Tuesday 12 February 2013

On Reading (and Books Blogging)

I don't know how it is for other books bloggers – which I guess is essentially what I am, even though Existential Ennui isn't, I don't think, a stereotypical new release/press release/publicity mill kind of books blog, and furthermore I don't define myself by that label, because doing this – this, this digressive navel-gazing excuse for an ostensible books blog post thing right here – this isn't my job or anything, although I do work in books publishing, and my job does occasionally intersect with my passion – which is to say the books I blog about on Existential Ennui... But anyway, I don't know how it is for other books bloggers, but blogging about books sometimes feels to me like I'm making a rod for my own back.

You see, increasingly over the past year or so I've found myself planning my reading around what I believe will make for a good blog post – or even better, series of posts – rather than around what I genuinely feel like reading at that moment in time. Now, you might reasonably surmise that the two pursuits – reading and blogging – would be indivisible – natural bedfellows, as it were (literally, sometimes, when I'm lying in bed reading a book and making notes on my mobile phone; apologies if that conjures up an unsavoury mental image) – and often as not you'd be correct. But not always, and especially not when I've locked myself into a series of posts – and I realise I have no one to blame but myself there; it's me who determines the course of Existential Ennui, me who decides each time to embark on a series – and find myself reading a book purely because I'm currently blogging about that author or genre (or whatever).

Moreover, two related problems spring to mind. For one thing, I'm not sure anyone should "plan" their reading beyond having a vague idea of which book, or at a push books, they might like to try next; it rather takes all the fun, all the spontaneity out of the act. For another, having to adhere to a structure with my reading can make it feel like a chore – like I'm having to read set texts or something: trudging through one book in order to get to the next one, and then the next one, and so on.

So, a couple of weeks ago, I decided that enough was enough. I had various series of posts planned, but I knew that in each instance, the reading I would be required to do in order to write those posts I would be doing because I was required to do so; in other words, out of a misguided sense of duty – Christ knows to what or to whom; I mean, it's not as if this is the most widely read of books blogs – rather than because I really wanted to read those particular books. On top of that, I knew that increasing pressures from my "real", non-blogging life would mean that, going forward, I was likely to have less and less time available to devote to reading (and bear in mind my reading also encompasses comics, which I don't blog about too often, but which I usually have a small pile of on the go as well), let alone blogging. (Coincidentally, Trent at Violent World of Parker – where, irony upon irony, I'm co-blogger – also hinted at this in his anniversary post yesterday – and happy websitebirthday, by the way, Trent!)

With that in mind, I did something I hadn't done for a while: I stood before my bookcases (hold your horses: that's not the thing I hadn't done for while; I do that all the bloody time, frequently in my pants) and instead of trying to work out which of the many unread books on my shelves I could blog about next, I simply considered which one, or at a push, which two or three, I'd like to read next. It was, I can tell you, a liberating experience (wearing only pants might have helped). Divorced of the burden of blogging, I was able to properly focus on the books as the the things they were meant to be – things to be read – and select the one I had the greatest desire to read.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying I won't blog about the book that I picked, because I can pretty much guarantee I will; nor am I saying that there won't be any more series of posts on Existential Ennui: one springs immediately to mind (although that won't require much reading on my part – that's already been done by someone else) and in fact the book that I selected will probably itself result in a short series of posts. It's more the principle of the thing, or, if you like, the intent behind it: if I only have a certain amount of time to dedicate to reading – a thing I love doing above almost (almost) every other pursuit – then it stands to reason that I should choose the books that I most want to read, and that my blogging should reflect, should be driven by, my reading – not the other way round.

All of which begs the inevitable question: which book did I choose to set me on this newfound path towards reading for reading's sake? I hesitate to say it, as it slightly – perhaps fatally – undermines my entire argument, but: all will be revealed in the next post...*

*Although a clue can be found in the image at the top of this post: there's a book missing from one of the shelves...


  1. Yes, yes, yes, a thousand times, yes. Couldn't agree more - there's the weird line when you blog because you're passionate but then the passion starts leading the blog and then the fun becomes a chore and... and, in conclusion, as you say, it is really all your own fault anyway.

    But that's the best part of being unpaid, volunteer, part-time, hobbyist, amateur fans - we're not actually beholden to anyone but ourselves, and we can shift gears as much as we want! If we're not having fun, what's the point?

    (Note how I ended that with some existential ennui, as that seemed appropriate.)

  2. I wondered if this one might strike a chord. Why do we do it to ourselves, eh?

  3. 'cause it is awesome!

    I do agree that taking a step back and reading, you know, stuff you just want to read is the best way of un-grumping.

    ('Un-grumping' was a term actually coined by Louis XIV. Were it not for his own need of ungrumping, we'd not have Versailles. FACT.)

  4. As long as you blog about whatever it is that you are reading, buying, or watching, I don't think any of your readers will mind the changes you are making. By now, most of your readers/followers/sycophants read EE for your take on whatever subject is at hand, irrespective of the subject matter. That said, we've probably been spoiled by your dedication to EE the past few years. So read what you want but still share it with us. (When you post your list of books read the past year, I always feel cheated when I see titles that you've read but haven't written about. But I guess that is because you've been slaving away on all those long series of posts.)

    You take notes on your phone in bed? I use notecards and golf pencils. I have a notebook for when I'm reading on the Kindle. (I just got an advance electronic copy of the new Kate Atkinson and took one of my wife's police notebooks to make notes in.) When I am reading on my iPod or iPad I can never manage to take notes - I just hope I remember whatever it is later on.

  5. Jared: Dunno if 'awesome' is the word I'd quite use, but it's a fun diversion. Most of the time.

    BG: You're too kind. But thank you. And yes, I do sometimes make notes on my phone when I'm reading (depends on the book), usually a draft email. Hang om though: you have the new Kate Atkinson? You swine! Have you started it?

  6. This is so true, Nick! Last year I fell into a trap of my own making and missed out on reading what I really wanted to read all because I felt obligated to write posts about unusual, strange, outré and obscure books. I sort of turned competitive, actually, trying to outdo some of the other bloggers who also happen to write about old and often out of print crime fiction (and I might add began their blogs a few months after mine took off). But I am one of the few over here in the US that does what you do -- writes about my own personal collection of books, the art of book collecting, books as works of art, visiting used bookstores, finding paper objects in books, etc. So I have those kinds of posts that I tend to enjoy doing more than the book reviews which have at times become something of a chore. I stopped saying Yes to review copies for that very reason.

    I have notebooks filled with notes on my reading. I also have habit of attaching Post-Its with paragraphs marked to pages I want to quote in a review. I still feel it is necessary to handwrite my notes. If I don't write with a pen on paper every day I feel like I'm going to forgot how to do it in my old age. I don't want that to happen.

    I'm not sure I needed to know you admire your books standing in your underwear but thanks for thinking of us as your intimate friends, Nick, and being comfortable enough to make such offhand remarks. I continue to read your blog weekly even if I don't leave as many comments as I used to. I like knowing there is at least one other book obsessed man in the world who seems to me like a long lost cousin.

  7. Nick, I have felt the same way as you do. There was a time when I was compelled to read certain books, less than 200-page paperbacks, so that it made reading and later blogging about it easy for me. I let my blog decide what I should read and write about. As a result, I lost valuable time reading the books I wanted to read, like the classics, for instance. Now I read two kinds of books: one for the sheer pleasure of reading and the other for the equal pleasure of reading and posting about it. The latter are short-term reads, books I am comfortable writing about, while I'd never venture to review books by Austen, Dostoevsky, Elliot, Tolstoy, the Brontes, Trollope etc., which I savour and leave at that.

    I was delighted to know that your reading includes comics, so does mine, though I don't read or write about them as often as I'd like to. My reading of comic-books doesn't go beyond the late-1980s for I have rarely liked the glossy artwork or the partitioned storyboard of some of the stuff I have read since. I restrict myself to comics of the Silver, Golden, and Bronze Ages.

    Jared, Book Glutton, and John have said interesting things about book and blogging. Many thanks, Nick, for all the insight.

  8. John, Prashant, thank you for confirming that it's not just me (and Jared and BG). It has, as Prashant says, been very interesting to hear how books blogging impacts all our lives. And John: I've never been afraid to reveal the intimate sartorial details of my existence (and other intimate details for that matter). In fact, I'm sitting here right now typing this naked.