On being a young reader

Something I’ve noticed while sifting through the glut of “best of 2005” book lists this year is that I’m utterly unfamiliar with 80-90% of the titles. Actually, it’s not just the titles; it’s the authors themselves.

I consider myself a pretty well read person, someone that has been able to fool a multitude of people into thinking I’m an accomplished book-reviewer and worthwhile critic. But, if you scratch the surface of most of my articles, you’ll find I’m only aware of the bare minimum of the literary world. When it comes to hidden gems and critic’s choices, I’m at a complete loss.

I’ve wondered how so many great books could have slipped past me – you’d think that, by chance alone, I’d have stumbled upon some book that no one had ever heard of – and how I’ll ever be able to create my own “best of” list that doesn’t include a horribly mainstream and pedestrian set of books.

There are two answers to this worry. Number one, I’m a young reader. This is to be expected. I’m only 27 years old, and though I’ve been reading all of my life, there have been great gaps in my consumption. I never did much reading after college (at least not until last spring), only making it through 6-8 books per year. During college wasn’t much better, as I had other things to occupy my time, like school and work. Therefore, I’ve only been a serious reader for about one year.

Secondly, I’m not privy to the inside track. I don’t possess any first hand knowledge; I’m not yet a bookseller and I’m not able to access the resources that many avid readers can take advantage of.

Those are my veiled excuses. To tell you the truth, I see this as a challenge. Now I find myself both unaware of new hidden things and fight to catch up with what I missed. This is how I work – my mind doesn’t rest until I become a self-proclaimed expert on a subject.

It’s rather sick. Ask my friends about the following pursuits that occupied my college years (in chronological order): second-wave “emo” music, professional wrestling, video game consoles, NBA basketball (and later, sports in general), and now books. Some of these can be chalked up to some jobs; others can be chalked up to having a group of friends that helped feed the demon. All are obsessive.

At least books are widely accepted, and give the air of being intelligent.

I’ve done a lot to widen my horizons. I used to find myself exhausting an author that I liked (Bill Bryson, for example) then moving on to the rest of that author’s field and eventually exhausting it as well (travel literature), then saying to Kerrie “I can’t find anything to read.” Now, thanks in part to my new Pocket Penguin 70th Anniversary box set, I’m spanning genres I’d never have even glanced at before.

My goal is to have it all read, all 70 of the 55-page books, by the end of January. I’ve already found at least five authors (P.D. James, Jonathan Safran Foer, Marian Keyes, Hari Kunzru, and Simon Schama) that I’d never given a second look but now see as great literary talents that should have filled my bookshelves years ago. And I’m only 22 books into the set!

So. If next year you find my “best of 2006” list lacking any hidden talents or breakthrough novels, don’t fret. Don’t hold it against me. Don’t consider my reading as base and uninspired. Consider this instead – I’ve got hundreds of years of the written word to try to catch up with. I only discovered John Steinbeck this year. Someday I’ll be at a literary level of those professionals that get paid to talk about books.

Consider this as well: I still like what I like. Just because a book is unknown, or written by someone who is a star on the rise, doesn’t mean it’s going to be good. It also doesn’t mean it’s going to get worse if I don’t read it when it comes out. I’ll still include J.K. Rowling on my list, regardless of how marketed her books are.

Let’s just say this. I know I have a long way to go before I’ve sampled everything. But until then, I’m trying as hard as I can.

This was lovingly handwritten on December 24th, 2005