being ill, or how I find books
And, which has been most annoying, I have been doing hardly any reading.
Well, by that I mean hardly any reading of the kind I mentally categorize as reading, by which I mean the kind that requires some emotional or intellectual effort or engagement. I do not mean picking up Howl's Moving Castle, opening it to a random page, and reading from there until the end and then back to the beginning and through to wherever I picked it up. That is what I do when I am trying to figure out what I would like to read, if you see the distinction. I occasionally have to explain that to people who see me wandering around complaining that I cannot figure out what I would like to read next, because they become confused when they see that I am carrying a book which appears to be open. If I can quote more than sixty percent of a book by volume accurately, the activity of rereading it no longer takes up the same niche in my brain as reading. This is the problem with much of my comfort reading, in that it has become comfort reading at least partly because I know the book very well and so know that it will be in no way upsetting or tiring, but therefore it does not satisfy the part of my brain which would like to read something and does not have the energy.
The pile of books I have not read tends to be real reading, in that I expect I will have to put some work into those, and that they have the chance of being too much when I am ill. That is why when I wind up asking for book recommendations-- which I am not, at the moment, by the way-- I tend to ask about comfort reading. I think I have asked the internet specifically for comfort reading suggestions five or six times more frequently than I have asked for recommendations of any other sort.
Thinking about why that is led me to think about how I find books to read in the first place, and to wonder whether it is unusual, and to realize that I genuinely do not know.
When I was somewhere in that nebulous seven to ten-year-old range, I forget exactly when, I finished reading the children's section at the library we went to once a week, and moved over to the science fiction section. Two problems with this move became evident very quickly: firstly, unlike the children's section, the adult areas were liable to be full of adults, many of whom, although they did not know me in any way, felt both competent and obligated to comment on my reading choices. Some of them expressed disapproval about my being in the section in the first place, and others would assume I had gotten lost and solicitously show me back to the children's section without listening to anything I had to say on the subject. These people were far more easily put off if I had a specific book for which I was looking, so that I could calmly and purposefully walk over to it, take it, and leave the section, without any appearance of being lost or of doing something I should not be doing.
And secondly, the adult SF&F section, unlike the children's area, was full of books which were not only bad, but painfully bad. The area started with Adams, Douglas, which was great, and then went through Adams, Richard, which was fine, and then went to Anthony, Piers, of whom there were so many that I continued on in the alphabet as I worked my way through him, except that next there was Auel, Jean, and I could not, oh god, I could not. And that was about the same time that, even though I had not yet noticed how generally terrible Piers Anthony is, I hit specific Anthony which I have never forgiven, namely his Tarot trilogy, which has still, lo these many years later, formed my benchmark for gratuitously specific, explicit, depressing, slimy-feeling sex scenes which don't serve any purpose for the plots or characters or anything and which to a prepubescent reader were confusing to boot. (The Black Mass scene in the beginning of the third Tarot book is my personal nomination for worst sex scene ever written. The rest of the book does not improve much.)
I tried General Fiction, which for some reason was a less hostile browsing environment for children (I have no idea why), but that had an even higher chance of being painfully bad, plus things grabbed at random tended to turn out to be depressing novels about the Holocaust or strident novels about environmentalism or deadly dull novels about adultery in upper-class Connecticut.
Obviously I needed some kind of guidebook. I had no one to talk books with in person; none of my friends read. My parents did and do read, but telling them what I was reading meant exposing myself to their judgment about whether the books were suitable for me, a judgment which might have clashed with my own. My teachers all felt that I read too much and were always telling me to put the book down and go outside for a while, why don't you. Clearly therefore I needed a guidebook. My father had a copy of Clute's Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, and I had also noticed that some authors who were in the children's section had catalog listings in the adult section-- and not only that, but listings in other sections entirely, such as nonfiction, which mean that some of them must surely have written books about other books. It turned out that Le Guin had. At about this time also I ran into Lovecraft's essay 'Supernatural Horror in Literature', which gets shoved randomly into anthologies of Lovecraft because it is clearly of interest to people who like his fiction.
Thus how I have located books I want to read from that day to this: I started reading criticism, and then I'd go out and read every book mentioned in the criticism. It didn't matter whether it was mentioned favorably, because it became obvious early on that critics and I differed in our opinions greatly-- bring it up as an example and I was there. This was in the days before you could get books from very far away via computerized interlibrary loan, and so I had a list of books I couldn't find, with title and author, and every time I was in a new library I'd look them all up again, which is why I spent most of the time I ought to have been seeing whether I wanted to be a prospective student at Oberlin College curled up in a terrible seventies chair reading Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year, having ducked everyone who was trying to show me around.
No one has ever played Library Police about children in the critical theory section, mostly because no one is ever in the critical theory section. This meant I could browse. I became acquainted with some authors in an extremely roundabout fashion-- my eighth-grade teacher started sputtering when she saw me reading Nabokov's collected literary lectures, only to, for reasons I did not understand at the time, calm down when I informed her that I had never read any other Nabokov and had no particular plans to at that time. I also became what I now think of as oddly well-read, in that as it turns out there is an entire chunk of books which turn up a great deal in academic discourse but which are not widely read otherwise. For many years I had not read Jane Eyre, but I had read Villette. Theorists of the fantastic tend to be heavily into the Gothic, as was in his own way Lovecraft, and so I spent a while as an early teenager reading things like Vathek and the non-Frankenstein works of Mary Shelley, and the thing is I assumed at the time that this was how people read. I had no notion both that a great many of the things that are popular don't get written up much by critics, and that many critics are engaged in a game of more-obscure-than-thou and do not expect their audience to have read oh let us say more than half of the things they cite.
Once I actually started meeting other people who read, and talking about books, I fell into a delighted network of recommendations and counter-recommendations, things everyone assumed everyone had read that I had not and vice versa. This is one reason I am very dependent on friend networks for comfort reading: critics don't write about that, or if they do they don't describe it as such and they abstract the comforting qualities under several layers of jargon. It became apparent to me that many people do not seem to have a book-recommendation network of critical theorists and reviewers. I have not finished tracking down everything ever mentioned by the critics I read when I was younger. I still keep a booklist, and when a book I am reading mentions another book I have not read I write it down, and the final phase of reading nonfiction is going through the bibliography and notes for the principle sources, for my list. I used to believe this was fairly typical, but I keep meeting people who don't work this way, and now I have no idea how common this is, or how on earth people who have neither recreational criticism nor friend networks find anything to read.
Anecdata on these points would be appreciated. It's like looking song lyrics up without Google: I know that it is possible, and in fact can vaguely recall that at one or two points in my life I engaged successfully in the activity myself, but I have no idea how it works and my brain will not at this point produce a really plausible model.
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