23 April 2014

A Reading Revolution?

 

On this week's episode of The Readers, Simon and I responded to a question that a listener named Sue posted on the podcast's group message board on Goodreads. Sue asked us how we find good books that don't get hyped and may be flying under the proverbial radar. In her question, Sue rightly points out that many book bloggers, have become the tools [my words, not hers] of the publishing industry and don't necessarily provide insight to the 'little' books out there.

We tossed around a few ideas--probably the sanest and least helpful of which was personal recommendations--but then Simon had had a brainstorm and decided he was going to start a Reading Revolution. He charged us all to go spend some time at the library and check out as many overlooked books as our lending limit allowed. In my case, the DC library system does not have a limit on how many books you can take out so I limited myself the number of books I could comfortably carry home.

As I combed through the shelves looking for books that might have flown under the radar three things occurred to me:
  • With my penchant for older books, would I even know if a recent book had been neglected?
  • What is the line between forgotten and overlooked? What if something came out two years ago, had a bit of a buzz, or at least enough initial interest that people checked it out, but then it had been ignored on the shelf for a couple of years? Is that forgotten, or overlooked?
  • Without having read any of these books, how could I know if they were good books or merely good enough to find a publisher?
How did I attempt to pluck under the radar gems off the library shelves?
  • I realized I wouldn't know they were gems until I tried reading them, so I just put that worry out of my mind.
  • I skipped any author I had heard of or who had multiple titles on the shelf.
  • I skipped any novel that was represented by more than one copy on the shelf.
  • I looked for small imprints and presses.
  • I looked at the date due stamps to figure when it was last checked out (if at all). This turned out to be an inexact science as the date due stickers could have been replaced and for some brilliant reason the DCPL has decided not to stamp books with due dates any more--they simply tell you what the due date is. I think this is lame for multiple reasons, but don't get me started.
While I contemplated the choices, roughly following the rules above, I noted the following:
  • There are a lot of books with titles following this construction: THE [POSSESSIVE NOUN]'s NOUN such as: The Professor's Niece or The Dog-Groomer's Second Cousin, etc. I am wildly biased against such books. It just seems a little too cute, really lazy, and drafting off the success of other novels with similar titles.
  • So many contemporary books--over the last ten years or so--seem to be really interested in giving the reader some sort of hook--and usually something of the earthshattering variety. Like clickbait on the internet where headlines are constructed to get people to click on fairly mundane stories. These are the anti-Pyms and anti-Brookners.  They don't even equate to good plotting, they merely seem to suggest that every new author is the result of some MFA program that drills it into their students that there needs to be some crazy twist or no one will want to read the book.
  • A lot of authors seem to be hell bent on providing Oprah-level "A-ha" moments.
  • There is a fair amount of historical fiction out there. Part of me thinks that may be a function of the DC system catering to a non-fiction biased reading public, but part of me wondered if those kind of books require less imagination for authors. I'm not knocking historical fiction by any means, but it seemed like finding some historical character and coming up with some fantastic or dark or touching or unbelievable thing that could have happened to them in ye olde times might be easier than coming up with a story from whole cloth. 
It will be interesting to see which, if any, of these nine books might be considered hidden gems. Or if I can even finish all nine or any of them.

Remembrance of Things I Forgot by Bob Smith
Familiar by J. Robert Lennon
Winter Birds by Jim Grimsley
Wolves of the Crescent Moon by Yousef Al-Mohaimeed
Miss Fuller by April Bernard
I'm Not Scared by Niccolo Ammaniti
The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah
The Forgiven by Lawrence Osborne
Man Alive! by Mary Kay Zuravleff

Are any of these popular enough as to disqualify them from being under the radar?

P.S. While I was at the library I couldn't help picking up two Eric Ambler mysteries. I recently asked on Twitter for ideas about old fashioned mystery / spy novels and Ambler's name was mentioned. But those are too old and probably too popular to fit the #ReadingRevolution.

21 comments:

  1. Big smooches to you and Simon! Huzzah for using the library!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I had the fiction section all to myself for about half an hour on a Saturday morning.

      Delete
  2. Yay, you made it to the library! After your "do I have to?" on the pod cast, I was wondering if you would go. I love this idea, and hope to do some "revolutionary" reading myself this summer. As far as your titles/authors go, I've never heard of any of them, so I'll be curious to see if you find any hidden gems. Happy Reading to you!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I was suddenly in the mood to do it. It was like I sometimes get with bookstores where I feel I just have to spend some time in one.

      Delete
  3. Gah - I'm totally with you on the Noun's Noun book titles, especially if the second Noun is Daughter or Wife. I really like the idea of finding books under the radar and shining a light on them. I think the majority of books could fit this category, as it is only a tiny few that get well-publicized and widely read - well, as far as the general public goes. Then there are the books that rocket around the blogosphere, some due to word-of-mouth and some due to a blog publicity tour. And what's under the radar for one person, isn't for another - for instance, I have never heard of Eric Ambler. (I'm not a huge mystery buff.) I do miss the date due stamps for giving that texture of use history for library books, but now that most public libraries have self check-out stations, date due stamps are mostly in the past. I rely on email to let me know when my public library books are due.

    Anyway, I look forward to hearing how your experiment works out with these batches of books. I've never heard of any of them.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. They do tend to be daughters and wives don't they? And they all sound so trite. I think you are right about most books being under the radar. I never thought of it that way.

      Delete
  4. The only one of these I've heard of is I'm Not Scared, which I think I've seen reviewed on a couple of blogs. I mostly remember it because I saw the movie before I knew it was a book. (The movie is in Italian and was pretty much overlooked in the US, I think, so the fact that there was a movie probably doesn't disqualify it.)

    An interesting think about the whole overlooked question is when a book crosses over from being overlooked or forgotten to becoming a big book. I'm thinking of something like Stoner, which was forgotten for years until it was everywhere, even among readers who don't read blogs.

    I also wonder about the books that get lots of buzz and are forgotten. When I was maintaining a TBR list, I had books that were huge 5 years ago on it, but that I haven't heard about since. Did everyone stop talking about them because they weren't so good after all, or is it just that people forgot about them and they didn't find new readers after the initial buzz.

    And finally (I have many thoughts today), I went through a brief phase last year when I tried to select at least one book I hadn't heard much about on every library visit. It was fun, but challenging since I've heard about SO MANY books. It was only moderately successful as far as finding good stuff goes, but it would be worth doing once in a while at least.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Too bad you don't still have that 5-year old TBR list, that would be a perfect resource for this venture. I can remember a time in my life when all trips to the library resulted in books I had never heard of. I kind of miss those days.

      Delete
  5. I have heard of Nicolo Ammaniti, probably on someone’s blog, but never read any of his stuff. Everything else you list is a complete mystery to me. Please to let us know how you get on. Will these be just hidden books, or hidden gems?

    My library ditched those little cards that went in the front pocket of the book showing the reader the dates it was last checked out years ago. I miss them. Now you get a paper receipt with the titles and due dates. These receipts do make good bookmarkers and they often get left in the book. When that happens, I like looking to see what other books that patron checked out.

    When I was a kid, I would just browse the shelves at the library, looking for whatever title or cover caught my fancy. It would be fun to introduce that sort of spontaneity back into my reading, but in order to do that, I would have to cut myself off completely from the internet. I am too distracted by shiny new (to me) books.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My reply to Teresa's comment relates to your final paragraph. I miss that kind of spontaneity as well. Sometimes I do that and it turns out well, but nothing like the feeling of having no agenda.

      Delete
  6. I have not heard of any of these. Love the idea of Reading Revolution. I go to the library every Tues after my play reading class and maybe I'll pick up a totally random book, eyes closed, off the shelf and read it.Might fit into my Century of Books challenge. Would be an interesting exercise to read something I've never heard of. Great idea Thomas.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If you close your eyes, you may end up with something you have heard of.

      Delete
    2. That's a thought. I'll have to open them again before I check it out. :-) I'm like Ruthiella is above in looking at the slips of paper left behind to see what other people checked out. Funny, our little habits. Now I'm looking forward to going to library again just when I thought I might read the myriad of books in my front room first. Oh my. Good thing it is a holiday weekend for ANZAC day and it's closed.

      Delete
  7. Possessive titles have been a bugbear of mine for a long time. I blame Julian Barnes, as it all started after Flaubert's Parrot. As for historical novels, I can't read them as they just feel like upmarket fantasy fiction. The dialogue grates, whether the author goes down the "Thou hast" route or decides to stick with a contemporary idiom. I know I'm missing out on some great books and I need to lighten up.

    My nomination for an underrated gem would be David Karp's Leave Me Alone. It has all of the elements that made Revolutionary Road popular and I enjoyed the setting - New York/Long Island on the eve of the 1960s.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It must have been a slow build from when Flaubert's Parrot was published to reach the fever pitch it seems to be today. I think someone should do a dissertation tracing the roots and development of the possessive title. The Karp sounds good.

      Delete
  8. I'm Not Scared is brilliant - and so was the movie (Io non ho paura), I yelped out loud with fright! I wouldn't have described it as neglected/forgotten - although maybe it got less attention in US than over here. But please do read it. I'm impressed that your system turned up such a wonderful book.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh dear, io ho paura that I am not going to like Io non ho paura. It started off kind of good and then it lost me.

      Delete
  9. I do bemoan the fact that my enormous TBR list (more than 700) and my nearly as enormous pile of TBR books (about 175) keep me from just browsing the shelves at the library. However, while working at the library I often find books that strike my fancy which I then add to the list, so I do hope to get to them eventually, though it's a really roundabout way of doing it.

    ReplyDelete
  10. That sounds like fun! I love the thought of bringing home forgotten and overlooked books! I hardly get the time to browse these days as I've got the two kids tagging along though! Maybe one day....!

    I have read The Last Brother (http://olduvaireads.wordpress.com/2012/03/06/the-last-brother/) and I'm Not Scared but have not heard of the others on your list.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I've heard of The Last Brother. It was in The Morning News's Tournament of Books a couple of years ago. I actually checked it out of the library, but never read it.

    I am tempted to run to my local library right now, but I have too many other things to do! Hopefully I can try this soon.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I have two J Robert Lennon books on my shelves - not read them yet though! Ditto for Amanitti. I do hope you like Eric Ambler though - he is wonderful. I particularly recommend 'The Mask of Dimitrios'.

    ReplyDelete