Choosing what to read

Dirk van Nouhuys' essay on the novels that have stayed with him (this blog, 2011.9.28) has got me thinking about how I choose fiction to read. Dirk has no patience for those lists of the 100 or 1,000 or however many books "you must read before you die"(try Googling "books"+"before you die" for examples), as though there could be one list for everybody (and as though there were only that many possibilities). I too think such lists are silly, but since I know I'm never going to read more than a tiny sample of all that's worth reading, I need some way to guide my choices.

So, how do I choose? For starters, I always try to read the selections of my local reading club in Carboneras, which are usually good and always promote lively discussions (all in Spanish, which I review on my Spanish-language blog Lecturas y lectores). Beyond that I have two major criteria:
  • The book promises to tell me something I really want to know, for example about a culture or a time or a place or a psychological experience, and/or 
  • I expect to learn something I can use about the craft of writing. 
I'm most interested in books that do both. Thus, so far I've been less engaged by Cormac McCarthy (fascinating craftsman, but I don't much care for or need to hear his strange view of the world) than by, for example, Mario Vargas Llosa (another amazing prose crafter, but one who engages social issues that I do care about).

But even limiting my reading to books that do one or the other of those things, my actual reading is still largely a matter of chance: what I happen to have heard about and what I can get easily.

I'm not going to try to create a list like Dirk's, but if anyone is curious about the books I have found important enough to read and comment on, you're invited to take a look at my "Little Library of the Lair" Fiction Readings or, if you read Spanish, the different collection in my Pequeña biblioteca comentada.

On another note, I'm glad to see that some of my earliest work is still being cited by scholars. A recent example is this MA thesis by Javier Fernández (University of Georgia, 2004), which makes good use of parts of my 1979 book Working-Class Émigrés from Cuba (Palo Alto: R&E Research Publications, 1979; published version of my 1975 PhD dissertation), which must have been in his university library — it's pretty hard to get these days, but a recent query made me aware that it has also been a resource to other younger scholars working on issues including migration, Latinos, the Cuban revolution or racial and gender conflicts. (For more about this work, see my entry in Academia.edu, Working-Class Émigrés from Cuba.)


Dirk van Nouhuys said...

About: Cormac McCarthy. I've only read two of his books, Blood Meridian and The Road. I admired his prose, of course. There are paragraphs, particularly in Blood Meridian, where I would just stop reading and stare stunned at the page with amazement and admiration. It is breathtaking. But besides that there is something to be esteemed in his taking on a totally Hobbesian - society is not the right word, there ain't no social contract in the Sonora desert of Blood Meridian, not the faintest hint of one. And it is important and necessary to consider that possibility in human nature. I remember once I was at a reading by Robert Stone. Some one asked him why is books were always so depressing. He answered with words close to these, "The fact that terrible things happen and we can write well about them is not bad news." And it's no coincidence that the friend who put me onto Blood Meridian is one of the most thoughtful students I know of human nature, and one of the nicest guys.

Baltasar Lotroyo said...

OK. I take your recommendations seriously, Dirk, so I'll get Blood Meridan and read it. What I've read of his is No Country for Old Men and The Road; the unread McCarthy on my shelves includes All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing and Cities of the Plain, which I'll get to eventually if I live long enough.

Anonymous said...

To what extent is your fiction choice American influenced? I think I have read only 16 of the books on your list and 10 other books of authors mmentioned.
You have encouraged me to think about my own list - which certainly include 4 russian authors and a number of brits that don't feature on your list.
Looking at your criteria may I make one recomendation - David Mitchell "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet"


Baltasar Lotroyo said...

If Dirk's effort has spurred you to make your own list, then it has achieved its purpose. I don't know what you mean by "American influenced." Dirk's list includes Russian, French, Chinese, Irish, English, German and Australian authors. I mentioned only two, one American and one Peruvian.
Thanks for your recommendation of David Mitchell's latest novel. I'll check it out.