read like cheap sensationalism rather than the sort of historical fiction you can learn from while enjoying a good read.
    I think that I will stick to Sharon Penman and Elizabeth Chadwick for that sort of period now.

    • Teresa says:

      It did get better after that opening, but it was never great. I do want to read Penman’s version of the story, because I could tell there’s a great story there!

  27. Rebecca Reid says:

    I have been focused on classics lately and I honestly don’t feel like I’m missing much. There are a few contemporary authors I would love to get to, but I feel there are so many old books on my TBR I’ll just keep with them for the foreseeable future. I’ve found I’m reading fewer and fewer of the blog posts about shiny new books. They all start to sound the same — like you say, not because the bloggers are lying but because the bloggers were so excited about the new book they read it right away so of course their thoughts are gushing. I’m just different in my reactions of so many of them. I’ll stick with the already tried and true books for now…

    • Teresa says:

      I could certainly stay occupied with nothing but classics, or just slightly old books, for a good long while if I were so inclined. It is so much easier to discern which ones are worth reading. But I do like to sprinkle in a bit of the new.

  28. Anna says:

    I tend to read and review older books on my blog. Ever now and then I might read a book that came out in the last year or so. I like going to used book sale because I never know what I will find. I have find both new and old books at book sales.

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