My love-hate relationship with non-fiction

The perhaps quintessential book blogger complaint? Too many books, not enough time. Right? This has always been a challenge for me but it has only grown with time and overall life complexity.  My kids are getting older and that brings with it school, sports and activities. My career has added its own set of responsibilities and stresses that sometimes make reading, my normal source of stress relief, a challenge.  I am also teaching a Sunday School class that requires preparation, reading, and thought.  Throw in football season and free time for reading and reviewing seems a pretty narrow slot.

This connundrum is elevated when it comes to non-fiction.  I love to read history, theology, and biography not to mention books on cognitive science, time management and strategic planning. I love to expand my knowledge, challenge my way of thinking, and explore ideas.  I have a tendency to think of these books as the key to making my life deeper, more organized, and more effective. This is sometimes true but can also be a naive belief that mere knowledge, or a particular insight, will lead to happiness; or to more discipline, focus or skill.

Regardless of its particular motivation or psychology, I view myself as a person who wants to and can read a decent amount of non-fiction.  So when I see books at the library, at the bookstore, or in emails from publishers and publicists I have a hard time not checking them out, buying them, or requesting review copies.

My TBR pile is starting to look like this ...
My TBR pile is starting to look like this …

As you are probably guessing, the problem lies in blocking out time to read said books and then to review them.  But a busy life makes more serious reading difficult.  Many of these books are not necessarily best experienced in a few minutes at the end of the day before I fall asleep. And the busier, the more stressed, and more mentally challenged I am at work the less likely I am to want to read non-fiction to relax.

Lastly, as I think I have mentioned before, I find writing reviews of non-fiction more challenging; a pressure to offer something more than “I enjoyed it” or “I didn’t”. So then I not only don’t read as many non-fiction books as I would like but I don’t reward the author/publisher/publicists/reader with a review.

You know that phrase about your eyes being bigger than your stomach? It captures that sense of wanting to eat everything but then once you put it on your plate you can’t finish it.  I have this with non-fiction books. Always seeking out more and more to read, always distracted by the next shiny object that is dangled in front of me yet never making much of a dent in reading, comprehending, and reviewing the pile of books I own or borrow.  There should be a term for this.

All of that said, my resolve to continue to read non-fiction continues.  Can I be more realistic about what and how much I can read? Sure. Can I prioritise and organize the books I do read? Yes. Can I do a better job of posting reviews, even short and high level, of non-fiction? You betcha. But I am not going to give up on non-fiction just yet …

My love-hate relationship with non-fiction

The perhaps quintessential book blogger complaint? Too many books, not enough time. Right? This has always been a challenge for me but it has only grown with time and overall life complexity.  My kids are getting older and that brings with it school, sports and activities. My career has added its own set of responsibilities and stresses that sometimes make reading, my normal source of stress relief, a challenge.  I am also teaching a Sunday School class that requires preparation, reading, and thought.  Throw in football season and free time for reading and reviewing seems a pretty narrow slot.

This connundrum is elevated when it comes to non-fiction.  I love to read history, theology, and biography not to mention books on cognitive science, time management and strategic planning. I love to expand my knowledge, challenge my way of thinking, and explore ideas.  I have a tendency to think of these books as the key to making my life deeper, more organized, and more effective. This is sometimes true but can also be a naive belief that mere knowledge, or a particular insight, will lead to happiness; or to more discipline, focus or skill.

Regardless of its particular motivation or psychology, I view myself as a person who wants to and can read a decent amount of non-fiction.  So when I see books at the library, at the bookstore, or in emails from publishers and publicists I have a hard time not checking them out, buying them, or requesting review copies.

My TBR pile is starting to look like this ...
My TBR pile is starting to look like this …

As you are probably guessing, the problem lies in blocking out time to read said books and then to review them.  But a busy life makes more serious reading difficult.  Many of these books are not necessarily best experienced in a few minutes at the end of the day before I fall asleep. And the busier, the more stressed, and more mentally challenged I am at work the less likely I am to want to read non-fiction to relax.

Lastly, as I think I have mentioned before, I find writing reviews of non-fiction more challenging; a pressure to offer something more than “I enjoyed it” or “I didn’t”. So then I not only don’t read as many non-fiction books as I would like but I don’t reward the author/publisher/publicists/reader with a review.

You know that phrase about your eyes being bigger than your stomach? It captures that sense of wanting to eat everything but then once you put it on your plate you can’t finish it.  I have this with non-fiction books. Always seeking out more and more to read, always distracted by the next shiny object that is dangled in front of me yet never making much of a dent in reading, comprehending, and reviewing the pile of books I own or borrow.  There should be a term for this.

All of that said, my resolve to continue to read non-fiction continues.  Can I be more realistic about what and how much I can read? Sure. Can I prioritise and organize the books I do read? Yes. Can I do a better job of posting reviews, even short and high level, of non-fiction? You betcha. But I am not going to give up on non-fiction just yet …

Wherein I complain about too many books, not enough time, and a lack of inspiration

There is something ironic, in a “rain on your wedding day” kinda way at least, about my predicament. A number of interesting non-fiction books have been published recently and kind publicists offered me review copies of said books.  I accepted these offers under the belief that my interest in the books would match my ability to read them.  Alas, I am now seriously behind in the reading of these books. At the same time, I am struggling to find the inspiration and/or energy to post reviews of the books I have read, and enjoyed, and thus attract some semblance of readership to this blog.  Which is what causes publicists to offer me books to read. And which, when it really comes down to it, is the only real remaining reason I have this blog.

[OK, to be fair, I do still enjoy reading and discussing books.  But I am very busy with a job, and a family, and an inability to not be distracted by shiny objects on the internet, and this makes it hard to post regularly and of such a quality as to attract readers (Lame excuse? Perhaps, but still true). So I guess getting free books is not the only reason I blog here but some days it feels like that]

That clip art is retro and hip, right?

E-Books, Change and the Reading Experience

Interesting conversation over at the NYT between Mohsin Hamid and Anna Holmes on How Do E-Books Change the Reading Experience?

Hamid basically argues that in a world dominated by technology it is important to push back and find ways to generate solitude:

In a world of intrusive technology, we must engage in a kind of struggle if we wish to sustain moments of solitude. E-reading opens the door to distraction. It invites connectivity and clicking and purchasing. The closed network of a printed book, on the other hand, seems to offer greater serenity. It harks back to a pre-jacked-in age. Cloth, paper, ink: For these read helmet, cuirass, shield. They afford a degree of protection and make possible a less intermediated, less fractured experience. They guard our aloneness. That is why I love them, and why I read printed books still.

I understand this sentiment, in fact, I share it. I too find it all too easy to be distracted by technology and lose the chance to dig deeper and find meaning and serenity.

But I find my Kindle solves that problem. Reading books on my iPad not only hurts my eyes but offers the kind of distractions Hamid is talking about.  Cell phones, tablets, computers all have that call to another app or quick check of the web.  The Kindle doesn’t. It is just a reader. (This applies to all stand along readers bu my experience is with the Kindle)

Sure, they are bringing more interactivity to the device with social sharing and built-in Goodreads updates, etc.  But this is not much different from taking notes or highlighting.

I find it very easy to get lost, to be immersed in the moment, with my Kindle because it is just me and the text.  When I read it in bed at night there is nothing but me and that faint glow; the rest of the world disappears.

Anna Holmes on the other hand offers a few complaints 1) you can’t browse an eBook like you can a physical book 2) the progress tracking on the Kindle annoys her 3) an eBook can’t be a social signal for the wider world.

Not much you can do about #1. If you like to flip through a book sampling pages there is no direct equivalent in the electronic version.  Although you can get a sample sent to you and you could browse the highlights of other readers online.

I find #2 actually enjoyable. I like to know how far I have to go in a book whether in terms of time reading or percentage of the book, etc.  And this seem rather silly as you can turn off the progress function so it is little more than some tiny dots on the bottom of the page. Not much different that glancing at how far you are in a book based on your bookmaker.

It is the third point that strikes me as rather bizarre.  Does Holmes really want to be able to see what everyone is reading in public so she can make judgments about what that says about the person?  She wants to be able to see what book you are reading so she can add that to the social status and personality clues given by your choices in clothes, hairstyle, etc.? Oh…Kay….

As I have noted before when discussing technology and books, there are plenty of books for which technology is not an equal substitute.  I love books that are well packaged and beautifully illustrated; books that are an aesthetic experience.

Art books, illustrated children’s books, chapter books and other books for young people all have elements that ereaders or tablets just can’t match (although the technology has improved greatly obviously).  I love these books and seek them out at the library and share them with my family (and buy them when I can).

But when the text is the primary focus (as it is for most of the books I read), I actually prefer my Kindle.  As Hamid notes, it is easier to read for those of us with tired eyes and spouses who don’t want bright lights at night.  It is thin and light and ultra-portable.  I can read for long periods of time and that is the best way to get lost in a book.

So the key for me is not technology but the tool you choose. I use a dedicated ereader so I can focus on reading. I love my iPad but it doesn’t replace my beloved Kindle.

On Publishers And Platforms

Hunter Baker offers his thoughts in an open letter to publishers:

Your best route to survival will be to identify big talent early and get their first couple of books. Editorial discernment should be your stock in trade, not shooting fish in a barrel. The value of an editor is not really in judging such things as whether a prospective author has 100,000 twitter followers or can post to a high traffic website. Rather, the value of a good acquisitions editor should be in picking good books.

If publishers want to avoid the fate of almost all middlemen in a world which ruthlessly destroys them, they will find a way to make their imprint mean something such as excellence in fiction, religion, history, etc. Nobody needs them for printing. No one needs them for distribution. And the established authors don’t need them for advertising.

Makes sense to me but there seems to be a growing feeling that this ship has sailed.  Publishers seem less concerned with finding great books and more concerned with finding big markets and books that connect with them. Quality copy editing and editors with strong personalities and opinions on literature seem to be a thing of the past.  We live in the world of buzz and vibe; at least on the surface.

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Is the Book the Body or the Soul?

J. Mark Betrand ruminates on the End of the Book debate.  I particularly liked this passage:

Book is a shifty word, denoting both the physical object and the content within. As an author, I think of myself as having “written books,” when in fact I’ve typed hundreds of pages of fiction and nonfiction into various word processing files, e-mailed them to my editors, and only much later seen them take physical form. To say all that, however, seems pedantic. To describe myself as, say, a “content provider,” however fitting the term might seem, strikes me as something akin to insult. I write books.

And I’m a lover of books, too, unaccustomed to making a body/soul distinction where the printed word is concerned. The book is the object and its contents, inseparable in my mind. I dwell in a house lined with shelves, most of them bowed by the weight of their printed content. Beautiful books and ugly ones. Read and unread. Objects of comfort, outrage, derision, admiration. Some pristine and others scarred. Some bound in leather, some in paper (at least one in shagreen). Prized and cheap side by side. Tangible things, each with a history. I can tell you where they came from, where they’ve been. The ones I sought out and the ones I discovered unexpectedly. The ones kept under glass in dark bookstores and, all too often, the ones overnighted from the clean, well-lit warehouses of Amazon. All of that will disappear when the book’s body does.