Category Archives: Thoughts on Literature

Subjectivity and Books

For over a year now, I’ve been slowly making my way through a Twilight saga reread at the pace of one chapter per day, on days I feel up to it. The purpose of the reread is to note how my reading tastes and critiquing abilities have changed in the last 10 years. By this point, I realize that I’m also reading so that I can box these books away– the Twilight saga was important to me once, but I don’t think I will ever be reading it again. For a shameless hoarder, I’m surprised by how happy I am to be saying goodbye to an entire series.

I’ve always thought there are (arguably) two reasons to read a book– for merit, or for enjoyment. Sure, sometimes the two overlap, and sometimes a reader is disappointed to stumble upon a dud that fits into neither of those categories. And of course, reading is highly subjective. One person will find art in a book that another will not, a plot arc will be enjoyable to one reader and boring to another. And yet, I picked up Eclipse this year without expecting to find merit in the story or have much fun with it– I expected to learn about myself. I can’t say that I’ve ever read with that intent before outside of assigned biology textbooks and the like, but here we are.

eclipseI suppose the first time my twelve year-old self read Twilight she thought there was merit in that book. I believe it was the first book about vampires I had read, the first book with an “awkward” narrator, the first book that was almost entirely about the romance. And it was also a major phenomenon at the time that all of my friends bought into, which was hard to resist.

I’ve always been loyal reader. I forget characters and plot and details easily, but I remember forever how I felt about a book. For a long time, I’ve remained loyal to my first bookish impressions, and am finally submitting to the possibility that while first impressions are important, they don’t need to dictate a my entire future with a book. Just because I loved Twilight in my embarrassing tween years does not mean I need to love it forever. But nor do I need to bury that experience so deeply that I can pretend that past naïve version of myself did not exist. I can grow from this.

Even when I was eventually convinced that the Twilight saga’s merit stemmed from its ability to generate a wide YA audience and start a sort of revolution for better teenage books, I still found enjoyment in the series. As I mentioned, I’m a loyal reader. Even last year when I began rereading Twilight, I found some enjoyment in the nostalgia for a long-gone era of my life and the magic that I thought I saw in this series when reading it for the first time. But now, three books in, I’m resigned to changing my mind. Eclipse was my favorite book in the Twilight saga in all of the years that I could say I still remotely liked these books. This time, Eclipse has been my least favorite read of the series so far. I find Jacob’s behavior in this volume abhorrent, Edward and all of his controlling issues boring, Bella at once overdramatic and spineless. The love triangle feels forced, the villains are hardly present in the story, and the romance no longer makes sense to me.

It’s hard to admit I may have been wrong about a book or series. It’s hard because if I was wrong once, if I need to change my mind about this one thing, how can I rely on all of my previous opinions about all of the other books I’ve read? Should I reread everything? But what if in another ten years I’ve grown enough mentally that my opinion will no longer match what it is even now? Would I have more accurate results if I simply reread the same book over and over and over until I die, noting every nuance of every opinion on every reread and trying to form one solid opinion from that massive log of data? How can I trust anyone else’s reviews when I can’t even trust my own?

The time when you read a book for the first time matters. Everything matters– your personal background, your present circumstances, the list of every book you’ve ever read before, including the ones you can’t exactly remember. Everything influences your reading of a book, to the extent that even if you reread a book immediately after finishing it the first time, you will no longer be the same person with the same opinion about that same book that you were a week ago. A review, a rating, a private impression of a book– these are snapshots that reveal as much about the reader as the text. And that is why, despite the fact that it seems an older version of myself cannot “trust” my earlier reviews, I will continue to rate and review and add to my mental store of impressions about the books I read. They’re a documentation of my reading life, and of my self.

Admitting that I no longer find any merit or enjoyment in Eclipse is a change for me (though admittedly, I’ve been completely avoiding the subject ever since I began to suspect this might be the case). Allowing myself to accept that I simply no longer feel the same about a book as I once did is a bigger change, an alteration that shows how my experience with books has changed even in the year since my post about rereading Twilight (you can also check out my thoughts on rereading New Moon this past spring). These are good changes, I think, and I’m glad that such a dismal reread inspired such a level of introspection. Perhaps there is merit in reading a book that has no merit in itself.

I do intend to continue this series reread with The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner (a between-the-books novella) and Breaking Dawn, at the same rate of one chapter per day on days that I’m interested. And I hope that those rereads will be just as fruitfully self-reflective, before they free up some much-needed space on my shelves.

Do you have a hard time rereading books that you think you’d feel differently about after time has passed? Is it easier to accept a positive opinion change, or a negative one?


The Literary Elephant

Reading Widely vs. Deeply

I came across a post a month or so ago that I’ve been thinking a lot about. Actually, it wasn’t even the main points of the post that kept me thinking– something about literary tropes/cliches, I believe– but a side remark about genre. I don’t remember the blogger or the post, to be honest, and I didn’t even think much of the remark at the time, but it’s been eating at me for weeks now. This blogger said, “Every reader has a preferred genre.” I think the argument was that readers are more likely to tolerate tropes in their preferred genre. But what stuck with me was that assertion of preference.

And maybe this person went on to make a few concessions, that it’s possible to prefer two genres, or that you don’t know what your genre is until you start categorizing the books you’ve been reading lately and a pattern emerges, but generally the commenters seemed to agree that they had one preferred genre. Or maybe two. Looking through other peoples’ posts on booktube, on blogs, on bookstagram, etc. it’s easier to see when readers lean toward a certain type of book than it is to see for myself. But I’ve really been trying and I can’t figure out my type. I’ve been asking around to see what my family and friends think of the things I read, and the common opinion seems to be that I have eclectic taste, that I like “weird things.” By which I assume they mean “different things than I read.”

I don’t know why it bothers me so much that I don’t have a favorite genre, but I think that’s the truth, after days and days of deliberation. I like to read everything. Everything that’s written well, anyway. If a book is well-written, it does not matter to me what its subject is. Sure, I have moods and phases, but generally I switch easily from one genre to the next, and that’s my favorite way to read. I don’t want to read 2 fantasies in a row, or 2 contemporaries, or 2 classics, or 2 YA novels, or 2 thrillers, or 2 memoirs. But I want to read all of those things, and more. So far this month I’ve read a lit fic, a contemporary, an urban fantasy, and a sci-fi novel. I’m currently reading a YA novel, and next up on deck I have a mystery, a historical fiction, and a nonfiction book. And they all feel like “my type” of book.

I think part of the reason I’m uncomfortable with having no reading specialty, shall we say, is that I always feel like I’m behind. I just can’t read a substantial number of books in every genre out there in a reasonable period of time. I’m not a speed reader, nor is reading the only thing I have to do in my life. My TBR just keeps getting larger and more out of control because I want to read all of the books that exclusively YA readers are interested in, and all of the thrillers that the adrenaline junkies have their eye on, and all the nonfiction that worldly readers enjoy. But I can’t keep up with it all. Of course, even readers with one preferred genre might be in over their heads with all the publications new and old within a single category, but in reading widely, I have to be so much more selective in what I spend my time on because I have less time to spend on each genre with the more genres I dabble in.

I want to be a reading expert, but I feel like I can’t be an expert in all areas. There’s no way to tackle all of the new releases, let alone the great books that are already out there. So here’s the big question: is it better to have a taste of everything, or to really know a certain flavor or two?

Do you read widely (across a wide range of genres/subjects) or deeply (really delving into a select genre or two that you come back to over and over for all the nuances)? Is one option better than the other?

I don’t know.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments if you have a genre preference, or why you gravitate toward the books that you do.


The Literary Elephant

On Changing Your Mind About a Book

It’s almost my birthday, and as I’m reflecting on another year gone, I thought this would be the perfect time to also stop and consider how I’ve grown as a reader. This is going to be a weird and maybe unpopular way to do it, but I’m going to use a spoiler-ish review of Stephenie Meyer’s New Moon to explore those changes. (To anyone who’s cringing right now: I promise I have a juicy adult lit fic review coming tomorrow and you’re welcome to wait and read that instead.)

newmoonWhy reading growth? Why New Moon? Well, I’ve been rereading the Twilight saga for about a year now, and I’ve just finished the second book, New Moon. It’s taking so long because I’m not as interested as I once was, and I’ve been proceeding at the rate of one chapter per day, only on the days I feel like tackling one. I’m doing this because I know my reading tastes and opinions have evolved so much, and it’s been an enlightening experience to relive a past love and really make myself think about why it might have worked for me before, and why it doesn’t now. You can check out my reaction to rereading Twilight if you missed it, but here I’m delving deeper into my changed opinions on the series and particularly on New Moon.

Yes, I did say “past love.” I was one of those twi-hard fans back in 2007 (I was 12) and I have no regrets about that– it was the first YA fandom that I felt like I was part of right in the height of its coolness and I remember that experience fondly even if the story itself makes me cringe now. I was addicted. But even when I loved the series I hated New Moon.

I hated it because I was Team Edward in the novels (but Team Jacob in the movies) and I was so disappointed that Edward went AWOL in the book. I read New Moon immediately after Twilight, when Eclipse was imminent but had not been released yet; I needed more Bella and Edward and New Moon has only that one “good” Bedward chapter at the end. I spent much of that first read trying SO HARD not to skip ahead to make sure Edward wasn’t being written out of the series, but I did not care about the budding friendship with Jacob at all.

That was the first thing I thought would be different this time around. I thought New Moon would be my favorite reread of the series now that I don’t like Bedward anymore– also I’ve really been enjoying literary breakups in the last few years. Especially in YA. The breakups feel more real and interesting than the instaloves and drawn-out angst, which was definitely not the way I felt about YA romance in 2007. But New Moon is not designed for readers to enjoy the Bedward breakup. Readers even have to fight to like Jacob– every time he’s mentioned Bella thinks something along the lines of, “Well, I like him, but only because I’ve lost the best thing I ever had and I’ll just have to settle for liking what’s left.” The reader is constantly reminded that Edward is basically a vampire god and even as a werewolf Jacob will never be cool enough. I have never liked Bella less.

New Moon is still my least favorite book in the Twilight saga, but not for the same reasons I initially disliked the book.

My first time through, I probably didn’t see anything wrong with Bella and Edward’s relationship. Honestly I don’t remember much of 2007, but I don’t think I would’ve enjoyed the series as much as I did if I had seen something wrong with their relationship. The second step for me was to see that Edward was wrong to be so controlling, though I made excuses for him. Sure, it’s bad to make other people’s decisions just because you’re stronger and can force things to be a certain way, but he’s got a unique set of circumstances and he means well, blah blah, that’s what I thought as the issues with the Bedward relationship became more public and I was forced to acknowledge that the Twilight saga maybe had some flaws. Step three: At some point in high school I reread the series and was shocked to find that once I’d familiarized myself with the arguments against Edward I really didn’t like him much at all. I still didn’t like Jacob much as a character, but I could see he was the healthier option. And the final step: I’ve been rereading these books again, trying to decide whether nostalgia is a good enough reason to keep them or if it’s time to replace them on my shelf– and this time around it’s Bella I can’t stand. She always seemed to me like an adult’s version of a teenage girl, but I liked her ordinariness. Her subpar-ness, even. But now she seems more like a doormat and I’m more frustrated at Bella putting up with Edward’s absurdness than at Edward for being absurd. I know not to blame the victim, but Bella goes above and beyond and hurts a whole string of friends and family in her lost-love misery and I don’t forgive her for it.

I can’t believe I ever cared about such a weak and misguided character. Even assuming she loves Edward beyond reason, where’s her self-respect? The Twilight saga was probably the closest thing to romance I had read by the time I encountered the Twilight saga, which might have been why I liked it. Genre exploration is a good thing, I still believe that. I still like reading love stories, and actually I still like reading about vampires on occasion as well.

But I think my changing opinions reflect more on my mental state through the last eleven years. Looking back at my 4-step realization of New Moon‘s poor characterization, I can make a personal map: At step 1) I wanted a relationship so badly i didn’t care if it wasn’t a particularly healthy one, there was no point even making that distinction because I would rather have something than nothing. 2) I wanted a healthy relationship but was willing to settle. 3) I understood that I deserved a healthy relationship as much as the next person, and finally 4) I currently believe that life’s too short to put up with anybody’s crap for any reason and it’s better to be alone than in a bad relationship.

Bella didn’t seem to think so, but I’ve moved on.

The biggest change for me since my first read of New Moon in 2007 is that I expect more from a book now. I’ve read more, I’ve lived more, and I’m less tolerant of what’s not working in a book. If this had been my first time through the series, I don’t think I would’ve even finished New Moon. There’s just nothing happening except the preservation of a bad relationship at the cost of a potentially better one. But even though Jacob might be the better choice… he’s so boring. Whether it’s the writing or just me, I just can’t get excited about Jacob. I guess that’s my one opinion on New Moon that hasn’t changed in the last eleven years. He’s got all the potential, but New Moon reads like Meyer didn’t want readers to side with him and I can’t get past that.

I also rewatched the film to cap off this New Moon experience, and I think it’s safe to say the only thing I appreciate about the Twilight movies at this point in the game is the music. I had some good laughs, at least.

My reaction: New Moon was an amusing if frequently unpleasant reading experience. I am planning to finish my reread of the series, one chapter per day. We’ll see if Eclipse takes six months like the first two did. And when I’m done… I think I’m done with these books altogether. It’s been interesting to unearth some truths about my growth as a reader, and I don’t think the experiment would’ve worked with something I’ve consistently loved through the years, like Harry Potter. But I’m ready to take what I can get from this series and lay it firmly to rest in my 12 year-old past, where it belongs.

Have you ever changed your mind about a book you used to love (or hate)?


The Literary Elephant

Reading Lesser-Known Books

I’m thinking about lesser-known books today because I just finished rereading a personal favorite from my teenage days: Hawksong by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes. Have you heard of it? I wouldn’t be surprised if the answer is no. This book was published fifteen years ago, and still has less than 20,000 reviews on Goodreads. And I don’t understand why. It’s rating is 4.15 currently, and I do understand that. No book is truly perfect, but this one’s pretty great. Instead of reviewing(/raving about) a book that basically no one has even heard of, I’m going to use Hawksong to talk about the merits of reading lesser-known books; and the sludge readers occasionally have to sort through to find the hidden gems in that category.

The thing is, you just can’t trust the hype. Haven’t you been burned before, picking up a book that everyone’s talking about only to find out it’s just not the book for you? Every reader has his or her own opinions and preferences, and for that reason, it’s best not to listen too closely to whether the masses love or hate certain books. If popular opinion were the best factor in finding books to love, we’d all just go to Goodreads and read only the highest rated books, regardless of things like genre and subject. But no one really does that, right? Sometimes other readers’ opinions are helpful in gauging whether we might like or dislike a certain book, but in the end we’re all marching to the beat of our own drum because we’re readers, not sheep following the herd. Which means sometimes you pick up a book that no one you know has ever read. And sometimes you find a true gem.

hawksong&snakecharmFor me, Hawksong is one of those gems. It’s a fantasy story, a genre plenty of people reach for, but it does have it’s own quirks: it’s a fantasy story about shapeshifters; people who can transform into birds and snakes make up the main characters. The romance is obvious, partially due to the fact that it’s outlined on the book’s back cover, but it’s wonderful in its simplicity. The fight for peace is as uplifting and relevant as it is unrealistic in its abruptness, but a lack of realistic qualities matters little in fantasy novels. For me, the excellent world-building and the general kindness and acceptance practiced by the main characters is worth the short and otherworldliness of the plot. Guessing the identities of the assassins is a bonus side mystery. What’s not to love?

“The first of my kind was a human woman. Surely your kind comes from like roots. We have human minds and human bodies. If we can speak as humans do, and love as humans do, then what makes us so different?”

I don’t remember how I ended up picking up Hawksong in the first place. I know it was one of a limited number of books in my middle school’s tiny library, but why this one? I didn’t know anyone else who had read it, and as time has passed, that hasn’t really changed. I’ve pushed it on a couple of friends (and my mom), but I never see this book in bookstores and I never hear about anyone reading it. I’ve read it more times than any other book in existence. Because often the books that hit hardest, the books that surprise me most, the books that feel most tailored to me, aren’t the books that everyone else is reading. They’re the books that seem weird and unusual, that you pick up on a whim without ever having heard of and are totally surprised to fall completely in love with.

Sometimes the books no one is reading are overlooked for a reason– you encounter some bland (or even just downright bad) books while you’re looking for those hidden gems. But that’s no reason to quit trying.

I know I read things off the beaten path sometimes, and I know I get fewer likes and views and all those good things on my reviews of those lesser-known books, but that doesn’t make me like them (or want to talk about them) any less. Think about how small the world of books would be if everyone truly was reading the same things all the time, only the most popular choices. So many crazy great things wouldn’t even be published. We’d all be reading prize-winners and classics and steamy romances (because apparently tons of sex scenes equals a high Goodreads rating even if the book is trash), but that’s not the case in reality; the truth is, classics can be boring for readers who just want a quick escape, prize-winners have themes that don’t appeal to everyone, and some readers just can’t stand trashy writing even if the make-out scenes are good. So we pick up books that sound the most interesting to us, even if no one else seems to be reading them.

And that’s a good thing.

I feel that I can’t give Hawksong a fair rating anymore. It was a 5-star read back when I was twelve, and now when I reread it I’m probably blinded to its potential flaws by my familiarity with it, and the fact that every time I read it I remember what it’s like to fall in love with reading all over again. Which, in my mind, is still worth a high rating. But I’m not trying to sell you on Hawksong. I’m saying… keep picking up those lesser-known books that no one is talking about. Stay weird. Be you. Find your reading niche. And tell us about the unusual books you love, because how else are we going to hear about them?

What’s your favorite lesser-known book? I would love to hear some titles I’ve never come across before! (And I would especially love to hear that someone else has read Hawksong…)


The Literary Elephant

Reading Multiple Books at Once

Some people do it, and some people won’t. I’m realizing this month that lately I’ve gotten back into the habit of reading multiple books at once, and I think there are some pros and cons to attempting multi-book reading.

There are several reasons a reader might end up in the middle of several books at the same time, especially now when multiple book formats are so easily available. There’s also the fact of where it’s best to read certain books: some are good for travel, some are best at home in one’s bed. Length can be a factor. Genre can be a factor. Certain deadlines can be a factor. Here’s a look at the books I’m in the middle of, for some specific examples:

It by Stephen King. This one’s over a thousand pages, and I’m buddy reading it all month with a friend. I can actually read faster than one thousand pages per month, but I don’t want to get ahead of my friend in our buddy read, so I’m constantly picking this one up and then putting it back on hold.

A Poem For Every Night of the Year ed. by Allie Esiri. This one should be fairly obvious from the title– I read one poem per night, so I’m going to be reading this one all year. Of course, the poems are each separate works so there’s no problem with forgetting a story line.

Aesop’s Fables by Aesop. I’m reading this one pretty similarly to A Poem for Every Night of the Year, although admittedly I don’t pick it up every night or I’d be done with it already. This is another example of separate works in one book that are easy to read in small pieces here and there without confusing a continuing story line with any other books I’m reading.

Stillhouse Lake by Rachel Caine. I received a Kindle Unlimited subscription for Christmas and I linked it on my phone. It’s one of the first times I’ve had really good, consistent access to ebooks, which I don’t like as much as print copies but have been using because they’re more convenient to carry around. Thrillers are fairly easy for me to go in and out of, so I picked this one as my first Kindle read. I’ve been reading a few pages here and there when I’m waiting in parking lots or waiting rooms or eating lunch alone or whatnot.

Lady Midnight by Cassandra Clare. This is the book I would call my “current read,” despite all the other books on this list. This is the book I reach for most often and will finish first from this list. I’ll pick up another book immediately after finishing this one even though there are several other books I’m still in the middle of. I need to finish this one and start Lord of Shadows right away because I have that one checked out of the library and it’s due soon.

The Iliad by Homer. Here’s where it starts getting dicey, at least for me. This was my “current read” for a while in December, which I set aside temporarily to meet some of my other 2017 goals before the end of the year. Technically, it’s on pause right now, but in a couple months The Odyssey will be coming up as my classic of the month and I do intend to unpause and finish this one before then. I intend to pick it up again probably within a month so that I don’t forget the characters and the plot I’ve read so far. Generally after six months or so I take a book off “pause” if I haven’t gotten back to it because I feel like I need to start entirely over.

A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin. And here’s where I start to get ashamed. I was reading this one in October, and loving it, when my fall job just got too busy for me to give a book of this length and depth the attention it deserved. It’s also on “pause,” and I also am intending to get back to it before the six month mark. I’m more ashamed of being in the middle of this one because the only reason I’m not jumping right back in to finish it up is because I got out of the mood during my fall pause– even though I was really enjoying it then and I know I’d thoroughly enjoy it now if I just picked it back up.

That’s seven books I’ve got marked and could pick up at any time to read from the middle. Seven is getting to be a bit of a stretch, it’s going to start to seem unrealistic if I increase it any farther, but I don’t have a problem with being in the middle of seven books. It is more books than I’ve been in the habit of multi-reading in the last few years though, and lately I’ve noticed that when I tell someone about the books I’m currently reading they’re rather comically alarmed at the idea of my reading more than one book at a time. Is multi-reading more uncommon than I think?

It’s a constant goal to work this number back down to one, but I only have that goal because I know I’m going to be multi-reading more books and if I don’t cross any of these seven off the list before I pick up more they’re going to start falling into that “need to start over and try again” category, which I don’t want to happen. For me, I suppose the ideal number would be 3 or 4: a current read, a Kindle read, maybe a buddy read (I like buddy reading so far but I don’t expect to have one going at all times), and a long-term read (like the poems or fables, short works to read one or two of at a time). Does that seem unreasonable?

It doesn’t to me, but as long as I don’t wait too long to un-pause a book I’m reading, I don’t have any trouble remembering where I left off. I probably wouldn’t want to be in the middle of two very similar books at a time unless I was reading them for comparison and paying a lot of attention. Generally I like to be reading a mix of genres so I have less risk of forgetting the details of each book. That seems like the biggest risk to me in reading multiple books at once– starting to confuse the details from different books into one mega-story that doesn’t make sense. (But I’m not too worried about accidentally mentally transplanting It‘s Pennywise the Freaking Terrifying Clown into Clare’s Shadowhunting world, or for Emma and Julian from Lady Midnight to end up in Aesop’s tortoise and hare race, or for Achilles to start narrating my bedtime poems or fighting for control of Winterfell.) Another risk I can see would be pausing a book for too long to remember where I left off.

My biggest problem so far has been losing bookmarks because I decide to reshelve a book I’ve paused too long (to start over later) and then after a few more months (or even years in some cases) I can’t remember which book I left it in.

But there are good results to reading multiple books! You read more! At least, I do. By the end of the year, my Poem for Every Night of the Year book will feel like a bonus in my December wrap-up; it’s so easy to read the page or two that’s dedicated to each day that by December I won’t have hardly even noticed that I’ve finished an entire 512 page book, though it will absolutely count. My ebook makes it easy to read on the go, in situations I might (unlikely but might) not have carried a physical book along for. My buddy read this month is getting me through a thousand page book I probably wouldn’t have picked up this month on my own. There are just different circumstances that work better for reading different books, and when you read a lot, it just starts to seem natural to pick up fitting books for those situations rather than let reading time slip through the cracks because your current read wasn’t convenient for that available time.

But it’s a controversial practice, I’m discovering. Do you read multiple books at a time? How many, and why?


The Literary Elephant

Skewed Goodreads Ratings

“One learns most clearly what not to do [when writing] by reading bad prose.” -Stephen King (On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft)

The thing about Goodreads ratings is that they’re not accurate. They are not the opinions of random, objective readers. Almost every single person who contributes a review or star rating for any given book has picked up that book for a reason and went into it with expectations that will affect their concluding opinions of it. Have you noticed that ratings for books in a series tend to be rated higher as the series goes on, even though the overall ratings are fewer? That’s probably at least partially due to the fact that the readers who make it that far in the series are readers who’ve already found something they liked in the first book and know they’ll find what they’re looking for in subsequent novels. There are exceptions, and of course it is possible that the books in any given series do actually improve, but I think it’s also worth noting that the people who read (and rate) book 2 are usually people who liked book 1. And by book 3, even more readers who were on the fence have been weeded out, thus driving ratings up even more.

That’s just an easy example. We also have people who rate books they’ve DNF’d (unfair, in my opinion), people who rate books before they’ve read them, people who know the author, or have been given a free early copy, or had to read a book for a class and wound up letting their feelings about the class show in their review of the book. No matter how it happens, anyone who checks for reviews on Goodreads before picking up a book should be aware that almost every single person who’s left their opinion in the reviews section has been biased in some way. They believed the Booktube hype, or have read something else by the same author, or found the title on a list of reputed “good books”, or are in love with a particular genre. Most of those readers aren’t people who saw the title in a bookshop, picked up the book without knowing anything at all about it, and reviewed it completely impartially. I’m not saying that doesn’t happen, but it’s not the norm.

Don’t be fooled: I love Goodreads. I check the ratings there before I pick up a book, often. But it’s important to note that sometimes books are rated highly not because they’re good, but because they contain whatever their readers were looking for when they picked them up. Case in point: Elle Kennedy’s Off-Campus series.

I’ve been highly stressed lately, and in times of stress I reach for guilty pleasures. I often go for something I’ve already read and know will be a guilty pleasure, but this time I picked up something new. In the Off-Campus series, Elle Kennedy has written four NA romance books. They’re pretty short and easily readable–I read all four in four days. I’m talking about these here because they’re rated highly on Goodreads; every single book in this series is rated above 4 stars, and they’re not good.

That’s not to say they’re all bad. I’ve read worse. I gave each of the books in this series (The Deal, The Mistake, The Score, and The Goal) 3 stars for my enjoyment level, which is certainly not my lowest rating. They’re cheesy, predictable, somewhat sexist books with transparent plot mechanics. But even though the plot is obvious and feels fictionalized, it is a functioning plot. It makes sense, at the very least. The mechanics are in working condition, even if they are more visible than they should be. Even though it’s clear from the first two chapters who’s going to end up with whom and which major obstacle they’ll have to overcome, there’s emotion in there. There are abundant sex scenes, if that’s your thing. And that’s why I think these books have been rated so highly. The people reading these ab-covered books are the people looking for predictable bodice-rippers starring college hockey players who believe they’re God’s gift to women. The abs on the covers attract a certain audience. There are some topics these books handle well– every main character has something difficult in their present or past: a rape, an abusive parent, a sick parent, a dead friend, an unexpected pregnancy, etc. These details are dealt with carefully and respectfully. It’s the “puck bunnies” I have a problem with. The use ’em and lose ’em mentality of the men in this book. And that’s why I’m not posting full reviews for each of the books in this series. They’re all very much the same and I had the same complaints about them all. Admittedly, I liked them enough to read all four, but I think it’s like Stephen King says: we learn what not to do in our writing by reading bad books, and that’s as important a lesson as reading examples of what we should do.

Sometimes you just have to read a bad book or two. Or four. There’s nothing wrong with reading whatever the heck you want, literary merit be damned. I just wanted to use this opportunity to talk about the Goodreads rating system, because I was shocked that the third book in this series is rated higher than some books well-known for their goodness. The Score, an NA romance novel about a horny hockey player who falls in love with a girl who’s ashamed she had a one-night stand with him, is rated higher on Goodreads than Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s important to keep in mind when using Goodreads that it’s not a tool for rating literary goodness. It rates enjoyment. Sadly, those are two very different categories. And further, enjoyment levels are affected by the fact that readers always, always have expectations of the books they’re reading.

The reading world would be a different place without Goodreads. A lonelier place. But, like any other tool, we must use it wisely.

How do you feel about the Goodreads rating system? Also, does anyone have any better NA reading recommendation for me?


The Literary Elephant

Why Reread?

There is always a difference between reading a great book for the first time, and reading a great book for the second, third, fourth, or even hundredth time.

But what is the difference? And why reread at all?

I recently reread Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight. But when I logged on to Goodreads to tally another novel into my 2017 reading challenge, I was faced with a dilemma: what would I rate Twilight today? I certainly wouldn’t give it the same 5-star rating that I felt it deserved when I was twelve, discovering not only Twilight for the first time, but vampires, fictional romance, and the YA genre more generally. Twilight was not the first YA book I ever read, but it was a beginning. It marked a turn in literature for young adults, and a surge of popularity for the YA fantasy genre, which hooked readers of all ages and prompted authors to fill the demand with more new titles. Twilight wasn’t just a book I read one time as a kid– it was a whole experience. It was passing notes with my friends in middle school about which of the Cullens we would rather be, what we thought the movie would be like in a couple years, which of their cars we’d like to drive. It was adding fangs to all of our smiley-face doodles. It was Team Edward vs. Team Jacob.

twilightAnd that’s why I reread it this year. To remember being twelve and thirteen with my friends, pre-ordering a book for the first time (Breaking Dawn), reading in the grocery store parking lot and at bible camp and with a flashlight in the middle of the night. But how do you rate nostalgia on Goodreads?

Back in the Twilight era, rereads were a big thing for me. I didn’t have as extensive a collection of books, my school library was small, and I wasn’t old enough to drive to the public library yet. I didn’t have a job to afford buying my own new books, and access to the internet was less reliable. So I found what I liked, and I stuck with it. I couldn’t even guess now at how many times I read the Twilight books in my early teen years. But now, I reread for other reasons.

Here’s a look at some reasons I reread:

  • Review, or more precisely, to pick up details that were missed. Even if I understood the book *perfectly* the first time through, there is almost always something new in a second read.
  • Recollection. I don’t know how common this is, but I have a horrible memory for plot. I like that I do, because it means I get to rediscover my favorite books if I put them aside long enough between reads. There are times I’ve completely forgotten almost everything about a book, but I remember I loved it, so a second read gives me an almost first-time-experience all over again. Usually after two reads I don’t forget quite so extensively.
  • Culture/connection. This is a factor with extremely popular books. It’s when I reread a major hit because of the fandom and the phenomenon of it (even if it’s passing or passed, somewhere in the interwebs the fever is still out there)– surely you remember the Twilight craze. The Hunger Games. Divergent. The Maze Runner. City of Bones. Harry Potter, even, though that’s an obvious one.
  • Nostalgia, as I’ve mentioned. I’m not the same person as I was at twelve years old, and I wouldn’t want to relive that year, but there are parts of it that I remember fondly. I associate certain books with certain periods of my life, so reading those stories again feels a bit like going back in time.
  • Personal Growth. I’m very loyal to my past opinions, but people change, and their tastes change with them. Sometimes it takes a reread to realize that I’m looking for different things in books (and life) than I was, and I think it’s an important step in knowing yourself better to articulate (at least to yourself) those changes.

So I reread Twilight. It gave me a trip down that fabled memory lane, but it also gave me a chance to regroup, to rearrange my goals and opinions to better fit where I’m at now, as a reader and as a person.

I think I’ll continue the series, one chapter per day, even though my enjoyment of the plot is nothing like it once was. Twilight was just the first glimpse back toward how far I’ve come. I had such different opinions, such different loves and dislikes about each book in the series, that I think each one will give me a new avenue for reflection. I’m not in a hurry, but I think the reflection I’m finding in past favorites is worth my time.

Why do you reread? Do your thoughts on a book change the more times you peruse it?


The Literary Elephant

Reading as a Writer

The biggest difference between reading for entertainment and reading in an active attempt to learn about how the words work is asking why. All readers have opinions on what they read, no matter how big or small or tangential. Words are powerful things. They leave impressions. Sometimes they make us like a character, dislike a plot, fall in love with a fictional world, or loathe particular paragraphs. These are the little pieces that add up to a reader’s overall judgment of a book–how will you rate it? Will you read it again? Will you recommend it? The answers to those questions come from how we feel about a book as we’re reading. When you want to take even more from your reading experiences, to pick out techniques to use and avoid in your own writing, the first thing to do is start asking why.

Not only asking, but forcing yourself to give a full answer. Don’t allow any “I don’t know”s, or “I can’t explain it”s. You like a character? You cringe at a section of dialogue? You love a particular sentence so much you want to read it over and over? Ask why. And answer.

The more you do this, the more you explore the mechanics of writing. When you find characters you like and explain to yourself why you like them (do not say “they’re just awesome,” or other vague non-answers. Challenge yourself. You’re the one who benefits from the effort yo put into this exercise), you’ll start to notice trends. I like characters that are fallible, that are morally gray, that lie or are unreliable for other reasons. I like them because they’re unpredictable and sometimes unstable. I like them because they could do the right thing, or the very wrong thing. I like trying to decipher their motives. What sorts of characters do you like? Why?

Character is only one example. You can do this for virtually every aspect of a book. Length of chapter. Amount of description. Progression of plot. Dialogue tags. Sometimes (almost always) it’s very subjective. It’ll make you look for answers in individual sentences, or pick out specific words. Sometimes appreciation for a whole scene comes from one great choice of words in a fragment of a sentence. Look closely. See what’s in the lines, and what’s between them. Why does it work for you?

The next step is to incorporate your findings into your own work. Maybe this means exploring your reasoning behind choosing a certain genre or form, or maybe it helps you form plot or character traits that appeal to you. Maybe it’s the emotion that gets under your skin, that you can learn to wield just as well as your favorite writers seem to. Conversely, you’re probably also learning what not to do. You’ll discover the specific things that annoy you to read, and you’ll avoid them.

As I mentioned earlier, this is all subjective. Writing is subjective. Different folks like different jokes, and some don’t want to read humor at all. Find what works for you, and make it work under your own pen. To write objectively, learn to look at writing critically. Ask why. And answer.


The Literary Elephant

Goodreads Challenge 2017

I have been waiting all year to check my actual reading against my 2016 reading challenge via Goodreads, and to set a new goal. The time has finally arrived.

In 2016 I set myself a goal of 52 books to read. I’ve never kept track of the number of books I’ve read in a year before, so I had no idea where my goal should be. 52 books seemed like a reasonable starting point. Now I am pleased to announce that I surpassed that initial goal, having read 73 books this past year! Here are some of my stats:

Books: 73

Pages: 32,659

Avg. Pages Per Day: 89.5

Shortest Book: The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J. K. Rowling (111 pages)

Longest Book: Voyager by Diana Gabaldon (1,059 pages)

Avg. Length: 447

Avg. Rating: 4.3 stars

Completion: 140 %

I think it’s really cool that Goodreads includes this page of stats from the reading year!

Before I move on to setting a goal for next year, however, I wanted to voice some of the thoughts I’ve had in my first year of participating in the Goodreads reading challenge.

To begin, this is not only my first year with the Goodreads challenge (although not with Goodreads more generally), but it is also my first year blogging about books. I have never kept such close track of how many books I was reading, when I read them, and just how much I enjoyed or disliked them. It was easy to see how one might be more caught up in the tracking than the reading, but I tried very hard not to let that happen. Although I have never felt so much pressure to read more, to read better books, and to come up with some impressive numbers, it’s important to me that reading should never feel like a chore. Thus, I still read things that didn’t count towards my Goodreads challenge. I reread books that I didn’t want to count towards my challenge. I read bits and pieces of children’s and middle grade books to my younger brother, just for the fun of it, even though I wouldn’t count partial or children’s books towards my challenge. I read newspaper and magazine articles, poems, comics, recipes, and snippets of lots of other things throughout the year that I wouldn’t count toward my challenge. The challenge is a fun motivator, but I think it’s important not to let the tracking take over one’s life. So far, I think I’ve succeeded.

Second, while I think the yearly Goodreads challenge can be a great way to help me read more, the number of books read is not the only way to do that. I read some very long books this year–including the entire Outlander series–and although I wouldn’t say they were my favorite books of all time, I did immensely enjoy reading them, and I’m glad I read all eight of those behemoth novels rather than twice or three times as many shorter ones that would’ve boosted my total number of completed books. The Goodreads community can be problematic in increasing the pressure to track books for others to see–but who would I be trying to impress with a giant list of short books? Not that there’s anything wrong with short books. I read some of those this year, too. I think it’s important to read for yourself, no matter what your books of choice are, to make your experience with books the best it can be for you personally. Read to impress yourself.

Third, I loved that using Goodreads more this year, and blogging my reviews of books I finished, motivated me to really stop and consider my impressions of what I was reading right away. The fact that Goodreads allows me to note what day I’m starting and finishing each book I track encourages me to log those details immediately, and further, to rate the book, and from there, to head over to my blog and start writing about why I rated it the way I did. I have a very bad memory for plot. I can remember whether I liked a book or not for years, but I won’t necessarily recall why, and I certainly won’t remember many specific elements of the story for more than a few months. Already a few days after finishing a book I can feel the level of detail I recall about the story fading away. On one hand, this is great because it allows me to reread books after some time has passed and be just as surprised and delighted as the first time through; on the other hand, it’s very difficult to explain to anyone else what I specifically thought of a book and why  I thought so after any time has passed from my reading of it. The Goodreads challenge helped prompt me to note those details early on, while the book was fresh in my mind, and I think that was important and helpful for me to keep up with. Now I have a documented record.

As my first year with the Goodreads challenge comes to a close, it’s time to start thinking about my reading goal for the new year. I have decided to increase my goal from 52 books: that was only a base number to start from, and I had no trouble exceeding it this year. Also, goals are meant to encourage people to try harder and do better than they might otherwise. Of course I want to raise my goal. But I still don’t want my whole life to turn into a battle to read a huge number of books, and I want to leave room to grow a little next year, as well. So I’ve decided to set my goal at 73 books, the same number I read this year. I’m hoping in 2017 I’ll read even more than in 2016, but at the very least, I don’t want to read fewer books. With my schedule and my reading speed, and the fact that I like to feel free to read big books or more challenging ones that go slower, this feels like a realistic goal for me.

What are your plans for the Goodreads 2017 reading challenge? Why do you like or dislike participating with this method of tracking what you read through the year? Do you have other yearly or monthly challenges you like to participate in to motivate reading? I think I’m interested in checking out more challenges this year, so let me know if you’ve heard of some good ones!


The Literary Elephant

How I Read

I think it’s interesting to hear about other people’s reading habits, so here’s a post about mine!

What I like to read: A little of almost everything. I was an English major in college, which helped broaden my perspectives, but I’ve always loved a wide range of books. I find that reading slumps happen for me if I read too many of the same type of book in a row, so I switch genres between almost every book, and I find myself most excited about stories that are nothing like anything I’ve read before. If I really had to pick, I think the genres I come back to most often are thriller, historical fiction, and dystopia.

Buying vs. borrowing: This is a bit of a toss-up for me. I love bookstores and libraries equally. I would appreciate being able to own every book I read, but I just don’t have that sort of income at the moment, and sometimes there are books I read that I know I’ll never want to even skim through again so I don’t mind dropping them back off in the library drop box. I tend to buy books that I can see myself reading more than once, or that I know will be harder to find available to borrow, or are simply too cheap to pass up, and also long books–especially classics–that I don’t want to feel rushed through by adding a due date and a stack of other borrowed books. I have a list of potential books to buy, and if I come across one at a good time for a good price, I pick it up. If I’m ready to read it and haven’t bought it yet, I borrow; then I can buy it later if I decide I want to reread.

How I choose what to read next: There are several lists in several places filled with books I want to read. I keep separate lists for books on my shelf that I haven’t read yet, and for books I know I can borrow from my limited (but accommodating) library or my friends. Lately I’ve been checking through my lists at the beginning of the month and creating a TBR that feels like a plausible goal–a practical mix of borrowed and owned books that fits my mood. I like to read new releases, but I also feel like I’ve fallen behind and there are a lot of older books I still want to read, so usually I prioritize books I’ve borrowed, then decide further by genre. Even before I began planning my month’s TBR, I would keep track of at least two books ahead of whatever I was actually reading, and unless it’s a series I just can’t stop reading between books, I usually try to pick something that’s pretty different from my current read. Variety helps keep slumps at bay. But, ultimately, no matter how well I plan and how specifically I schedule my reading time, how I choose what to read next most often comes down to my excitement level for a book at any given time. It’s important to me that I let myself read what I really want to, and that I don’t force myself into something that’ll turn me off of reading for a while. Reading shouldn’t be a chore.

Where I read: I can read literally anywhere, anytime. If I have a book with me, at least 30 seconds of down time, and enough light to see the words, I’ll probably be reading. It bothers me a little to be able to hear conversation well enough to make out the words, because it’s hard for me to tune that out, but I can if I must and any other sounds become white noise that fades easily into the background. Preferably, I love to have hours alone in a quiet environment with blankets and pillows to read comfortably, but I bring a book with me everywhere I go and I will read 10 pages here and there if that’s my best opportunity to read for the day.

How I read: one book at a time. I will sometimes start a second book if it’s easier to bring a different book along with me than the one I’m already in the middle of, or if I have to read a certain book for school or something but also want to read something of my own choice on the side. Never more than two, though, and I always finish everything I start. Actually there are two books I’ve started in the last couple of years that I’ve put on the back burner, but they still have my bookmarks inside them and I will still get around to them. I don’t quit books indefinitely. I try to read every day, almost always at the end of the day. Some days I’m too tired by then, and other days I read also or only in the middle of the day, whenever it fits in my schedule. I prefer physical books, all the time. I do read snippets online, if there are free previews available and I can’t wait to have the physical copy, but I don’t like reading whole books electronically on any sort of device. I’ve never given audio books a real try, but I’m not in a hurry for that, either, because I already know I don’t like listening to other people read. I don’t like the words I’m encountering for the first time to be influenced by someone else’s impression of them–I want to read them at my own pace with my own inflections in my own voice (or mind-voice), because it’s my own experience. I think ebooks and audio books are great literary advancements, and I’m glad they’re out there in the world, but I prefer holding actual paper and seeing the words for myself while I read. I drink a lot of water while I’m reading, but mostly because I drink a lot of water all the time. If I’m eating a meal alone, I like to read while I eat, but otherwise I don’t have much of a connection between reading and eating. I also mark quotes I want to save for myself as I read. I like annotating sometimes, but I don’t like reading previous thoughts on a second read-through and I don’t like loaning out books I’ve written in, so I don’t do that often. I use post-its to keep track of sections I want to save quotes from, and jot down on the post-it whether I want to use it in a review, share it with someone specific, or just keep it for myself, and then I deal with those tasks at the end of the book and remove the post-its.

How fast I read: (and how long it takes me to finish a book) depends on a lot of things. Primarily, my schedule dictates how much reading time I have, and then my reading pace determines how long it will take me within that time. Some books, like typical YA books, thrillers, or plot-heavy books I read about a page a minute. Character-driven books, historical fiction, fantasy, classics, etc. take me twice as long or even longer. I wouldn’t say I’m a particularly fast reader, but I’m persistent. I don’t shy away from long books, but I usually prefer not to read several of them in a row. I won’t pick short books just to help myself finish a certain number of books in a week or a month or a year. Quality over quantity. I will soldier through the good ones instead of worrying about the numbers.

Finishing a book: is always rewarding. Sometimes I can immediately pick up another book and be reading something new within seconds of finishing, but other times I need to get up and move around and let it settle. And on rare occasions, I have to lie back and look up at the ceiling and give it some thought before I can move on to anything else at all. I often–more often if I loved the book–skim through the “extra” stuff once I’ve finished reading a book: the author bio, bonus content, previews of sequels, even the acknowledgements or author’s notes. There are some really interesting and pertinent things in there sometimes. Once I’ve read all the words I’m going to read and jotted down any quotes I wanted to save, I immediately mark the book as finished. I add it to my GoodReads challenge if it applies, and to the list I keep personally of all the books I’ve ever read. I rate the book, and open up a new post to jot down immediate impressions and ideas for a review if I’m going to write one. I make note of whether I want to read more books by the same author, or whether I want to look into reading more on that book’s subject. Then I slide the book back into its slot on my shelf, or stack it on the bottom of my borrowed books pile so that the unread volumes are ready to be picked up from the top. As soon as I’ve put a finished book aside, I pick up my next book and a bookmark for it, so it’s ready whenever I am.

Why I read: Because I love it. It’s fun. It relieves stress. It makes for interesting conversation. But mostly because I believe that reading gives us information about the world. We learn new ideas, and new perspectives. Character actions and motivations can help us understand real life motivations and personalities. They let us feel emotions we might not experience every day. I see books as a sort of coded how-to manual for life. You may have to sort through lies and manipulations and metaphors, but there are answers in there, and I want to find them all. Also, words are beautiful. Books are my favorite art form. I want to create art like that, and what better research can be done to prepare me than reading what others have already created, seeing what sorts of techniques people are drawn to, and applying my own impressions of others’ works to mine? I read because it makes me feel happy, connected, and inspired. I read because I want to be able to write in a way that will inspire others. I read because that’s what my brain feels like it was built to do.

What’s your reading process?


The Literary Elephant