Thursday, January 28, 2010

On Being a Public Reader

A lot of discussion has been taking place lately about how bloggers are public readers. The books we read are not a private matter, since we write reactions and reviews on them that open up our reading to public discussion and even become a matter of public record. As such, we are being encouraged from various sources to consider what we read, what it says about us, and what kind of discussion it might result in.

I have never, quite honestly, thought about this in such concrete terms before, but I am a very public reader. Not only do I write reviews of the books I read, I also twitter about them, I'm a member of LibraryThing, Goodreads, and Shelfari, I talk about books with everyone I know and I frequently (on a near daily basis) read in public. In addition to all of that, I consider myself an advocate of public and social reading and turning reading into something that is experienced not only on an individual level but as a community event.

There are degrees to which I've considered this responsibility, for example, I try to mention things that might be offensive to others that can be found in the books I review. I try to review a variety of books from different publishers, small press, and books that aren't receiving mainstream coverage. I try to read genres I don't think my readers read on a regular basis, to help bring to light how vast and wonderful the world of books can be. And now, I'm realizing that there are many other things I must consider as well, such as the diversity of the authors writing the books, if there are characters who are persons of color, if I'm reading enough translated works, books that feature other countries and people who might be considered in a minority. The pressure can feel overwhelming.

This is all coming in a time where I actually want to cut down on the amount that I read so that I can process what I read more. I'm tired of feeling like a machine cranking out reviews. I feel like if I read a little less, I could put more thought and more of myself into the books that I read and the reviews that I write. But I often succumb to the pressure. I want to help get the word out about overlooked books or life changing books. I want to give that author a reader for their book. And there's also the problem that I have that insatiable thirst to know stories, to know people, to make sense of this world in some small way through the books that I read. I also read book blogs, newsletters, journals that are all focused on books and reading and I feel like everyday I'm learning about an author I didn't know before who has a whole world of books and thought I feel compelled to explore. It's a vicious cycle with no end in sight.

How do you balance your reading? What sort of decisions do you make in regards to being a public reader (whether or not you are a blogger)? How do you try to diversify your reading while ensuring that you are still reading the books you really want to be reading? Do you feel responsibility about the message the books you read convey? Do you think that this question in the end boils down to: Why do you read and why do you talk about what you read?



Amy said...

I don't try very hard to balance my reading besides between fiction and non-fiction, but last year I started trying to read authors from different countries - just for fun though. I love travel so thought if I am stuck home I might as well try books from those countries. This gives me a broad diversity of nationalities and cultures and I am loving it! Of my fiction reads last year, my top 7 are all by authors outside of North America and the UK.

I do, however, feel responsibility about what the book conveys. Even though I read and review books that are for and against certain subjects or that are far left or far right, when reading in public I tend to opt to read the books that I feel more express my point of view. So basically, I love the diversity of reading everyone's thoughts but I don't always want to be stereotyped on the bus (for example) as agreeing with a certain viewpoint.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I appreciate your desire to help spread the word about overlooked books from authors and publishers. But I can see why that might mean you're spreading yourself too thin.
Since I need to stay focused on my own writing and promotions, I don't review a lot of books. But I get tons of requests and I feel bad saying no. So my method of balancing is allowing those authors whose books I feel have merit provide a guest post about an aspect of their book.

bermudaonion said...

Wow, you gave us a lot to think about in that post! I've always talked about books and reading, but not to the extent I do now that I blog. I think my problem is that I want to read everything - so many books look appealing to me. And, I'm like you, if I loved a book, I think everyone should read it.

Amanda said...

Okay I'm curious as to why you keep up on LT, GR, *and* Shelfari? Do each of these places give you different functions, or are they good for networking, or what? I'm on Goodreads now and don't want to join Shelfari, but I've considered LT just because so many of my friends are on it. But I'm wondering what the benefits are to having more than one book-tracking site.

I have been actively trying to cut back on my reading since September. I was reading/reviewing 18-21 books a month before that and I have a feeling there willbe many I just won't remember in a few years. 184 was too many in a year and I want it to be closer to 100-120 at most. I want to take more time with my books and to balance it out with other things in my life.

Beth F said...

Although I am public reader too, I more of an egocentric reader. That is, I read what interests me, including books I accept for review. I do not make decisions just so my reading can be balanced in terms of male/female authors, fiction/nonfiction, Western/Eastern authors, white/POC authors, literary fiction/cozy mystery. I just let books flow over and into me.

I've always been a huge review reader (NY Times, Publisher's Weekly, etc.). For decades, I've circled book titles that interest me. I once had a hand-written wish list that was 50 pages long based on print reviews that caught my eye.

I know this is the year of reading deliberately for many book bloggers, but I'll likely pick books the same way I always have -- whatever gets its hooks into me.

That is not to say that don't find myself perusing a particular author or a particular editor. That is not to say that I am oblivious of imprint, editor, author, genre. I am just saying that I am not a particularly deliberate reader. I am a whimsical reader. (Webster's unabridged, 3rd ed., definition 2b: "subject to erratic behavior or unpredictable change.")

I now have no idea what you were originally asking ... apparently I have a short attention span too.

Deborah said...

The whole purpose of why i started blogging was to tell people about the books I read. The focus of my blog has always been to mainly focus on Christian fiction, a genre that many still do overlook or dismiss. I still read in many other genres but because I've always read and enjoy Christian fiction, reviewing them is pretty much a no brainer to me - as in it comes naturally because I WANT to tell other people and this seems to be only way to get an audience. I read WAY more than I review, which is why my TBR pile is overflowing. Beth, i can't remember what the purpose of my comment was now.

Jenny said...

I started blogging because I found I couldn't remember what I had thought of books I'd read in the past - but mainly, at this stage, I like being part of a community of readers. I like that I hear about books I'd never hear about otherwise, and I like it how other book bloggers raise interesting questions for me to consider about the kinds of books I read and why. I think now I blog because it expands my reading horizons.

Sandy Nawrot said...

I think as bloggers we are all very public, and that suits me just fine. It would be hard to read and not be able to share your thoughts, at least for me. Since I've started blogging, I've made a much more conscious effort to diversify my reading. Before, I used to get stuck on a series or a genre, but I know I need to cover books that appeal to all walks of life. And that is good for me. Broadens my horizons.

Anonymous said...

Great post! I'm always reading something--it's like air and food to me but I don't want to post reviews necessarily of everything I read or feel compelled to do so. First, I'm not a great reviewer...but I can give you an overview and my personal opinion, for what it's worth. Next, I don't make a conscious effort to balance my reading but I do go with a lighter read for a break from heavier reading; I read all genres, and it's mostly happenstance and does not usually go with the flow of 'popular' reading choices. It would not be enjoyable to me to feel pressured to read and review stacks of books (unless it was my job!). I belong to LT and thoroughly enjoy it and, Book Blogs as well, but I don't want to join them all--I picked what I wanted and stick with them. I prefer gently pointing others towards reading and the love of books, new viewpoints, ideas and life lessons to be found there--ripping through book after book, genre after genre isn't appealing nor would I find it very satisfying--it would become such a chore and not enjoyable at all! I don't want my sharing of books to become a chore. It must always be a labor of love that is a direct result of my own reading adventures and discoveries. I think I'm rambling a bit here but all said...I prefer to stop and smell the roses rather than take a brisk walk through them all and smell or see nothing worthwhile. Like a kiss, it's nice to linger :)

Jaime said...

I'm a very public reader, but I give absolutely zero thought to my blog when I'm choosing something to read. In fact, most of the books I read are backlist books. I think I decided a long time ago (and I've been doing this since February 2005) that first and foremost, my blog is for me. It may mean that I won't ever have the readership that some blogs have, but ultimately that's not why I'm doing this in the first place.

Michelle said...

I've always been what can be considered sort of a book snob -- I read classics like they're going out of style, but steer clear of the "fluffier" books like chick lit, thrillers, etc. It's actually been since I became a public librarian that I've broadened my horizons a bit and started reading more of the books I wouldn't normally read.

As bloggers, though, I don't think we have any real duty to change our habits of reading just to please others, unless we're specifically getting paid to read books (Which we aren't). Unless someone is paying me to read certain books, I'm not going to change my reading habits just to make others happy because, as Jaime above me says, my blog is ultimately for me, and it's a reflection of the books I choose to read, not the books others want to see me reading.

Andi said...

Great post! Being a public reader isn't something I've thought about very much either, but it's a very real, integral part of my everyday life. In addition to my pure enjoyment of reading and my thirst for knowledge, as a professor I try to be an example to my students and as a new stepmom I try to be an example for my stepkiddos.

I'll be ruminating on this topic more.

Aarti said...

I am the first to admit that I do not balance my reading. I read what I want, when I want to read it. That probably doesn't get me as many blog followers as if I switched stuff up a bit, but I really enjoy fantasy and historical fiction, so my blog focuses heavily on those genres. I won't apologize for my reading tastes :-)

That said, I'm reading classic literature with one of my best friends and we just finished a Russian translated story and have now decided to focus our next several selections on Eastern classics. I think, by that alone, I'll be expanding my reading by culture, ethnicity and era written. That's awesome for me, but I also know those will be slow reads and probably only show up on my blog on a really random basis.

I don't think I feel responsible for the message my reading sends about me, but I also realize that by default, my reading choices say things about me. I don't read books that don't interest me, so people can draw conclusions about me by what I do read.

But I agree- there's too much to do and it's easy to spread yourself too thin. It is TIRING to blog sometimes, mostly because there is so much stress to read so quickly. I am really trying not to do that this year, but I have not been so successful yet...

Jules said...

Beth F said it perfectly! I'm also an egocentric reader. I read the books that make me happy, that I like (okay sometimes I don't like the book, and still finish and review it, the world needs to know about the not so good books :)). I am a public reader, because I enjoy sharing my thoughts on the books I read.

But, I don't feel compelled to read a certain type of books or certain authors or publishers because I'm a public reader. I have personal goals to read more books from around the world, but it's more for me to see what's out there.

Overall I read for me, I review for me and share it to the public because I love talking about books, and my friends and family are sick of me talking about books non-stop, so I found an onlin e community to do that to :D

Gina said...

A very interesting post indeed. I guess I never thought of that particular label (public reader) but it does fit quite well with anyone that has a book blog, or for that matter reads where someone, anyone else can see them. My balance on book choice....I choose books that interest me. If I can't stand to read it, then how can I expect myself to complete the book let alone give an honest review that doesn't scorch the author or title? That's why there are SO many book blogs and still room for so many more. Readers are like candy in a way (pardon the food analogy...)...they come in different "flavors". Some are more robust, speaking their mind freely and at will, with no thought of how it is perceived by others. Some are a bit milder, always tip-toeing around the line of what people expect and what they wish to do. Do we have a responsibility to the readers of our blogs? Yes, but only in so much as we present the true picture of the book AS WE SAW IT. Not every perspective will match even when the same book has been read. We are all different and react in a variety of ways to what we read.

In summary(after my bout of rambling there), be true to yourself and your assured, the readers will come, but they can spot a "fake" a mile away.

Thanks for the thought provoking post! Happy reading!

Alison (Alison's Book Marks) said...

I started blogging books because it seemed that more and more of my friends wanted to know what I was reading and what I thought about this book or that one. When I first started blogging, I truly didn't think that anyone was reading my reviews, it was mainly for me.

Once I realized that people outside my small circle of friends were reading my blog, I was excited, but felt some pressure as a public reader. I felt I had to edit my feelings a bit more. For example, I read a fair amount of political non-fiction and opinion books - from both sides of the aisle, so to speak. I will not review these books on my blog, though. I have friends on the far left, and friends on the far right, and I don't want to turn my blog into a political debate. It's actually nice to have a political-free zone on Alison's Book Marks, and I want to keep it that way. For now, at least (never say never).

Though at first I only read books that were on my own TBR lists, I have become exposed to books and authors I never would have discovered before I became a blogger. For this, I have to thank the publishers, publicists, and especially the other book bloggers. I still read from my own wish lists, but I try and maintain a balance between these books and the review books I receive. Otherwise, it might start feeling like a job.

Once it feels like a job, I might have to stop.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

I think what a person reads says about as much about them as what music they listen to. It's a preference. It doesn't determine their character or their level of intelligence.

I like to be social about my reading for the same reason that I like to talk about the TV shows and movies I watch and. I enjoy Socratic method. I also feel like there's a human connection missing most of the time because reading is not a social sport. It's an individual one. So, if I can have discussions with others (no matter where they are in the world) about what I read, I feel like I process it better and that I more wholly learn from it.

As for balancing what I read, I don't feel a responsibility to do that. I read what I want to. I make my blog about what I want it to be about, and hope for interaction from others. I feel like it's my little corner of the universe where I get to say what I think, and others can come and tell me what they think about what I think. And I love it.

I also agree with the previous comment that once it feels like a job, it's time to stop, or at least take a break, for your life balance's sake.

Lisa said...

Sometimes I think people (myself included) think about this way too much. I just want to book blog and have fun. There are times when it feels like a job, and I feel the weight of all of the review books I have to read, and then I wonder what I ever started this for. I try not to take myself too seriously, and just want to share my love of books with people who feel the same, and learn about books I would have never heard of otherwise.

Mark Baker said...

I read for fun. I started reviewing to help get the word out about the authors I like. But for me this is a hobby.

I have a job I get paid for. And until I am getting paid to read book and write reviews, I will continue to put what I desire to read at the front of my TBR list.

Beside, if you read a lot in one genre, you can carve out a nitch there and become the one people turn to when a new book comes out in that genre. At least that's my raionalization.

Kacie said...

The book world is huge huge... you'll never read everything. So - create a niche for yourself. A genre or type of book that you focus on, and don't feel bad that you're not reading everything.

Tales of Whimsy said...

I'm like you.
I read different genres.
Change it up.
Try to always be honest and point out the negatives and positives.
I point out material others might find offensive.
But I never forget I do this for fun.
I never let the pressure get me.

Jennifer said...

I have always been an avid reader and an advocate for reading. I am an extremely eclectic reader with a few exceptions, I refuse to read erotica or books I personally find highly offensive. I have been a blogger for awhile, but not a book blogger for long. I do not care what my numbers or stats are. If I get someone to find an interest in reading or a renewed interest in reading then I have accomplished my goal. My reading and my blog are for me. I like to promote good books, I like to discuss books and quite frankly I am not too interested in who publishes the book. I have read some excellent books published independently and some dreadful books from top publisher. At the end of the day, I read because I love it.

Rel said...

Another great post, Amy :)

With family, work and other responsibilities, I have to limit my reviewing to my preferred choice of books, Christian Fiction but I do find I read books of genres I don't favour in order to bring a range of books to my readers.

I'd love to add non fiction and other novels but simply don't have enough hours in the day :)

Ana S. said...

This is a tricky topic for me, because the way I deal with the social anxiety I feel when it comes all public things is by pretending in my head that blogging is much more private than it actually is - that I'm addressing a small groups of friend, nothing more. Still, I think this matters, so it's something I want to give more thought to.

Meghan said...

I read both for pleasure and to know. Books are access to a world well beyond my experience, and I think it's important that I at least try to acquaint myself with it. I love books that make me think, challenge my own preconceptions, and encourage me to be open-minded. So I am trying to read more diversely, to do my little part to correct the balance towards authors of color and world literature. Well, I'm starting to do so at least. I enjoy these books as well, and perhaps it's time to prioritize them over all the historical fiction I read set in England or the USA.

I don't know if I've ever thought about my responsibilities as a public reader, though. I feel like I rarely bring new books to people's attention. This is something I'll have to think about.

Jenn's Bookshelves said...

Great thought-provoking post! In a sense, I'm a public reader. I tweet and blog about most books I read or listen to. But sometimes, I do keep what I read to myself, particularly if the book or author is unpopular or has a stigma attached to it.

This year, I'm accepting much fewer pitches that I did last year. I got burnt out quickly. After I had the flu, I was unable to catch up, mainly because I'd overbooked myself.

I am accepting pitches, but only books that I want to read, not what I think I should be reading or what everyone else is reading. So far (yes, it's barely a month in) I feel much more laid back than I have in the past.

Beth Kephart said...

Oh, gosh, Amy.

You do so much, you consider so much, you are honest and authentic, and we trust what you write here as coming from a whole heart. You are extraordinarily diversified in your choices.

I guess I'm saying that you need to read only as much as you can read while still enjoying reading.

You are already, in so many ways, an ideal public reader.

Who teaches me so much, always.

Rebecca @ The Book Lady's Blog said...

I think of myself as a public reader in the sense that I make my reading habits public via blogging, twitter, facebook, etc., through actually reading in public, and by participating in book-related events/attending author appearances, going to book club, and the like.

As Beth said so well, I am an egocentric reader. I am making an effort to "read deliberately" this year, but that means thoughtfully choosing every title. Many of the books I read intersect with my own political and social beliefs, and I want to use my platform to share those ideas in a public forum, but I don't read or review out of any sense of duty or obligation.

When I read an underrecognized author or a book I think everyone should read, I use my position as a public reader to discuss and share them, but my status as a public reader doesn't determine what I read.

Teresa said...

Really thought-provoking post. I don't how much I let the fact that I'm a public reader influence what I read, although the current discussions about awareness of books by people of color has certainly gotten me thinking about it. In general, though, I read what I'm interested in without a lot of thought to whether my readers will be interested. Most of the pressure I feel comes from my own desire to read widely and deeply for my own benefit. I like books of almost any genre and almost any time period, and if I neglect one type of book for too long, I miss it. But then I also love immersing myself in something specific for a while. So those two impulses continually do battle.

Carmen said...

At first, I only blogged Christian novels, as that was all I was reading. I've now expanded to Christian non-fiction. I do this just for the love of books and encouraging others to read. I talk books to others all the time. I've always loved books.

Sandra Stiles said...

I have always just read whatever I wanted to read. Two things have recently made me take a look at that philosophy. One was the recent POC challenge. Although I have not yet officially joined I decided I needed to check my library (my personal one) and see where I stand. The second reason is because as a teacher in a Title I school the majority of my students are African American or Hispanic. I teach ESOL so I try to have a variety of books on hand for that group of students. While evaluating my shelves I realized that I buy books that sound good to me. I also try to have a little bit of each genre as I have my students read and review different genre for me. I never realized how many ethnic books I had on my shelves. I have decided to continue doing what I have always been doing and it will all balance out in the end.

Shelby said...

oh I'm so glad I found your blog.. I simply love books and stories and blogs about them. cheers :)

Stephanie said...

Wow, Amy. This is a great post. Honestly, and I know this is going to sound really bad, I don't think I owe anybody anything. I am a public reader, I guess. I never thought of it before. But my blog was originally started so I could record the books I've read. Period. I really didn't expect people to read it.

When I read something, I always put in my reviews if I think it's age appropriate (if it's kids or YA). I always mention if there is anything objectionable. But if I'm going to be perfectly honest, I really think that my obligation is done there. I think it's great to read more books by PoC or about different cultures. I think it's nice to give smaller presses a chance. But I read for MY enjoyment. And my enjoyment is detracted by using a checklist for each book to make sure it meets different criteria.

That said, I do try to read all sorts of books on different topics. I like to do this. I just don't think anyone has the right to tell me, because I blog about books, that I have to.

Does that make any sense? And if it does, do I sound really terrible saying all that??

Anonymous said...

Wow... again, a post that's made me stop and think.

I started blogging because I didn't want to post a thousand word review on the book's LibraryThing page. I figured people there wanted less than a manifesto, so I started In the Shadow of Mt. TBR for my full reviews. I've kind of flopped around a bit since then, sometimes thinking about who visits my blog and trying not to write things that might be offensive to someone (faith and politics, especially). More than anything, now, my blog is a record of my reading for me. If others like it, fine. If not, fine. I've found that I go back to see I've read a book that I forgot, and then read the review and remember.

I think my current reading goals and program is more about pushing myself to stick with something and finish it. To not get sidetracked, which is hard because I get bored with stuff so quickly (It's the ADD, lol). As for diversity, I've never tried to ensure I have diversity of content. I just read what I like. However, with recent blogging discussions and book-cover issues, I've started taking a closer look at this. I read more Asian stuff than anything (other than white, of course), and that's got to do with Mags, I think.

Vera said...

Great post Amy! I to struggle with keeping my reviews balanced between mainstream book and those often overlooked, and I try to provide that variety on my blog every week.

I'm intensely grateful to my reviewers because having them around allows me to slow down in my own reading and really focus on the book at hand. I read a lot of different genres but I never really thought about bearing responsibility for what I read - it's an interesting concept! I figure if I like a book, I say as much, and if I don't, I write a review that reflects the various gripes I had with it. I do take care to carefully consider each book I accept for review and there are certain genres that I just don't feel we are qualified to review. So perhaps that's taking some responsibility for what I read and review...

Jen - devourer of books said...

I'm with Candace (Beth F) on how I read. I'm whimsical, not really deliberate, and I'm okay with that. Yes, I'm joining a million challenges this year in an effort to be somewhat more deliberate, but mostly I just want to read what I want to read (which often includes review books, after all, I accepted them for a reason!). I do think, though, that being a part of the book blogging community has diversified my reading, because I see so many books on people's blogs that I wouldn't have necessarily picked up - or even heard of - otherwise, and I try to get to as many of them as possible, many of which I wouldn't have even considered 2 years ago.

Chrisbookarama said...

I'm another "I'm with Candace" commenter. I read whatever catches my fancy at the moment. Maybe that makes me a selfish reader (?) but I think reading is for yourself first. If you don't enjoy it then how can you convince someone else to like it?

That said I read a lot of female writers. They just tend to appeal to me.

SuziQoregon said...

I don't pretend to take myself, my blog or my reading that seriously. As my blog name says, I'm a whimpulsive reader. I read a variety, I read what strikes my interest or fancy. I read what I enjoy.

While I think it's great that you and others may choose to take a different approach, that's just not my style. As I said in my looking forward to 2010 post: "I just want to read what I want to read and enjoy most of what I do read."

Will Entrekin said...

Awesome. I think, more and more, the book blogging community is going to become the gatekeepers the publishing industry has no demonstrated it has no capacity for. While I suppose this comes with some responsibility, it also comes with an openness, and a flattening of the playing field.

Debbie's World of Books said...

I am also a public reader with my blog, twitter, Goodreads, LibraryThing, Shelfari, etc. but as bad it may sound I make no effort to be a diverse or socially conscious reader. I read what interests me. If the author happens to be a POC so be it but I don't actively go seeking out those books. I sometimes see posts encouraging us to read more POC, GLBT, current event books, etc. but I rarely participate in those challenges. I'll read the reviews to see if the books interest me but that is as far as it goes.

I do feel guilty at times but I figure reading is for my enjoyment, not to try and impress others.

Kathleen said...

I'm not sure I understand what the big deal is about being a public reader. I have occasionally chosen to not read a certain book on a bus to stop questions but otherwise I'm very public and I don't see anything wrong with that.

I agree with Beth that I read pretty much what I want. I don't try to balance out an author's gender or hometown or genres or anything. I read what I like. I have decided this year to read more YA fiction but only because my blog focuses on children's books as well as nonfiction and I mean ALL types of children's books.

No I don't feel any responsibility about the message the books I read convey. Like I said, I may choose to read a certain book in private but if I chose to read it in public and someone didn't like it, oh well.

>Do you think that this question in the end >boils down to: Why do you read and why do you >talk about what you read?

I guess. To answer, I read because I enjoy it and love learning and I talk about it because I want others to experience the way books make me feel.

I'm sure other's answers would be similar.

J.T. Oldfield said...

I relish it, frankly.

Elena said...

Until your post, I wasn't aware of any *discussion* about being a public reader.

I think the choice of books we read says a lot about us. We choose books that look like they will speak to us. Like you, I try to support small press and emerging authors, especially Australian ones.

The books I review on my blog are only a fraction of the reading I get done. It's a choice I make. If I blogged about every single book I read, it would just be too much.

I don't diversify my reading intentionally. And I don't intend to. Maybe because I don't need to. My blog isn't as influential/widely read as yours, so I don't get that sort of pressure from readers.

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