Thursday, July 14, 2011

My Reading List


That word best describes my feelings these days when I think of what's happening on the other side of the country right now.  Somebody with some actual credentials is reading my book.  Well, that's not all; she's also marking on it with a red pen.  As a teacher, I've always enjoyed using a red pen due to the sense of purpose it gave me.  Silly, yes, and somewhat narcissistic, but it's the way I felt.  Having someone else use a red pen on my own work has always been, in turn, a rewarding receipt of needed feedback.  But that's easy to say for an 8 or 10-page essay.  I'm invested in this work to the tune of six months and nearly 80,000 words, and so I panic when I think of it.  I successfully wrote my comprehensive exams for the Ph.D. program I'm in, granted, but there was a detailed rubric, or a graphic explanation of how I'd be judged, with that.  There's no rubric for fantasy fiction.  Just when I think I know what the public is looking for, I find an example that proves me clueless.  

Just today, for example, I bought a book on eBay which then got me into a quagmire of other recommendations for books on plot, character development, dialog, etc.  It's amazing to me how many books have been written about how to write books.  Just totally amazing.

Speaking of buying books, I was asked yesterday to talk about how I determine what books to buy.  I admit, first, that it's kinda random sometimes.  For example, I went into a Books-A-Million a few months ago looking for a good fantasy book to read, and walked out with Sh*t my Dad Says.  I actually was in the process of walking out without that book, but it caught my eye on the bottom shelf of a center display.  You know how the bookstores stick tables right smack in the middle of the aisle, right?  It was one of those, but it was down about knee level, and so I barely saw it.  I had watched the show, though, in part because I still have a man crush going for William Shatner, so much so that I cheer at every Priceline commercial.  Can't help it; I'm in that generation of nerds.  I loved the show, anyway, and so it only stood to reason that I'd love the book the show was based off of.  So I bought it, and I'm glad I did.  It's a funny book.

Used to be I was much more careful, in large part because I was a broke cheapskate.  As a young adult I only had the budget, with what the regular dosage of beer was costing, to buy a book every so often, and so it had to be a good one.  Growing up I don't remember reading much of anything fun, what with all the Very Important Books I had to notread for my high school classes.  I recall very much enjoying notreading Billy Budd, for example.  Pride and Prejudice, too; I didn't read that book several times through high school and college, which led to a great rediscovery of a story I'd never known played artfully by Keira Knightley and, um, some other people.  I was also given the opportunity in my 11th grade lit class to notread The Great Gatsby, which I kind of regret doing now because I occasionally catch myself wondering what was so great about him.  Later, in college, I didn't read most of Shakespeare and all of The Prince and Dante's Inferno

Thus it happened, then, that I reached my early 20's having only read, for the most part, the pages of the various textbooks that contained the homework questions and a book titled The Search for Schroedinger's Cat.  That, and my Bugle Notes, but "read" isn't the right verb to apply to my intensive memorization of the pages from that little bundle of joy and radiance. 

OK, a cadet does not lie, cheat, and all the rest, and so I admit that that last is untrue.  I had also read, in my earlier years, all of the Happy Hollisters and the Hardy Boys books I could get my hands on.  Later, at West Point, I read lots of books about the Vietnam War and about World War II while I was in those classes.  At least, I read all the ones available that weren't assigned reading for the classes.  Final admission, for today, is that I remember actually pulling out and reading a textbook from military science class once on an airplane.  It was the text on the Russian military arsenal, and I was seated next to a hippie-type person that I didn't feel like talking to.  I think I actually showed her some of the pictures, too, evil bastard that I was at the time.

Thus, I entered my 20's having read precious little, as I kinda said earlier.  A good friend of mine, a guy I and my fellow West Pointers referred to as "The Woz," introduced me to fantasy, though, and I never looked back.  At first it was books from the Dragonlance series that he loaned me, but then he also let me borrow the first few books describing the life of Drizzt Do'Urden.  Like I said earlier, though, I was a very careful buyer, and so I spent most of my time in bookstores looking for works I hadn't read by authors I had read.  I also got to know science fiction through the Foundation Trilogy.  It wasn't long after that I also discovered the Eye of the World series, all four books of it at the time. 

All non-academic reading pretty much stopped when I got into my MBA and Ph.D. programs, though, because I learned the lesson pretty quickly that I had to actually read those books to survive.  That, then, brings me to today. 

It occurred to me as I got started writing my novel that I hadn't read much in my life.  I'd read a little Tom Clancy, and I'd read Jurassic Park, but the rest of my fiction reading as an adult was all in one of two genres.  I started getting inexpensive audio books from bestselling authors in the hope that reading bestselling authors would rub their selling skills off on me, whether I was reading their bestselling books or not.  The hope wasn't well founded, it turned out.  In fact, several of those books I hated.  I sat and looked at the reviews of the books I'd bought, and that brought understanding.  I also realized why I'd been able to buy them so inexpensively, for that matter.  All of their reviews contained words like, "Though not their best work...." or "The fans accustomed to (the main character) won't hate this...."  Turns out buying the cheapest options wasn't the best idea I'd had, and it also turns out that even the best authors can put out some real garbage. 

Since then I've been a bit more selective.  Before I buy a book by an author I'm not familiar with, and even one by an author I am familiar with, I'll look at the reviews on Amazon.  I ignore the number of stars, though.  The text of the review tells me all I really need to know, because by now I know what interests me as a reader, and what I need to read as a still-learning author.  I look for fast-paced adventurous books, specifically, no matter what genre they're published in, and those books nearly always have something about the pace written in their reviews.  I'm also looking for great character development, in part because it's what I enjoy, and in part because it's what I'm looking to become better at as a writer, myself.  Again, those books nearly always have something about the characters written into their reviews in a positive manner. 

Do you read book reviews before buying?  If so, where? 


  1. I don't read reviews, book blurbs, or even dust jackets before I read a book if I can help it. I hate spoilers, and I inevitably run into them if I do so. One might think this would slow me down in finding things to read but not so; my "to read" list is out of control. I might feel differently about reviews if I bought many books, but I get most of my reading materials through the library or paperbackswap. I try to only buy books I have read and loved. It makes my bookshelves a happy place.

  2. Thank you for the comment! I've spent most of my life reading books from swaps or libraries, and it's a great way to get good reads.