Posted by: Nathan | March 18, 2008

What Kind of Reader am I?

This past term, one of my professors (he wrote this book*) asked the class a lot of interesting questions one day. We had just read the beginning to Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler, which I now want to read, and he had us write about what kind of reader we are. What do we expect from books? What are our biases, preferences, etc.? Because I review books on this blog as much as I do anything on this blog, I thought I should share my responses with you. After all, how much one can trust a book review depends greatly upon the reviewer. So, dear reader, here I am as a reader.

What do I expect from a book?

It must follow the author/reader contract, which is that the reader willingly gives squi’s time to the writer in exchange for the author making it worth squi’s while. If I feel the author has broken this contract, I’m going to dislike the book greatly. I expect the book to engage me in some way. If it’s fiction, I expect there to be at least one good quality (hopefully more than one), be it character, plot, style, theme, etc. If it’s poetry, I expect it to be beautiful in some aspect, and it should be thought-provoking. If we’re talking non-fiction, I ask only that it hold my interest; I don’t read much non-fiction.

I want to be able to like the book. I’m willing to do some of the work, but the author had better do most of it. After all, I paid for squi’s book.

Am I a “tough crowd?”

Well, I’d like to say no, but I think I probably am. I ask a lot of the books I read. Perhaps this comes as a function of reading almost exclusively canonical literature, which is admittedly unfair for other writers and genres. Too bad. Impress me.

What are some of my personal biases/deal-breakers?

I am a Christian, as you probably know due to the Bible verse on your right. This does not mean that a book has to follow my moral standards to be enjoyable for me; if I tried to do this, I couldn’t read most of the books I’ve read. However, I want something transcendent in my reading. I don’t think many secular readers think about this much (I could be wrong on that), but the most impressive thing a work can do is explode off the page into something beautiful, powerful, and (I’m going to say it) spiritual. It’s more than the sum of its parts. Few writers can do this, but those who can are masters.

Let’s also talk about sex. I don’t expect people in the books I read to wait for marriage or anything like that; there are and will be homosexual, sexually aggressive, and even perverted characters in literature. I get that, and I’ll willingly go along as long as the work doesn’t turn into porn. As soon as we’re describing what’s happening on a minute level, that’s too far–I’m in fast-forward mode if I’m not chucking the book across the room. Great authors know how to write about sex in a way that is suggestive without being disgustingly overt. Show me a little so I get the idea, make it lovely if it’s supposed to be romantic, and leave it. I had this problem with Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith; some really great writing in that one, but the porn scene ruined it. I’m not reading it again. (Also had a terrible, terrible ending. Terrible.)

How do the opinions of others affect me?

It depends, of course. If the opinion is from someone I trust, it will make me value the book more and want to read it if I haven’t already. If it’s someone I don’t know, I’ll file it into “General Accolades” for said book and decide for myself later. Let me also say that books suffer from massive over-hype. When I get a book and it has three pages of glowing reviews (“This is the friggin’ best book anyone could ever possibly write ever! My brain exploded by the end of page one! Whoop-de-doo! You MUST read this or you’re an idiot!), I’m automatically more critical. “This had better be good to live up to all this hype,” I inevitably say.

More often than not, the cover and prefatory praise damages my reading of the book rather than making me more excited about it. A word to publishers: be careful about hype. When I read that Phillip Pullman’s trilogy is on par with Lewis and Tolkien, my visceral reaction was, “Not likely, ” and The Golden Compass indeed cannot withstand such weight. If the review simply said, “This is an interesting and fun fantasy book,” I would have said, “Okay, let’s go.”

What effect does the physical appearance of the book have on me?

I’d like to say “None,” but it would be untrue. I want a book that’s in good condition: cover is not bent or torn, same with pages, no writing in the margins, nice paper if possible, and a good-sized font that’s easy on the eyes and keeps the pages turning. I want page numbers on nearly every page (I understand there are exceptions). As for the cover image, my ideal cover picture is aesthetically-pleasing and portrays something that is meaningless to the first-time reader but is important during and after the reading. One enormous pet peeve: do not have the author’s name bigger than the title of the book. No artist is bigger than squi’s art. This says, “Big ego” to me.

Have I changed as a reader?

Yes, with every book. The more one reads, the more on understands about not only writing and literature but also life and humanity. Great books always have something to offer, and what a book offers changes as you change (if it doesn’t, it’s not a great book). Plus, I get more allusions, see more artistry, notice what’s borrowed from other authors, pick up on literary devices, and am more able to break down a book as I’m reading it as I read more. Yet there is so much I still miss.

I hope that wasn’t endlessly boring for you. If you want, feel free to answer one or more of the questions for yourself via a comment or elsewhere. I hope this is a helpful guide to understanding me as a reviewer, and I hope I’ll be a trustworthy and fair source for book reviews.

*I haven’t read it, but from his class, I’m betting it’s dern good.

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Responses

  1. Far from endlessly boring, this was quite interesting. I always enjoy insights into the way other people experience those topics about which they are most passionate.

    One question I had is whether you cut bait early if the book has not lived up to your expectations. This is eminently hard to do, particularly if it’s either canonical or something purchased. Just curious.

  2. Good question. I’ve heard a lot of different takes on this one. Someone said the number of pages you should give any book to interest you is 100 minus your age; that way, the older you get, the fewer pages you waste.

    I think it’s a bad idea. I hardly ever give up on a book once I start it, especially if it’s canonical. Why? Some books show their worth only after a few hundred pages. I’ve read some that I didn’t like until they were over and I could see the vision of the author. I do throw in the towel on school reading fairly often if I’m out of time. That happened this semester with Middlemarch. I’ll read it later.

    I’m not saying everyone should do this, but since I’ve invested time and probably money on a book, I want to give it a chance to make it worth my while. That’s why if I finish a book and I didn’t enjoy it, I get really ticked.


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