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Librarian in Residence: Judging books by their contents and readers by their tastes….

By Jessica Green on January 27, 2015

Jessica Green is a book addict and library card holder since the age of 3. She’s a librarian at the Ottawa Public Library and currently the Apartment613 Librarian-in-Residence, sharing a compendium of literary thoughts and tips.

I stumbled across two very interesting articles that discuss reading habits. The first, which you can find here  looks at why we should finish every novel we read. Juliet Lapidos makes her case for reading completely through every novel we start. I don’t know if she picked her examples terribly well though, as Charles “I get paid by the word” Dickens wasn’t exactly known for his brevity, and I still carry an intense dislike for Henry James after having to study The Turn of the Screw. That being said, I am not sure if slogging through giant tomes is a true test of fortitude. Think about what we all went through in high school in our English classes; it is little wonder we do keep reading as adults!

Joking aside, Lapidos’ statement about dropping a novel after a few chapters is “to disregard what makes it a formal work of art rather than a heap of papers that reside in a desk drawer” is a bit much. Unless you are purchasing the novel in question, the author will probably never know whether you liked or disliked the book (until you post to your blog or twitter feed and even then…). And are all published objects “formal works of art”? I’d be hesitant to apply that label to the 50 Shades of Grey-esque style books…

Regardless, I can see the personal challenge of trying to stick to novels once you’ve decided to read them. As a kid, I used to read everything right on through, but now with all the reading I do for work, if it doesn’t capture me by about page 50, I have little trouble dropping the book  as I have more than enough to read.

The other article that caught my eye was this one which is also from The Atlantic and refers to the previous article by Lapidos. Noah Berlatsky observes that judging books as being difficult is more subjective than objective, that is:

“It’s as though “good” may be relative, but “tough” is always and everywhere the same […]”Difficulty” is one way to dismiss that unease—to say, well, if you don’t like this important novel, it’s because you aren’t willing to do the hard work required to understand it.”

He continues to observe that difficulty is a value that is hard to pin down, so one should not blame readers for their love or hatred of certain stories. Berlatsky was unable to get through 50 Shades of Grey, and loathes John Grisham, a perennial best seller, so does that make him a literary snob, or just someone who admits that he just didn’t like those stories?

There are always those who wish to be admired for having read tough books and who also want to judge those who have failed at the same task, but my feeling is that life is too short, so you should read what you want, or in more eloquent words from Megan Stephan from Public Books “I’ll be grateful when the back-and-forth chatter about whether our reading should make us feel guilty fades to a silence that allows me to hear the sound of pages turning.”

Quick Picks

On Immunity by Eula Biss – This is the book I have been telling everyone to read recently, as it is an eloquent examination of health, immunization, vaccines and what it all means in the modern world. It was on many best of 2014 lists, and it’s a wonderful read.

The Manhattan Projects by Jonathan Hickman – A crazy alternate history of the Manhattan Projects where the science gets really weird. I can’t even really describe the plot or characters for fear of spoilers, but there is cannibalism, madness, radiation, aliens, chainsaws…..you just have to read the series.

419 by Will Ferguson – I know I am late to the party on this book as it has been out for a few years. But it is a compelling read where all the disparate storylines intersect in many ways. It is the best sort of story where the ending is satisfying but not quite all at the same time.