How Do You Choose What to Read Next?
Friday, January 18, 2019
Robert Gray
The Bookworm by Carl Spitzweg

I'd really like to know.

For those of us in the book trade, the choice is a daily one. How do you juggle reading older books from your shelves and trying to "keep up" with newly published titles, ever-growing ARC stacks, and the ongoing flood of e-mail requests for your readerly attention? I'm sure you could add to that list.

John Evans, co-owner of DIESEL, a Bookstore in Brentwood, Calif., brought up the topic recently during an e-mail conversation we had about last Friday's Marie Kondo-inspired column. He suggested "another article (maybe you've done this?): how to choose what to read from all the books in your library + all the ones coming into your house."

It was a great suggestion, so I asked him: How do you choose what to read next?

John Evans

"There are the books that have happened onto the shelves and are perpetually whispering for me to 'read me,' " Evans replied. "It's a susurrating write-noise sound in the background--hard to tell if it is in the actual physical space, in my head or in my imagination (okay, it's the last one). There are the books by authors I'll be meeting soon, which I like to read before meeting them and often read out loud to Alison when we are driving, as we often go to author dinners together (we only have one car). Then 'the pursuits', subjects, interests, curiosities that are perennial for the most part, but that tug at my reading habits--poetry, spirituality of various stripes, philosophy, silk road, mythology, music, art, nature, science, geography. I am always reading down these paths, sometimes bibliographically--the torch passed from one book to the next either literally from the bibliography, by association, or by author or subject.

"There is no order to it, otherwise, and there's a fair degree of neurosis--books that I've meant to read for decades (Love's Body by Norman O. Brown) or that I think I should have read (so many classics, especially fiction) and core books I feel I should take a deep dive into (the Pre-Socratics). Beyond that, I usually read science fiction or mysteries on planes (His Dark Materials for example), especially to Europe. I usually have three to five books going at once, and then will all of a sudden feel I should just finish them each off and start down a new path."

I recognize something familiar in his response. Any attempt I've made to answer this question results in a similar wide-ranging, yet tip-of-the-iceberg list. Because I--because most of us in the industry--"read for a living," sometimes I have to remind myself that there was a long period of my life when I read strictly for pleasure, for enlightenment, for amusement, for solace, for the hell of it.

This doesn't mean I don't love many of the books I read for work, but I'm also opening them with specific goals and expectations. It's part of my job, after all. So I do have to consciously make time for the kind of personal reading I took for granted when I was younger. And I still worry that I don't read or choose well enough.

"Why there is anxiety about it, I have no idea, but there is," Evans observed. "There are so many, pressing for attention. I've got better at enduring the tension and it certainly doesn't take on the self-critical cast that it did when I was young. I always feel a bit out of touch with what people are currently reading, especially in fiction. So many booksellers seem to be fiction-only readers, while I am only fiction-occasionally.

"Curiosity seems to be the refined essence of being a bookseller for me--curiosity toward people, ideas, and things. And I'm curious about how people decide what they will read as well as what they get from what they read. It all seems to come with the territory."

I like that--curiosity as the "refined essence of being a bookseller."

Before I became a bookseller in the early 1990s, I was practically monogamous when I read. I could spend a month with a book, six months with a particular author. The pages of my books were covered with marginalia. I lived in them for long periods, then moved on, as if walking a long, narrow path rather than driving an interstate highway.

Then I had to learn how to read "at speed." My customers thought I was a reading machine. They'd ask how many books I read a week, as if I was hoovering up pages as fast as they come off the printing press.

The truth was, and is, more mundane. Over almost three decades as a bookseller and then editor, I became a more promiscuous reader. I often just graze, reading 50 pages and bailing if I'm not fully engaged. Nevertheless, the stack on my desk continues to grow at a pace that outstrips my ability to keep up. You know the feeling. I seem to look for reasons not to continue reading a book, reasons to give myself a break and move on to the next title.

For better or worse, I expect myself to know a little something about a lot of books, more about several key titles, and everything about a chosen few. I do my best to oblige. I read voraciously because, well, I have to, in every sense. I read for a living because it's the best job description I can imagine. And I never read enough.

How do you choose what to read next?

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3414

Article originally appeared on Fresh Eyes Now (
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