Since I began writing blog posts for the Online Book Club, I’ve had to modify my reading habits.
For instance, it’s not a good idea for me to go on a streak—the way I did when I first discovered Ian Rankin’s Rebus series, or Henning Mankell’s Wallander mysteries, or Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta novels—reading every volume I could get my hands on (or coming pretty close) before moving on to something different.
Instead, I try to mix things up as much as possible, which means combining fiction and non fiction, literary and more popular works, new and older books, English publications and translated works, and anything else I can think of that’s worth reading—that I can then share with you.
The biggest part of the challenge is to move back and forth between all of the fantastic books that are already out there and all of the terrific ones being published every day (it’s astonishing how many of these are already part of the Library’s collection!).
A lot of my discoveries happen online. That’s how readers in the twenty-first century keep their ears to the ground. The only risk is that you can get lost exploring hundreds of literary websites and forget your mission: to find great books!
Some of my favourite places to browse for books online are of course newspaper reviews, which I find at The New York Times (especially the Sunday Review section) and The Guardian, two of my favourites (but there are so many out there!). And though its books section has been whittled down to a shadow of what it once was, the Gazette, here in Montreal, continues to help me discover new writers, many of whom work right here in Quebec (thanks Bernie Goedheart and Ian McGillis for hanging in there through lean times).
These are especially wonderful at this time of year, when they begin compiling fantastic lists like: «The Hundred Notable Books of 2015», «The best celebrity memoirs of 2015» «The best stocking-filler books of 2015», or «Best crime and thriller books of 2015».
But they are just a drop in the vast ocean of sites dedicated to books and to reading. Among these, one of the giants is Goodreads, where you can quickly get an overview of what’s out there, old and new.
I’ve also created a short list of book blogs that have enriched my life tremendously.
The top three are Maria Popova’s Brainpickings, which is simply a wonder, and which you really must discover yourself (it’s deserving of an exclusive blog post ). Other places I also peek into regularly are Book Riot and The Literary Hub.
Book Riot is a fun place to visit. It’s brisk, original, whimsical and clever. Posts rarely go beyond 500 words (a little too short for my taste) and are organized into multiple categories and columns.
The Literary Hub has given itself the mission of creating bridges and fast access to literary content spread across the world, and I, for one, am very appreciative:
«Literary Hub is an organizing principle in the service of literary culture, a single, trusted, daily source for all the news, ideas and richness of contemporary literary life. There is more great literary content online than ever before, but it is scattered, easily lost—with the help of its editorial partners, Lit Hub is a site readers can rely on for smart, engaged, entertaining writing about all things books […] »
Locally, with The Book Dumpling, blogger Andrea Borod continues to pull off the feat of curating literary content while maintaining direct contact with passionate readers.
These sites regularly send updates to my email (at my request), and so my own Inbox now fills up so fast that I can’t honestly keep up. It’s all pretty dizzying, but there’s also tremendous comfort in knowing how rich and diverse literary publishing still is.
And as if all of this weren’t enough, there’s also radio!
Well, there’s CBC (and NPR if you have the spare time).
We’re so spoiled to be able to tune in and listen to the extraordinary Eleanor Wachtel interview writers and artists from around the world on Writers and Company; to hear the earthy, distinctive voice of Shelagh Rogers discuss their work with Canadian authors and songwriters on The Next Chapter; to discover written treasures from the past and present on such programs as Ideas and Tapestry; or to hear Montreal’s Richard King presenting several books every Wednesday on CBC’s Homerun.
After listening to them, I almost always feel like running out and buying or borrowing a book!
It’s kind of a relief, then, to know that old school methods still work well, and may even be the best. I mean, of course, good old fashion browsing in libraries, bookstores and all of the other places where physical books turn up, and last but not least, word of mouth!
In an essay titled «The Discovery of Books» which prefaces Reinier Gerritsen’s photographic compilation titled The Last Book, writer Boris Kachka makes the startling, yet completely reasonable argument that browsing online for books is robbing us of the joy of true discovery.
He got my attention instantly!
As I read his exposition of the problem, it became obvious that the situation he was describing was mine—or dangerously close to it.
In short, Kachka’s argument is that the 21st century, for readers, has ushered in the age of self-curation. Amazon gives us algorithms that slowly exclude from our screens the things we haven’t sought; much of the content I now receive is collected by feeds or aggregators like Huffington Post; Facebook exposes me to the kinds of things I’ve already liked or that my friends like.
As Kachka puts it: «Discovery is entirely under our control. Which means, in a way, that it isn’t really discovery. […] And yet self-curation solves a problem we’ll probably one day wish we had. It makes a defect out of something about the physical world that’s actually quite wonderful: the thrill of chance, of experiences we never expected to have and things we didn’t want to see. »
Enter libraries, bookstores and word of mouth as antidotes to this undesirable narrowing of our literary lives.
Some of the happiest reading memories I have are the result of browsing or hearing about a book in conversation (including the discovery of the Owen Archer medieval mystery series, Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of AJ Fikry, Steve Hamilton’s The Lock Artist and Nick Harkaway’s Tigerman, to name a few).
What about you?
I feel that one of the most important elements of the mission of the Online Book Club is that it acts as a gathering place where word of mouth is not only possible, but eagerly sought. That’s why your comments and responses to blog posts are so important. They contribute to making old school, true discovery of wonderful books possible. In a delightful paradox, they subvert the aggregating and narrowing effects of the electronic age.
In lieu of actual word of mouth, here is a short survey. Take a few moments and think back on this past year—and if your memory is good, even further back—to the books that thrilled you, touched you, satisfied you and challenged you. Books that you recommend. And help us to discover them too!
THE 2015 BOOK SURVEY
- Book frequently offered as a gift?
- Favourite bedside book?
- Page-turner of the year?
- Happiest discovery of the year?
- Funniest book of the year?
- Books you hope to read this year?
- Best used book you picked up?
- Favourite place to read?
Before I post my own answers, I’d love to see yours!