November 12, 2010
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What Should We Be Reading?

It seems to me that choosing what to read is a very big deal. My niece Morgan was just visiting to look at colleges. She’s putting a lot of thought into where she’s going to go and what she’s going to study when she gets there, and everyone agrees that these are questions that deserve time and thought. Ask people how they plan their personal curriculum, on the other hand, and you get blank incomprehension — even from publishing professionals.

Everyone is always behind on their reading, but how many of us know where we ought to be?

Publishers Weekly kicks off the Season Of Lists with its list of 100 best books of 2010. There are lots of good books on this list. It’s a long list; few people will have read all these books, and of course there are some other fine books that appeared in 2010. In addition, plenty of “2009” books only reach their audience after winning an award, like China Mieville’s The City & The City ,

There are plenty of good books that didn’t make the list. Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question won the Booker Prize, and doesn’t crack the top 100. I loved Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector , and it’s missing, too. And this doesn’t begin to address the question of more specialized books, like Sarah Smith’s new atmospheric, Bostonian YA, The Other Side of Dark , or Peter Heather’s massive history of the end of Rome and what came after, Empires and Barbarians .

One interesting judgment call in the PW list is the way it apportions space: mainstream fiction(30), mystery(6), romance(5), poetry,(5) sf/fantasy/horror(5), comics(10),religion(10), lifestyle(5), and nonfiction(24). This could represent the trade’s estimate of bookstore sales, I suppose, but surely romance outsells poetry. It might represent the accident of the PW org chart. It might be old established habit.

But perhaps this is a proposal for how a thoughtful reader might apportion their attention. In some respects, I think this makes sense. I “don’t read” lifestyle books, but lately I’ve started to read some books about food and cooking and 5% of one’s reading list seems about right. Poetry, comics and religion all seem high, and both mystery and nonfiction seems wildly low. The border between mainstream and mystery is, at any rate, so permeable here that Le Carré and Scott Turow both show up in mainstream; mystery is mainstream.

For example, let’s think about Science Fiction and Fantasy. Though this genre has a mixed reputation, we can agree that an educated reader ought to know some of its key works: you really do need to know Tolkien and Asimov and Verne and Gibson if you want to know what’s going on around you. But, suppose you’ve done your homework and have a decent background; about how many SF/F books do you need to read this year to stay abreast of the world?

How many books on programming should a computer professional read?

Sure, we can all join the Republican Party and pretend that we don’t need to read anything at all – that if we close our eyes and believe in good things, we’ll create a wonderful reality of prosperity and happiness. And, ues, there’s no excuse for ignorance: whatever you don’t know, whatever you haven’t read, that’s a failing. We agree: we should be reading more (if there were world enough and time). But what? How do we choose?

I know this is a juvenile question, the question of a kid who sees his first library. But still: lots of kid’s questions get lots of attention and lots of thought. There’s a guy on every street corner eager to answer Job’s question (“Why me?”) for you.

What should we be reading?