I’ve always been a reader, and I’ve always loved writing. I grew up in a house where both activities were encouraged greatly: my mother is an English professor and instilled in me a love of reading and writing. Although I’ve kept a journal of some form since I was little, both online and off, it wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I married two of my favorite activities and starting writing about books.
When I started my (current) blog nearly five years ago, it didn’t really have a focus. But it didn’t take long for me to start recognizing a pattern in my own posting: I was writing about books, movies, and TV. Since then, my writing has honed in on the aspects of books, reading, and popular culture that I’m most passionate about. Like many other book-lovers, I read voraciously. As a result of reading books, reading about books, and writing about books, my relationship to how I think and talk about books has been altered dramatically.
It wasn’t until recently that I realized how true that actually is. This past year, I joined a book club, something I’ve always wanted to try. In the interest of full disclosure, it’s a casual book club on its best day: about half the members show up each month, and we mostly drink wine and talk about everything except for the book. But we do spend at least a portion of the evening (sometimes only 10-15 minutes) talking about the book. And my responses to the text—no matter what we’ve read that week—are markedly different from the other women’s.
I don’t mean to say that what the other people in the book club have to say about the book isn’t valid or thoughtful or smart—because these are smart, very educated women—but that the way they talk about the books is completely different from how I talk about the books.
Some of them come armed with a couple notes about the text; I’ve been known to show up with the book bursting at the seams with post-its and pages of highlighted hand-written thoughts (the highlights are useful for finding the most important bits after my second glass of wine). While they talk about how they enjoyed the book or not, I talk about the fact that the writing was weak, that the author continually told the readers instead of showing them things, that the plot was contrived, the dialogue stilted, and that the plot holes were gaping.
“I can’t wait to hear what you have to say about this next one,” one of the women said to me a few months ago. “You always have such a strong reaction to what we read.”
At the time, I sort of laughed it off. But then what she said started to worry me, ever so slightly.
Is it because she thinks of me as a hater? I hope not. I haven’t loved everything that we’ve chosen to read in the club, but isn’t that the point of something like this? Reading outside of your comfort zone? Picking titles that you wouldn’t otherwise have even glanced at and getting to hear different perspectives on what worked or didn’t?
Is my intense reaction to what we read because I write about books and because my job (as a librarian) largely revolves around books, reading, and evaluative thought? Could it be because I’m a reactionary person (I totally am, ask anyone who has had a conversation with me longer than 5 minutes) and feel things intensely? Or am I really just a hater, determined to find something to criticize, even in books I love?
I’ve struggled with this thought for a while now, even going so far as to write about it my (private, paper) journal. I don’t have any answers that I find wholly satisfying, but I do know this:
- Writing about books has made me a stronger reader because it helps me develop the vocabulary and critical thinking skills necessary to really think hard about books.
- Writing about books has made me a stronger writer because the more you practice something, the better you get at it, duh. (I’m still waiting for this “practice makes you better” thing to apply to my ability to cross stitch, but I hear patience is a virtue or something.)
- Writing about books has made me a better, more resilient reader, one who is unafraid to take risks, tackle challenging books, and confront my assumptions about books and reading head-on.
So, there’s that. Maybe because I write about books and regularly engage with other readers who write about books, I approach reading differently than the women in this book club. Maybe?
Or maybe I’m just really a hater. Even when it comes to my favorite material thing in the world: books.