Sunday Salon: Reading Priorities

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?

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46 Responses to Sunday Salon: Reading Priorities

  1. cbjames says:

    First off, I wanted to thank you all for bringing Delusions of Gender to my attention. I enjoyed it and have reconsidered a few things because of it. I think reading blogs has made the biggest change in my own habits. When I get a chance, usually Sunday mornings, I read a bunch of book blogs and often end up with two or three new books on my Holds List at the library. I consider myself open to just about anything, with a few limits—no romance novels please.

    It’s funny you mention people who refuse to read literature in translation because I’ve been seeking it our more and more these days. I feel like I’ve exhausted the English language, at least the ‘must-read’ list. I’ve been looking for new voices, I suppose, and finding some wonderful ones in translation. Try “HHhH”–it’s wonderful.

    Someday, I’ll retire from teaching and when I do, there’s a good chance that I’ll never pick up another YA novel again. I think they’re terrific, but I’m starting to look for books about, let us say more experienced characters.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve also ended up reading more translations because I’ve read so much of the “must read” classics in English–and also because bloggers are alerting me to more great translated works I wasn’t already aware of. I just didn’t know about a lot of these books before.
      I’ve been hearing good things about HHhH. I’ll add it to my list!
      I do enjoy some YA now and then, but it’s mostly YA fantasy, like Diana Wynne Jones, that I’m.drawn to. For some reason, I find fantasy for younger readers more reliably enjoyable than fantasy for grown-ups. But I couldn’t read it all the time. I couldn’t read anything all the time.

  2. Lisa says:

    Since the TBR dare, I’ve been trying to prioritze reading the books that I’ve already bought this year, so they don’t end up lost in the TBR pile – while continuing to try to read the books that have been there for too long already. Library books sometimes prioritize my reading as well. I have three out right now, all newish ones with waiting lists so I can’t renew them – so I have to decide if I want to read them, or go to the back of the reserve queue again. More often than not I take it back un-read and reserve it again another time.

    I think I’m a pretty “all over the place” reader too – or sometimes I think of it as “and now for something completely different” reading. After I finish a book, a particular genre or author, I generally turn to something completely different.

    A related question is when do you choose your next book? Sometimes it’s before I’ve even finished the current book – and not because I’m not enjoying it. Sometimes it can take a while to settle on another – I don’t like that.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve been trying not to buy books that I don’t intend to read right away, and it’s been working really well. I think I only have 8 unread books in the house that I purchased this year. I’ve been doing less well at reading the books I’ve had for a while. And I’m always taking books back to the library unread. I figure that getting the book circulated is a good thing because the library is less likely to take it off their shelves.

      I’m a planner, so I usually have an idea of the next three or four books I’m going to read. But I sometimes find that my mood dictates that I read something different. If I’m thinking about how much I’d rather read the next book on my list, that’s usually a bad sign for the book I’m reading.

  3. Alex says:

    I need to think further about how I set my priorities when I’m reading before commenting, but I do have some thoughts about translations. My experience so far this year has confirmed the fact that while selecting any book is a ‘risk’ in as much as until you’ve read it you can’t really know if it is going to be worth the time and effort, that risk is doubled when you add in the factor of translation. I have had two bad experiences this year with translations that have been so poor that they have drawn attention to themselves and away from the novel. The best translation is surely the one you don’t notice.

    • Teresa says:

      I can see how a few bad experiences in a row might make you hesitant. I’ve had plenty of bad experiences with translations, but I think about them in much the same way I do books originally written in English. Some are good, and some are terrible. I’ve read English books where the writing was really clunky, so I just avoid that writer in the future. If I have the same problem with a translation, I’d just avoid that translator–or I’d try to find out if the original was also clunky, in which case I’d avoid that author, but maybe not the translator.

  4. MJ says:

    I do feel pulled in too many directions as a reader. Last year was the first year I kept track of my reading. I averaged a bit over two books a week. Knowing my number is good, because I now can choose to focus (if I want to). I do want to read more classics, so I’m working them in at a goal rate of 10 a year. I also have other goals, like reading more nonfiction in areas that interest me, more modern heavy hitters, more translated books, more graphic novels… Yeah, like I said, too many directions.

    • Teresa says:

      I feel your pain. I avoid setting numerical goals, but I do try to keep an eye on what I’ve read lately, and if I see I’ve avoided a particular area of interest for a long time, I might make a point of moving something to the top of my list. Or maybe I’ll just decide to put a certain kind of book on the back burner indefinitely, with the hope of getting to it someday. (Right now, that’s what I’ve done with the big, ambitious postmodern stuff. I just don’t have it in me to try Pynchon or Gaddis right now, but someday maybe.)

  5. Not blogging much lately has given me a sense of freedom in reading all over the place. No consideration of whether or not it fits thematically or brand wise with what I do on the blog. It has also focused my attention upon the aspects of the blogging reading community that I enjoy most like the group reads I am looking forward to this summer for Sentimental Education and Bartleby & Co. I appreciate the conversation among a certain group of readers as it reflects my own interests and responsibilities. And I have learned that acceptance and appreciation for the tastes of other readers does in no way mean that I have to join their direction to converse with them . :)

    • Teresa says:

      I think you’re absolutely right that we can respect others’ reading choices without sharing them–or feeling pressured to read the same things “everyone else” is reading to be part of the conversation. I’ve found I’m most happy when I read what I want to read and join in conversations that happen to intersect with my own interests or mood.

  6. Samantha says:

    I have a really enormous to-read list right now (thanks to you and several other book bloggers!) and it spans a wide range of topics and genres. My reading choices from this list have been really haphazard – there’s not much rhyme or reason to what I pick up, other than a current focus on Victorian literature thanks to Allie’s Victorian Celebration. I’m actually quite happy to have such a mixed bag of books – I don’t end up feeling burnt out by a particular author or genre. My philosophy is that life is too short to waste your time on a book you don’t like, so I feel comfortable trying a range of things knowing that if I don’t like it, I’ll put it aside and try something else! This all being said, while my “range” is wider now than it ever has been before, it is still pretty limited. Nothing in translation is coming up soon for me, and the authors are fairly exclusively American or English. Hmm. Maybe I should fix that. At the same time, I think there’s value in getting familiar with the artifacts from my own culture… How do you balance your choices?

    • Teresa says:

      It’s hard for me to balance all my choices, and despite my planning, my reading is sometimes pretty haphazard in practice. If there’s an area I want to branch out in (such as translated fiction), I might do a little research to see what some of the most recommended books are in that category and add them to my list. And when I go to the library, I’ll be sure to pick up at least one book from that category, although I won’t necessarily commit to reading it.
      The question of getting familiar with our own culture versus exploring new ones is interesting. It’s possible to do both, although I think it’s perfectly reasonable to focus more on one than on the other or to set one aside for a time. Some would argue that Greek and Roman classics are artifacts of our culture, so even there you’re not necessarily ruling out translations.

      • Samantha says:

        Researching first is a great idea! Maybe someone who specializes in translated fiction should write a “here’s the top ten you should read” (or has that already been done?)

        The Western cultural canon is so enormous that it’s so difficult to contemplate becoming familiar with all of it! But how can you sensitively encounter literature (or art, or other cultural artifacts) of other cultures without having a full understanding of your own and enabling an informed hermeneutic discussion? I don’t have any answers, but it’s something to think about, and for the moment I’ll just try to get some Russians on my list (as Russian books totally, unnecessarily frighten me).

      • Teresa says:

        Tony links to some sites that specialize in translated fiction in his post, and I saw recently that Stu over at Winston Dad’s blog is planning to do a thing where if you give him a title of a book you love, he’ll recommend a similar piece of translated fiction (http://winstonsdad.wordpress.com/2012/06/23/doctor-im-stuck-in-a-world-of-english-and-us-fiction-can-you-help/)

        Regarding your second question, I don’t know that it’s ever possible to have a full understanding of our own culture :) Plus–and this is something I’m only just barely starting to explore–lots of European writers were tremendously influential on English writers, and not reading those means missing a big piece of the puzzle. Just today I was reading a book about Victorian England, and the author discusses how Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther influenced the people she’s writing about, so reading Goethe could expand my understanding of Victorian England!

        FWIW, my favorite Russian novel is Crime and Punishment. It’s dark, but not a difficult read at all. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is also very good, and The Master and Margarita is loopy fun. I liked Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina well enough, but the character names drove me nuts. Most of the characters have at least six names, and one of those names is always Alexey! I need to revisit them in editions with good notes and better translations–someday.

  7. Amy @ My Friend Amy says:

    Reading priorities is something I think about often, and something I am definitely thinking about right now as I finally deal with the overabundance of books piling up in my life. Reading translated works is something I think I want to do in theory, but I am reading less and less and so it’s something that’s definitely falling by the wayside.

    • Teresa says:

      If my reading time were unlimited, I’d be reading all the things, but it’s just not possible. Good luck in figuring out how you want to prioritize!

  8. I am one of those people who dislikes reading things in translation, and my reason is simple: unless the book is a classic that has had many translations, most translations are pretty terrible: stilted, awkward, clumsy. I love prose that flows smoothly and doesn’t jerk me out of my reader’s-world every ten seconds with an awkward bump. I do read things in translation anyway; but every single time I find that I am giving myself a mental face-palm and saying, “WHEN will you remember? YOU DON’T LIKE READING TRANSLATED BOOKS.”

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve heard other people (possibly Other Jenny?) say the same thing, but that hasn’t been my personal experience, or at least no more than it is with books written in English. I don’t know if I’m just patient with stilted prose or if I’m just choosing well. Margaret Jull Costa’s translations of Saramago or Edith Grossman’s of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or William Weaver’s of Umberto Eco felt pretty natural and flowy to me, but everyone is different.

    • Samantha says:

      Try Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book, translated from Finnish by Thomas Teal. I didn’t even notice it was a translation while I was reading it, and it’s my absolute favorite book from this year. :-)

  9. aartichapati says:

    I don’t think I do any sort of prioritization, actually! I used to prioritize books for review, but now I don’t really accept many books for review, and when I do, I don’t feel the need to read them immediately, but just within a reasonable time frame. I am also a really moody reader, so I will just read what appeals to me at whatever time I am looking for something new. I am better now in a mix of genres and in choosing fiction and non-fiction titles, but I am not good at much else. I am trying hard to read more books by people of color.

    I think one of the reasons I don’t seek out translated works is because I seek out too much else to check other boxes. I like to read books on women’s history (fiction and non-fiction), I am trying to learn more about American history. I want to learn more about the Civil Rights movement in particular. I want to read about what I find interesting in science. I want to read more by people of color. I still love fantasy and histfict and mysteries. I am trying to read more books set in India. There are just so many goals I have at this time that I don’t think I can add in translated works, too, though hopefully if I have a goal of reading more people of color, then translated works will just work their way in there?….

    • Teresa says:

      I think is easy to make ourselves crazy with trying to tick every box as far as reading interests go. I can understand not wanting to add another box to the many you list! For me, it’s wanting to read internationally that has led me to reading more translations, although that has, oddly, kept me from reading as many authors of color as I’d like because so many people of color write in English! I think we have to accept that we can’t read it all.

  10. Richard says:

    To each his/her own, Teresa, but I find the translations-are-awkward or bad argument made by many readers to be terribly unconvincing. Yes, many translations read awkwardly, but many, many more than that do not (at least in my own experience of reading books during the course of my lifetime). I have no idea why anybody would want to limit themselves to reading only in their native language or books written in languages that they’ve managed to pick up in school–it seems so unadventurous for one thing, and more importantly it’s a perfect way to miss out on some of the world’s best books ever unless you happen to be able to read in multiple ancient and modern languages.

    • Teresa says:

      Well, as I said in the comments above, my experience has not been that translations are any more awkward than many books written in English. If I were to find a translator whose work is consistently clunky, I’d avoid that translator, just as I’d avoid an English-language author whose writing I didn’t like. As it happens, I’ve not found any translators who fit that description. I’ve read some translations that I didn’t care for, but I wasn’t convinced the translation itself was the problem. Other readers may just have had consistently rotten luck with their choices.

      Also, I see a big difference between limiting oneself to books in your own language and deciding not to make translated books a priority. I think a lot of readers in the latter category are happy to read translated books if they happen to fit in with their other reading interests. They’re just not making the effort to look for them right now.

  11. Megan says:

    I juggle my many competing reading interests by, um, slowly going insane. I have far too many reading interests and if I were to sit down and try to make a plan that included reading even half of them, I’d probably end up frustrated and discouraged. Just the same, I think it’s getting about time to consciously re-prioritize my reading priorities. ;-) I actually quite like reading YA, but it’s been very much on the backburner this summer, and I’m thinking I might need to move it up front. I seem to be getting way too bogged down in my heavy, “grown-up” reading and I’m ready for a book that has a great story, is decently well-written but is less mentally demanding.

    I read so much based on mood that I could hardly judge anyone’s reading priorities. I usually content myself with being happy that people *are* reading even if what they’re reading would just about never be what I would choose to read. I’ll admit that maybe my eyes are rolling a little bit on the inside every time somebody tells me they’re “reading this great book, 50 Shades of Grey!” or “The Secret!” but even then I feel like I’m judging the books more than I’m judging their readers for choosing to read them.

    • Teresa says:

      Slowly going insane is about right–I can only plan so much before I feel overwhelmed. That’s one reason I don’t tend to join in on many group reads and stuff.

      I tend to visit the YA section of the library when I’m wanting something that I can finish quickly but that is still good. Other times, I scratch that itch with graphic novels or adult novellas. It just depends on the nature of the itch, I guess.

      I’m guilty of the internal eye rolls too, as much as I like to claim I’m not the least bit judgy. Mostly, though, I just get sad that these are the books people think are good, and I want them to know they could read things that are so much better.

  12. It’s funny that I read this post now, because I just finished a book and I’m having a hard time deciding what to read next. As a librarian, I’m exposed to SO many books every day and I read reviews as part of my job, so my to-read list grows at an alarming rate. I also read in a lot of different areas (classics, historical fiction, young adult, etc) so I definitely feel pulled in a lot of directions. Right now all I’m trying to do is not read anything because I feel like I *should* but to read whatever I feel like at the moment. I’m surprised to say that it’s a lot more difficult than I expected!

    • Teresa says:

      My to-read list is insane. I’m at the point of trying not to add to it, but I can’t help myself. Even this comment thread has added a book to my list!

      As I told Lisa, I almost always know what I’m going to read next—or I’ll have it narrowed down to three or four possibilities—so I rarely have the problem you’re having. I started Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace today, but I know that The Mauritius Command is up next and after that probably The Spiral Staircase or The Killing Doll. If something different calls to me, I read that instead, but I always have a game plan. I’m not sure I could function without one!

  13. I definitely struggle with the direction of my reading, as I read most genres. There are a few that have no appeal to me, like horror and westerns, but overall I tend to read a good mix of fiction/non-fiction, literary and historical fiction, fantasy and mystery. Sometimes I get caught up in a series or a specific kind of book and then feel guilty for abandoning other genres… But eventually it all circles back around.

    One of my priorities this year was to read all the books that were on my TBR as of January 1st (ie books I’ve had for a while). It’s worked really well so far, and now I only have two of the pre-2012 TBR books left to read. Granted, my TBR is pretty small (by book blogger standards, anyway), so it’s not a huge feat.

    Also, I really love this: “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.”

    So true! Great post all around — very thought-provoking. I’m also really enjoying reading the other comments :)

    • Teresa says:

      I like what you say about it all circling back around. I’ve had that experience many times, and if I don’t get back to a particular genre it may just be that I’m not so interested in it anymore, which is OK too.

      I’ve been feeling the itch to focus on my TBR (just 120-ish books right now). I have a rule that I won’t hold on to any book for more than 4 years without reading it, which gives me the push I sometimes need.

  14. Tony says:

    Part of the reason for my post is a shift towards translated fiction in recent times, which has also led to a change in other reading habits. When I wrote an ‘about’ page earlier this year, I put my areas of focus as Japanese, German, Australian and Victorian literature. Now, the Aussie and Victorian books are slowly being pushed aside, giving my blog a tighter focus. I suspect that this is a phase, and that I’ll gradually swing back the other way, but it’s always possible that this is a more permanent change of habits…

    Still, whatever the outcome, what you said about limited reading time is true – you can’t read everything :)

    P.S. Thanks for the links to my (and Stu’s!) blog!

    • Teresa says:

      If only we could read everything. I’m still coming to terms with the fact that there’s great stuff out there I’ll never get around to.

  15. nymeth says:

    I don’t have anything to add to the discussion that hasn’t already been said, but I just wanted to let you know how much I love your second to last paragraph. It’s very easy to become self-righteous about our own reading priorities, especially when they’re based on things we strongly feel are important (like reading more diversely). But it’s good to bear in mind that they’re just that – a possible choice among many competing priorities.

    • Teresa says:

      It is easy to become self-righteous, especially when our priorities are based on strong convictions. When I remind myself of all the good and important things I don’t have time and energy for, it’s easier to feel sympathetic about others’ choices.

  16. alenaslife says:

    I sometimes despair over the length of my TBR list (300 and counting), but then I think about all the possibilities. I read from many differnet genre so I can always look to my list depending on my mood. My biggest challenge is availability. I get most books through my library so I am often out of luck on the latest buzz-worthy books unless it’s an author for whom I automatically reserve new releases. I don’t choose to think that deciding to read one book means deciding not to read another. It’s just a delay.

    • Teresa says:

      I think about my TBR list (my virtual one anyway) as a list of possibilities and options, not as a task to be completed. That helps a lot! And it’s true that choosing not to read something now doesn’t mean choosing not to forever–but if it does, that’s OK by me. It just means something more appealing came along.

  17. Linda Holmes, a blogger that I love who blogs at NPR’s pop culture blog, Monkey See, wrote a post last summer (I think) about how we all just need to accept that there are more things that exist than we will ever have time to consume. It sounds dire, but I actually found it really comforting — everyone makes choices, and the important part is to feel comfortable with YOUR choices about what to consume or not consume. I can’t remember if that was her exact point, but that’s what I remember from it.

    Anyway, this post reminded me of that. I feel like my reading priorities have been slowly shifting the last year or so. I’m not reading every book with the intention of reviewing it because my reading rate has increased to the point that I don’t want to have to fully review every book. The volume of writing that would take is too much for me. So that means there is more space in my reading life for books that don’t “fit” into what I blog about… hence, more fiction and older books and (just recently) romances and epic fantasy. It’s been fun.

    In terms of prioritizing, I try to get through books I’ve gotten for review, sprinkling in fun books when I need a break or I’ll be reading at a time when I don’t want to have my thinking cap on. It’s rather arbitrary, but it’s working for me (mostly, I think!).

    • Teresa says:

      I remember that post, and I also found it oddly reassuring. It’s easy for me to let my TBR list–or my Netflix queue or whatever–to turn into a to-do list, and when I do that I often end up consuming things just to say I’ve done it, not because I’m getting anything out of it. Knowing that “finishing the list” is an impossible task takes the pressure off.

  18. sakura says:

    If only we had all the time in the world to read every single book (at least in our tbr!) Ultimately I find that I’ll only read books that I want to read (I know, it’s very selfish) and I resent being told what I should be reading. I like the way I come across new books or decide I want to read more about a subject while I’m reading a certain book. It would be interesting to see what kind of mind map we come up with if we choose to follow our interests in a more natural way. Saying that, I have no issues at all about the way others choose their books or schedule their reading time. I think it’s great that we are all reading in the first place since I know so many people who don’t.

  19. Simon T says:

    Really interesting discussion, Teresa!
    I find that my reading wanders in different directions, but not particularly deliberately – I just choose something off my shelf that I’m in the mood for, so if I’ve read a couple of 1930s novels, I’ll probably pick a novel from post-1970; if it’s just been fiction for a while, I’ll pick a biography, etc. etc. I think most blank spaces in someone’s reading aren’t deliberate – a sin of omission, if you will!

    • Teresa says:

      I think you’re right that a lot of the time people aren’t deliberately avoiding particular types of books, unless they’ve tried some and disliked them. Most of the time it’s just that other things catch our interest. When I notice an omission, I’ll sometimes make an effort to change, but I won’t necessarily go against my mood to do so.

  20. Stefanie says:

    My only real priority is to read good books, what those books are pretty much happens on a whim. Oh I have lists and stuff, I like certain kinds of books more than others, but I never read to a plan. At the beginning of the year I like to make a short list of what I might like to read and keep it in view as a reminder of books and authors I keep saying I want to read but never seem to remember about when I am casting around to start a new book. I agree with you completely that it is never right to judge what others read – judge not lest ye be judged – or something like that. Enjoyed your thoughtful post and all the comments!

    • Teresa says:

      I’m not a whim-oriented person, so I like to have a plan, but it’s not one I feel I have to stick to if my mood isn’t right. And my list is mostly there as a pool of books to consider.

  21. rebeccareid says:

    Sigh. I totally can relate. My new lack of time has forced me to prioritize further. I will not get to most of the books I want. It’s just a fact. But I’m going to fit in those Victorian novels I’m dying to read at some point. Because that’s how much I want to read them :)

    • Teresa says:

      None of us have as much time as we’d like, and when that time gets cut back, the choices get harder. But at least you know what you most want to read and can make that a priority for when you do have time.

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