Book scavenging

When I was younger I would read almost anything: novels, magazines, collections of anecdotes, reference books. I read a lot, but I never worried about having something new to read. I could go to the library and easily find half a dozen books to borrow.

Over time I came to prefer non-fiction to fiction, and certain genres of non-fiction over others. In the last six or seven years I’ve only read one novel, Doris Lessing’s Shikasta, which a good friend recommended to me.

These days I have much less time to read, which means I’m less willing to spend time reading things I don’t enjoy or learn something from. I don’t have patience for poor writing any more, even if the subject interests me. By the same token, I’ll read almost any non-fiction that’s written well – John McPhee’s books, for example. But that quality of writing is rare.

Finding the “right” books to read also depends on what else is going on in my life. If I’m reading and learning intensively at work, as I have been recently, I prefer to read something lighter in my free time, usually just before bed.

A strong desire to read and strong preferences about what to read induce a certain amount of angst. Most of the readers I know are familiar with this feeling. I’m not trying to read in quantity. I take my time. I’m also confident there are plenty of books I’d want to read. But finding them can be a challenge.

It’s rare that the “right” book simply comes into view when you’re ready to start a new one. Some forethought is necessary. I’m always on the lookout for books and book recommendations. I fill my shelves. I make lists.

Book scavenging requires patience and a mind that’s open to the unfamiliar. I browse in libraries and book stores. I find book reviews in different periodicals. I’ve read the book review archives of The Guardian and the New York Times, going back years. A history book that was great ten years ago is probably still great today, and copies are easier to find.

Recently I browsed through the most frequently assigned books in the Open Syllabus explorer. That was a great way to find out about seminal books in fields I know very little about.

I get recommendations from friends and coworkers. Sometimes the recommendations come from more offbeat sources, like interviews I read in the news. That’s how I found out about Lapham’s Quarterly.

In the days before there was so much to read on the Internet I had to be more opportunistic. Around my junior or senior year of high school I watched Oliver Stone’s The Doors. There’s a scene where Jim Morrison is squatting on a roof in LA and talking with Pamela Courson while lying on a mattress. There are books scattered on the mattress. If I paused the video I could just make out the titles. As you’d expect from Oliver Stone, they were actually books Morrison would have read at the time. I still remember:

  • McLuhan: Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man
  • Rimbaud: Season in Hell
  • Artaud: The Theater and its Double
  • Miller: Tropic of Cancer
  • Nietzsche: Birth of Tragedy

I carried that list around in my head until I got access to a library that had them (Bizzell, at Oklahoma University) and could read for myself. They’re all great books.