If writers stopped writing tomorrow and publishers stopped publishing, I doubt that any of us would be in danger of running out of books to read. The reading possibilities are endless, and as new books come out and we become aware of new-to-us books, the list of possibilities only grows. So how do we decide what to read?
I’ve been considering this question not so much in terms of which individual book to pick up next but in terms of what types of books to focus on (or even whether to focus at all, as I’ve written about before). My reading tastes are all over the place, so I naturally end up selecting from a mix of new books and old books and very old books, books by new-to-me authors and books by old favorites, books from my own country and books from around the world, realistic books and nonrealistic books, fiction and nonfiction, easy books and challenging ones. I like reading this way and am unlikely to change soon.
I got to thinking about this after reading Tony’s recent post about why people don’t read translated books. Tony finds it difficult to understand why someone would avoid translated books, but he’s come up with a few theories that I think are pretty sound. The one that is sticking in my mind is the reality that there are so many books out there to read. This reality forces us to set priorities.
Whenever we choose to read certain kinds of books, we’re also choosing not to read other kinds of books. Because I read a little bit of everything, I end up not reading nearly as much of anything as I would like. My love of contemporary crime fiction keeps me from reading all the Victorian novels I want to, and my interest in historical fiction keeps me from reading more fantasy. The fact that I’m reading Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey/Maturin books means I’m not likely to read any Horatio Hornblower novels or Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series anytime soon. As much as I’d like to, I cannot read it all at once, so I set priorities within my various areas of interest and try to juggle. There may be books I’m interested in that I’m choosing to avoid for the moment, either because there are other things I’d rather read first or because I don’t have the mental energy to take on a particular book. Some areas of interest end up on the back burner for months—or even years.
I doubt that I’m alone in having to juggle competing priorities. The more I read, the more books I become interested in, which makes the juggling act more complex. What’s important for me to remember is that my priorities are my own—and so are yours.
People who are passionate about reading—and about reading certain genres and styles—tend to want to spread the joy around. But not everyone is going to have the same set of priorities. Some people are just getting into reading, say, classic literature, and they might choose to focus on reading Dickens and Eliot for now before getting to Flaubert and Dostoevsky, let alone Sōseki or Borges. (And why Dickens before Flaubert? Probably because the reader in question heard of Dickens first.) Other people might develop a passion for fantasy fiction and spend their time with Gaiman and LeGuin, without giving much thought to other genres—at least not for now.
When people’s priorities are different from our own, it’s easy to get judgmental or to make assumptions about their intelligence or seriousness as readers. For my part, I’ll confess that I find it difficult to understand why someone who isn’t a teacher or youth librarian would read nothing but young adult literature to the exclusion of books written for adults. But that is my issue. It’s really not my business what other people read or whether they read at all. It helps for me to remember that we are all at different places in our reading and that we all read for different reasons. I’m not comfortable saying that one set of priorities is superior to another, even if some choices are mysterious to me. I think it’s far better to shine a light on what we value as readers and hope that others catch on than to criticize others for making choices that are different from our own.
How do you set priorities in your reading? Do you feel pulled in too many different directions as a reader? How do you juggle competing reading interests? Are there certain kinds of books that you are making a priority or putting on the back burner? How do you react to other people’s choices?