Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Reading with low expectations

When Daniel Woodrell was the featured author a week ago at the Writers in Paradise conference in St. Petersburg, he had this advice for readers: "Every fourth or fifth book, read something you don't think you'll like." It was by doing this, he said, that he discovered James Salter, a writer he didn't expect to like, but did.

Reading books you don't expect to enjoy is a lot to ask of any reader, but especially those of us who can't find enough time to read more than a fraction of the books we do want to read. Books require a big investment of time, and sacrificing this time to read anything that's not on our personal must-read list seems like a waste.

Yet Woodrell does make a good point. Just because we don't expect to like a book doesn't mean we won't like it, and reading books outside our comfort zone can expand that comfort zone and introduce us to new writers who may become favorites. And just because we start a book doesn't mean we are obligated to finish it. If you don't like a book after 50 pages, chuck it and turn to something you know you will enjoy.

As a book reviewer for many years, I have frequently found myself reading books I really did not want to read -- and sometimes enjoying them. I think, for example, of Gene Logsdon's 2008 novel The Last of the Husbandmen. Logsdon writes primarily about farming and gardening, and his few novels have gotten little attention. I did not expect to like The Last of the Husbandmen and was surprised when I did.

I think Woodrell's advice is especially good for those readers stuck in a particular groove -- those who read only mysteries or only romances or only nonfiction or only best sellers. These people need to broaden their horizons a little bit and try something different once in awhile.

I know a man who reads a lot and enjoys talking about books, but he confessed to me once that he never reads anything written by a woman. That seems outrageous to me. For starters, I think he should try Candice Millard's The River of Doubt, a book about Theodore Roosevelt's trip to the Amazon, which nearly cost him his life. I can't imagine him not liking that book, despite his bias against female writers.

No doubt there are also women who avoid books written by men. I knew a prolific writer named Robert Liston who once told me he also wrote romance novels under a woman's name. He refused to divulge his pen name for fear that women would no longer read them if they knew they were written by a man. Maybe he was right, but having a man's name hasn't seemed to stop Nicholas Sparks from being a best-selling romance writer.

Occasionally reading a book we don't expect to like is probably a good idea for all of us, even if it accomplishes nothing more than confirm for us that we were right in the first place.

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