On How to Choose a Book

Lately, I’ve been having a hard time settling down with a new book to read. A book, after all, is a weighty commitment, not only of time but also of emotional investment. It can be the wellspring of thoughts which follow you throughout the day, and the inspiration for your own writing and (at the risk of sounding overly-sentimental) life. A book can also be bad writing. Or worse, uninteresting. And while I love reading in general, there’s something deeply satisfying in getting just the right book for my current mood. That’s what I’ve been after lately.

For whatever reason, my own bursting shelves at home have felt rather lacking lately for new reading material. Not that I don’t like my hefty collection of creative nonfiction, or my very specific branch of literary fiction written by 19th century British women writers (George Eliot, the Bronte sisters, Elizabeth Gaskell). It’s just that I’ve read a lot of these books already, and want to encounter something, well, different.

Perhaps it’s the literary equivalent of scrolling through Netflix in hopes of finding something new to watch, and seeing the same plot pop up again and again: the kind that, once you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve basically seen the movie, because you have already seen it a hundred other times in previous iterations. Not that I’m meaning to imply that run-of-the-mill movies are of the same calibre as George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss. It’s all just to say that, sometimes, we all just want something different than what we’re used to.

It began well. I recently finished four of P. L. Travers’s books in the Mary Poppins series, which I found  unexpectedly delightful. The writing was more witty and layered, the characters more comic than I’d presupposed. If I’m honest with myself — and you, dear reader — I’d have to admit that I was looking for a light read. I got it, sure (it’s possible to read these stories quite quickly and even passively), but I also got much more.

It was a library book. And the beautiful thing about a library book is that you can check it out, even when you’re unsure you want to invest in your own copy. This means that the stakes are lower  — because, let’s face it: it’s not just time and emotions that we invest in books: it’s money as well — meaning that we’re more likely to try something a bit out of the ordinary from our normal purchases or reads when we don’t haven’t to spent money on it.

But that can also backfire.

After finishing Mary Poppins, I began another library book: a new biography on L.M. Montgomery. But when I got to about page 30 and still had not found a single solitary fact about her life that I hadn’t already known, I lay the book aside with a sense of squeamish guilt. Though I love most things L.M. Montgomery, this title wasn’t holding my attention. The read was more like slogging through, just so that I was up on whatever was current in the L.M. Montgomery world. And so I stopped reading it.

The bookmark still is in its place, but I have a feeling that I’ll be returning the book before I take it up again. Perhaps it’s another case of over-reading the same thing over and over again (I do, after all, have three other LMM biographies on my bookshelves, plus her autobiography, her letters, and her Selected Journals). Because I didn’t purchase the book myself, I feel less compelled to finish it (though still guilty for even admitting that).

Eventually, I settled on something, which I wouldn’t have found had it not been for my blog. As I wrote in my post last week, I’ve been thinking a lot about reading children’s literature as an adult. And one of you commented, leaving a wonderful recommendation of Bruce Handy’s Wild things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult. Again, I found it at my local library and have been eating it up ever since. The dust jacket markets it as “Literary Criticism,” but it seems too engaging a read to be merely that (says the M.A. in English lit.) Who knew that literary criticism on children’s literature could be just the thing?

And so, how do you choose a book when you don’t want the same-old, same-old? Of course, there’s no easy formula. But you might consider taking a chance on a random library book, or a recommendation, and read something entirely different.

Question: What is a book that you’ve unexpectedly enjoyed?