Sunday Salon: Deep or Broad?

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you’ve probably figured out that I like to read a lot of different kinds of books (as does Jenny). One week, I might be reading Stephen King, then Charlotte Brontë, then Kazuo Ishiguru, and then Sarah Vowell. I read from different genres, different periods, different styles, trying to seek out the best of just about everything. It’s a fun and satisfying way to read.

But this way of reading is not without its drawbacks. I sometimes feel like a literary Jane of all trades and master of none. There are some periods and genres I’m more knowledgeable about than others, but there are tremendous gaps—often massive gaping holes—in my knowledge of just about every genre I read from. I can hardly think of any authors whose complete works I’ve read. Sometimes I look at folks who specialize, and I get a little jealous of their depth of understanding. What joy to analyze the evolution of the Gothic novel or the ancient epic or the contemporary space opera! The part of me that’s greedy for knowledge loves the idea of becoming an expert in something specific like that.

In my heart, I know I’d never be happy specializing in one genre or period, but years ago, I did go on reading jags from time to time when I’d voraciously read a whole bunch of books on a particular topic or in a particular style. For instance, there was a period after college when I’d go straight to the mysteries section of the library and get an arm load of books, only occasionally venturing into the regular fiction section. When I was in college, I read almost nothing but 19th- and  early 20th-century classic novels, even for pleasure reading. When I discovered a new-to-me author or a new series, I’d read all the books I could get my hands on by that author or in that series. I was greedy for depth.

Thinking about it, though, I wonder if there’s a way to get at least a taste of that kind of depth without becoming devoted to one kind of literature. I’ve seen a lot of bloggers take on projects, maybe focusing on something specific for a week or a month or a season—or else reading a book every week or two on a particular topic over the course of a year. That’s something I think I could do. What I think would work best for me is to spend a month or so focusing on something a few times a year, not in any formal way or as part of a challenge or anything (that starts to look like work), but just as a fun little reading jag to enjoy until I get restless.

So to start, Jenny and I have been exchanging ideas, and we’re thinking of spending January enjoying international crime fiction. We’re both huge crime fiction fans, but most of the mysteries and crime novels we read are U.S. and U.K.-based, and we know there’s a lot  of good crime fiction out there (and not all of it is Scandinavian!) I’m looking forward to giving some new-to-me authors a try in this short experiment in focused reading.

What about you? Do you prefer to stay focused in your reading, or do you leap from one thing to another? Do you see advantages or disadvantages to either approach?

In Other News: Thanks so much to whomever nominated Shelf Love for Book Blogger Appreciation Week awards in Literary Fiction, Eclectic, and Best Writing. We know how difficult it is to choose which blogs to nominate (we sure couldn’t nominate all our favorites), so we are pleased and honored that you thought of us. We decided to accept the nominations in the Literary Fiction and Writing categories.

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47 Responses to Sunday Salon: Deep or Broad?

  1. Eva says:

    I enjoy a mix of broad and deep myself! :) I definitely have ‘pet’ topics that I’m v interested in and thus read more deeply, but not usually on any kind of schedule. Last year, I started getting interested in 18th cent lit, and this year has seen me really fall in love with Medieval lit and become v curious about ancient Greek drama. hehe If I keep adding interests, eventually I might be all depth! ;)

    • Teresa says:

      I think a mix is ideal for me too, but you’ve hinted at my particular problem–I’m interested in too many things and don’t have the time to go in depth with them all.

  2. Lisa says:

    I’m with Eva. Not just pet topics though, but also pet authors like Austen, Dunnett and Trollope – and when I finish their books (or get far enough in, as with Trollope), then I start reading about them or their period or their sources. On the other hand there is what someone called the “and now for something completely different” approach – where I think, I can’t face another Victorian, or another mystery. That’s also a factor in the “broad” approach.

    • Teresa says:

      Pet authors were a big thing with me at one time. Dunnett is one author who got that treatment. I read all the Lymond books in a couple of months, waited a year or two and then inhaled the Niccolo ones, with King Hereafter in between. Now I need to reread them and take in all those details! It is rare for me to finish all an author’s works, unless they haven’t written much or I got in early. (I’ve not read Dunnett’s mysteries, for example). I think that I feel that need to something different before I get to that point.

  3. amymckie says:

    Congrats on the nominations :)

    Like you I have way too many topics and interests. One way I’ve been exploring one of my topics though is my Nigerian Lit Fridays series. It’s a bit more than probably is best, I seem to be always scrambling to get a book read in time, but it’s really just devoting a review a week (and so a read a week) to a book from the country. I think for other projects I need to scale back though, maybe a read a month or every second week!

    • Teresa says:

      Your Nigerian lit project was one of the projects I was thinking of. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t do one book a week for something like that, only because I sometimes only read one book a week! But it really feels like you’ve gotten a good sense of what’s available, which is wonderful.

  4. Jenny says:

    I don’t specialize in any particular kind of reading myself, unless you count knowing a lot about Oscar Wilde. I sometimes go on reading jags of a particular kind, but they never last more than a few weeks, and usually if I set myself a challenge to read something particular, I get cranky about it and want to stop. This seems to suggest a want of discipline. I can never decide if I should be disciplined in something that is basically a leisure activity.

    • Teresa says:

      Pish. If you’re happy with what you’re reading, why saddle yourself with discipline? As you say, it’s a leisure activity! I’m a planner by nature, so I enjoy that piece of it, but I limit how much I commit to and I make few of my plans public, so no one knows if I don’t come through ;)

  5. I’m trying to do a little of both, I mean I like to read broadly and most of the times I do that, but lately I’ve been interested in reading more by about Asia and so I try to read a book by an asian author a month.

  6. Susan E says:

    I seem to fall into a mix of both these days. Back in the winter, one Penelope Fitzgerald novel led to another and then to her letters and essays. And rereading Sense and Sensibility recently led me to the memoir written by Jane Austen’s nephew. I like these readings exploring an author’s work/life in depth, but this year I’m really enjoying reading more widely, including more nonfiction and more non-US/UK authors. One of the things I enjoy about Shelf Love is the wide range of books discussed. You guys might even persuade me to try the Dark Tower….

    • Teresa says:

      I’d never want to stop reading a wide range of books, at least not on a permanent basis, so you don’t need to fear that! But I do love the idea of going on a jag like you describe with Penelope Fitzgerald.

      And if ka is calling you to read the Dark Tower, you won’t be able to resist forever. (Don’t worry, you’ll understand about ka if–or when–you read it ;) )

  7. Emily says:

    You do so well with writing Sunday Salon posts that start interesting conversations, Teresa! And your international crime fiction mini-specialization sounds so fun.

    Personally, I’m embarking on this pretty intensive in-depth project about disgust, but it’s an odd specialization because it doesn’t really involve a focus on a particular time period or genre, apart from more theoretical works than I would otherwise be reading. And even those are spread over a wide range of disciplines. Although I’m hoping that as I survey the books that I’d be reading anyway for the ways in which they use disgust, genre- or period-specific patterns might emerge. We’ll see!

    • Teresa says:

      Thanks, Emily! I was having a brain jam a few weeks ago, so I took a break. I think the key is not writing if I can’t think of something.

      Your disgust project is so interesting, especially since you can spread it out over all different kinds of books. It will be interesting to see what kinds of patterns emerge. In fact, come to think of it, I saw a post on a editing blog just the other day about disgusting food imagery in fiction—about how no one eats anymore, they cram, shove, stuff, and otherwise look disgusting. Pertinent, maybe?

  8. Jeanne says:

    By nature I like broad, but I feel like I’ve done deep, in graduate school. I believe that I have read every single English 17th and 18th-century satire that blames by praise. There are plenty of academics who continue to specialize, but I’m not one of them.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve often wondered how I would have fared in grad school for English, given that I’d have to specialize more than I’m sometimes inclined to. I know delving deeper can uncover all kinds of hidden corners of interest, but I can’t help but think I’d get bored. (I do know I would have done something with the late 19th- early 20th centuries because that’s the only era I can see myself being happy in for great years.)

      • Jeanne says:

        Nobody is bored in grad school. Seriously. But there’s also nothing wrong with being an autodidact, especially in these days when a PhD won’t get you much more than a funny look when you apply for a job unrelated to your specialty.

      • Teresa says:

        I’m sure you’re right, Jeanne, and Jenny tells me the same. In my most recent foray into grad school (for theology), I sure never got bored, just tired of paying a lot of money to learn on someone else’s schedule.

  9. gaskella says:

    In my late teens to my mid-20s, I specialised in SF & Fantasy almost exclusively, then one day I woke up and realised I’d been missing so much else! I try to read something of everything these days (although I fail miserably at non-fiction in general). I do tend to use October and Halloween to indulge in some nominally horror/vampire books, but otherwise I do prefer to be widely read rather than narrowly. Best wishes for BBAW!

    • Teresa says:

      That’s exactly why I know I couldn’t specialize for long. I’d be missing so much! And I’ve so many different kinds of things for so long that I know what I’d be missing. I’ve noticed a lot of people do some kind of horror/mystery/suspense focus in October, and it always looks fun!

      And thanks for the good wishes!

  10. robinhawke says:

    Re: In other news…

    Congratulations! You write wonderful reviews, as interesting as the books you read. Thank you.

  11. cbjames says:

    I’ve always been a little jealous of people who can read one genre exclusively. They are usually very enthusiastic about it, know everything about it, some even have annual conventions devoted to their genre they attend. I read all over the place. I do have a few on-going projects here and there, but I just can’t focus on one for all that long. Not since I left grad school anyway.

    Congratulations on the nominations. I didn’t hear anything, myself. Does that mean I didn’t get one. :-( ;-)

    • Teresa says:

      I think it’s the knowing all about it that I get jealous of. I can always get into a conversation with someone about their genre, but if they’re really focused, my ignorance is exposed pretty quickly. (I think it’s really that I like seeming like I know stuff, but in truth I know a little bit about lots of stuff but not tons about anything much.)

      And thanks for the congrats! I wish everyone awesome could get a prize (because you definitely would). In fact, I’m surprised you didn’t get a nomination :(

  12. justbookreading says:

    I’d love to specialize but know I couldn’t. When I read too many books in one genre, I need change otherwise I get in a funk. The idea of reading one genre for a week or month is a good one though. Long enough to get a good idea but not long enough to get bored.

    Congrats on the nomination!

    • Teresa says:

      That’s what I’m thinking–long enough to feel immersed, but not so long that I’d feel restless. (And if I felt restless, I’d move on to something else earlier than planned.)

  13. Wow, this post really struck a chord with me. I am a really broad reader, trying different things all the time, but I do have this feeling of not knowing any one thing really well. I’ve read everything by Ishiguro and Borges, but otherwise I just skip around and always think as much about all the books I haven’t read than those I have. I would like to focus on one thing for a while, maybe pick another author and just read everything by him/her. Was thinking of doing this with John Banville.

    • Teresa says:

      There are several authors I’ve thought about doing that with. It’s shocking to me how few authors there are whose complete works I’ve read. I know some people like to parcel them out so they know they’ll always have more to look forward to, but maybe incipient middle age has me more concerned about not having time to finish them all!

  14. joyofbooking says:

    I do both. I’m always reading more than one book at a time, and I tend to use one of those to specialize in something. Sometimes it’s through a themed book club or once I read all the Hugo and Nebula award winners in chronological order. Occasionally, I’ll go on a kick and read an author’s entire oeuvre in one go. I like this approach because it allows me to delve into certain areas of particular interest, like science fiction, while still allowing me to read other things to keep it fresh. Even when I don’t have a specific theme or whatever, I find that I usually read both fiction and non-fiction at the same time, just to keep things interesting.

    • Teresa says:

      I have a hard time reading more than one book at a time, unless they’re completely different formats. But your Hugo/Nebula idea is really cool, especially since you’d be able to see the development of the genre over time. And I’ve been reading one Morland Dynasty book each month (there are 34), and you’re right that with one a month you can still feel focused and make progress while having other things going on.

  15. litlove says:

    Well, for years I read mostly European fiction, especially French literature from 1830 to the present day. It was only when I started blogging that I really extended my reach again, and I loved it. I’ve read a great deal more American fiction, which has been a joy, and lots more classics too. This year, I have a mini challenge to read some Italian literature when I realised I had read none. The more I read, the more I realise I haven’t read. But I like that, and I love setting myself little challenges to broaden me out.

    • Teresa says:

      So true. It’s the same with knowledge, isn’t it? The more we know, the more we realize we don’t know. But it’s great that there’s always something new to look forward to.

  16. Kristen M. says:

    I am a general reader too and I also feel like I’m missing out sometimes by not being an expert on anything. But I’m just not willing to spend all my time on one subject/genre/author. Maybe I also need some dedicated genre time like you’re planning to at least dip a bit below my surface of reading.

    • Teresa says:

      We’ll see how it goes. I may get bored after two weeks, or I may find a new passion. These days, I feel like I find a new passion every couple of weeks and don’t pursue any of them!

  17. rebeccareid says:

    I think I COULD just read Victorian lit, but just in case I will get tired, I’m trying to change up my reading to be more broad. And I love so much of what I read….

    • Teresa says:

      I’m not sure if I could just read the Victorians, but if there’s any era I could focus on that might be it, especially if you add in the Edwardians. But it’s nice to have some other ideas in mind, just for a change. I think the important thing, though, is to find what you love.

  18. Cori says:

    I think it was on one of Jenny’s blogs recently (though it might have been yours? I can’t remember.) that I mentioned how much I love your blog because of how eclectic it is. I love that you review from across the spectrum, both new and old and in any number of genres. My blog is very similar and sometimes I feel like no one wants to read about books released in 1996…or 1896. Seeing the vast number of people who read and comment on your blog gives me hope that someone out there might be interested in my reviews. :)

    • Teresa says:

      I think it was on Jenny’s post, but I’m so pleased you feel that way about our blog. And you know, I see people say sometimes that they feel their blog will look out-of-date if they’re reading older books, and I just don’t buy that. I’ve noticed no huge difference in interest in older books vs. newer—if anything we get more comments on older books because more people have read them and want to weigh in.

  19. Gavin says:

    Another thoughtful post, Teresa. I tend to read broadly but, like others,I sometimes focus in on a genre or topic. This year I am trying to read books on the Middle East or written by Middle Eastern authors but I have fallen a bit behind.

    • Teresa says:

      One of the reasons I’m thinking of trying to focus for a month (or until I feel done) is that if I try to parcel out some project, I’d be sure to fall behind or let the project go. I think because I’ve been doing a massive series once a month, anything new would fall to the wayside quickly.

  20. Colleen says:

    Congratulations on the nominations – very well deserved!

    When I was younger I went through periods where I would focus on one genre but I found that my enjoyment of books in that genre diminished as I read more and more of only one type of book. By having a lot of variety in my reading, I seem to enjoy the books I read much more. I think the idea of focusing on one type of book for a time-limited project is a great compromise.

    • Teresa says:

      Thanks, Colleen!

      I can’t remember if my enjoyment ever diminished in my more focused reading days. It must have, if I moved on to something else, but it may just be that my curiosity about the “something else” became greater than my enjoyment.

  21. Iris says:

    I share your feelings, and I often feel I should pick a specific genre just to be able to feel knowledgeable about something – but I also know I don’t work like that. I am part of one project, and I love the idea of it. Except it has all gone a little awry this year due to an overload of uni work, which meant that I couldn’t really devote all my time to the Feminist Classics project. I hope to do better next year. But even then, I fear I will always be a broad reader instead of a deep one.

    • Teresa says:

      One of the reasons I shy away from long-term projects, like the Feminist Classics, is that I fear that life will get away from me and I’ll let the project go. That’s not a problem, really, since I’m reading for myself and not anyone else, but I’m thinking I might find it easier to focus intensely for a short time than to stretch the focus out over a year.

  22. Pingback: Commonplace Post (1) « Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog

  23. Christy says:

    Throwing my comment in with all these lively comments above. I had an idea that this year I would try and develop a deeper knowledge of travel memoirs. I’ve definitely read a few of them this year, but still my reading is all over the place generally. I really look forward to reading your reviews of international crime fiction!

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