I started writing answers to the classic “By the Book” questions from The New York Times earlier this month, but got hung up on the first question, since it took me way too many paragraphs to answer “What books are on your nightstand?” Now that I have read a number of them and lowered the overall stack (and, alas, returned a few to the library unread), here is part 2 of my attempt to explain bits of my life via books.
How do you organize your books?
In my house, books are about reading, never about design. Luckily, my architect husband agrees with me and we never have to have ridiculous conversations about books being tacky or not integrated into the design of the room or, God help me, about buying books by the yard or pound to fake erudition or gain the appropriate color scheme for a room. With that said, when you have nearly 2000 books in the house (not counting hundreds of children’s books for my son), you need SOME system of organization or you can never find anything. My husband has an entire bookcase of architecture and design books, and we have a small, two shelf bookcase of gardening and plant books. The cookbooks live in the kitchen, of course, because they are strictly for cooking. I am not a person who reads cookbooks for pleasure, because what is there to read, really?
For everything else, largely fiction in our house, my normal system is to take everything down and organize it alphabetically by author, then title, except keeping series books in order. Then I add books to bookcases and add new bookcases and remember where books are by shapes and color and what they were next to, until everything is all mixed up and I cannot find anything and discover that I have been buying duplicates of books I already have, but cannot find. Then it is time to take them all down and resort again. However, I have recently refined my system and sorted all the books into two categories: read, and unread. I listened to one too many podcasts people talking about book collections and got ambitious. Practically speaking, my plan was to put all the books I had not read on the main floor, where they were easy to get to and visible all the time, and the ones I had read in the finished basement, where they were accessible, but not blocking my view of all the tantalizing unread books that I could be reading next. I still kept them alphabetized by author and then title, with series books in order of publication, rather than alphabetical.
Yes, I let my paperbacks and my hardbacks mingle freely on the shelves, and I do not care that the colors are all over the map. (It brightens up the room!) People who say they sort their books by taking off the covers and matching by spine color, or who need everything on a shelf to be the same height freak me out a little bit. (Sorry, super organized readers of my slice!)
What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like and didn’t?
The Russian classics. I was an English literature major in a very strongly liberal arts college, and we read nearly everything in the Western canon from time immemorial, and then I earned both a Masters in British and American Literature and a Masters in Teaching Secondary English. You can say that I am quite well read. I just hate slogging through the Russian classics – novels, plays, short stories, different authors…I just hate them. Also, I am not big on very early American fiction. I don’t enjoy reading Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. Reading Moby Dick made me feel like I had just survived a crash course in whaling and could probably now survive on a whaling ship, but failed to move me emotionally in any way. (The fact that I read the entire thing in 5 days while burning up with feverish influenza probably did not help though.)
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
I think my go to genres are always going to be science fiction and fantasy, both of which I discovered in 5th grade, and both of which I delved into very deeply in my early teens, when I had read my way through the children’s section, was not interested in the topics of many adult books, and YA had not yet been invented. I love diving deeply into other worlds and exploring big ideas that way, and I love rip-roaring adventures. I am choosy though, because there is a lot that is pulpy and derivative. I like stories that are well-written and have characters that I care about, rather than just the standard genre tropes stuck together formulaically. With that said, though, I also read extensively in most every fiction genre. I love mysteries – ranging from Agatha Christie and similar “cozy” and not gruesome mysteries to dark Scandi Noir that sometimes scares the socks off me. I read some “contemporary fiction,” which seems to be a catch-all category for a lot of different things, and I also read a select few authors who probably technically fall into the romance category. I have a weakness for some types of chick lit, and will devour anything by Sophie Kinsella immediately when it comes out. Yes, I know it is silly, but it is charming and fun silly. I also read lots of YA, which is useful now that I teach middle school but is absolutely not driven by that.
I don’t really read Westerns, but I am not sure what really falls into that category any more. I loved Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy and went around forcing it one people for years, and that, to me, feels about as Western as you can get. If there are other books like his, then I do want to read them. I don’t read much nonfiction, because I get bored unless it has a really strong driving force in it, and I do not like memoirs. I have tried a few with recommendations from friends, but I just find them to be too self-serving and not interesting. There are exceptions to my general disinterest in nonfiction and memoir (Jon Krakauer, Truman Capote, and David Sedaris immediately spring to mind), but if I have to say I avoid a genre, those two categories are the least represented in my personal library and my reading history.
When do you read?
When do I not read is probably a better question. If I don’t read at least some every day, I turn into a horrible, cranky person and my world is off kilter. I try to get up early and read a bit with breakfast. I often read at lunch at school. I read with my students during our SSR time. I always have a book on me, and, now that I am making some forays into online reading, a couple sitting on Kindle or Libby to be read in case I am left alone somewhere for more than three seconds and have finished my book. It saves me from having to keep reading the receipts in my purse and the backs of my credit cards. (Yes, I have actually read those, back in the bad old low tech days.) I read in waiting rooms and in lines if I am not with someone else. If I am awake, there’s probably a book nearby, if not already in my hand.
Sometimes, I even read in my dreams.