Swimming in “Literary Water”

In August, a colleague with whom I’ve worked closely in the Middle School is moving up to the Upper School. I’m thrilled. It’s already been a model of how collaboration should work, from getting feedback on the design of the projects through sharing completed work, with mutual professional respect demonstrated consistently in between. We have been brainstorming books and poems and research for the coming year, and several weeks ago, he sent me this message:

Christina,

I have a random request.  I need help finding some literary water to swim in.

Lately, I’ve very much been into new music.  Each day I check out Pitchfork, Paste Magazine, Rolling Stone, etc.  I listen to those suggestions on Spotify, form my own connections and tastes, and discover other music as I go along.  What is the literary equivalent for you?

Are there Podcasts, blogs, websites, thinkers, that are having good literary conversations on which I might eavesdrop?  Any suggestions would be more than wonderful. Thanks!

(I’m halfway through They Say/I Say.  It’s great and can’t wait to use it.)

Immediate responses? Awesome ideas? Crickets? Here was my initial response, and after responding, I reached out to a few librarians for their thoughts as well. It’s a great question, and one I’m now honestly surprised I hadn’t been asked before now.

Great question! I’ve been thinking about it all day. The first thought I had upon reading this email is, “oh no, I don’t do that! I’m an imposter.” Then I started thinking that I used to do a lot more intentionally but patterns have seeped into my life as a librarian. Let me know if this answer makes sense. With songs, there are so many options. Each one is a 3-5 minute blip on your life and they can approach you as you are doing other things. With playlists created by Spotify after I select a song, much is just background. Seldom do I actually check the artist or title, hence the cliché, background music. Reading is much more engaging, and with novels, engaging for a much longer period of time. I need to choose materials with which I want to interact and with which I want to spend hours. I believe it was Cory Doctorow writing about writing and giving his books away for free. He m—get a sense into my brain—this is me pausing to see if I could actually find what he wrote and if what I remembered matched that—-and one search led to my answer. Or, this answer: “For me — for pretty much every writer — the big problem isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity (thanks to Tim O’Reilly for this great aphorism). Of all the people who failed to buy this book today, the majority did so because they never heard of it, not because someone gave them a free copy.”

I do read widely, but I don’t need to read as widely to be knowledgeable as you would to be truly knowledgeable in music. I read approximately 100 books per year. I likely listen to that many songs in a week. My book club, made of teacher readers, sometimes don’t finish the one book assigned within our monthly time limit. So while I think the categories are related, I don’t think that they are as similar as they seem on the surface. My biggest advice is to listen widely—to others, to reviews, to bestseller lists. What people are talking about is what gets read. Perhaps I’ve gotten more cynical as I’ve gotten older, but I think that being published only means you have been published. … The sellers are defining the market. With that in mind, I listen to what others are reading, and I’m lucky that my librarian listserv encourages librarians to have a tagline at the bottom of their email with what they are reading. I also look at the reviews each month in Library Media Connection and School Library Journal. I browse through the New York Times Book Review, and I check out what The Week and People magazine (surprise!) are recommending. I also peruse several library webpages for their recommendations and reading lists, and I keep a list on my phone of items that are recommended to me. It’s often quantity of references to a title or a personal recommendation from someone who knows my taste that moves a title to the top of the list. I do keep track of everything I read on Goodreads (you can find me there through my school email), which is a way that I can look for preferences in my own rating system.

Give thanks to the rain for giving me the time to write this before biking home…let me know if you want me to clarify my thoughts or if you want to continue the conversation.

So for the last month, each time I’ve picked up a book I’ve thought about why I’m reading it. It turns out I had more of an answer than I originally thought, but I’d be curious for others’ takes on the same question. Please share any suggestions below.

As to the three books I’ve most enjoyed this summer, I’d have to say Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Notice and Note, and It’s Trevor Noah. But in the words of my Reading Rainbow childhood, “You don’t have to take my word for it…”

4 thoughts on “Swimming in “Literary Water”

  1. Nicely done, thanks for the insights. So funny, my first thought too was, “I’m so deficient. I should be doing more.” But then, as I read what you do, I realized that I discover books and look for books almost all of the time. It’s just so ingrained that I don’t consciously think about it.

    The Mental Floss article was great.

  2. Great post. I struggle with what to read and when…always feel I am behind staying current. You nailed it perfectly…I do browse literature much the same way…unconsciously. I am going to way attention the next few months to see how I may be intentionally reading to learn more about myself and not only how I swim in literacy water but how I make those initial dives! Thanks for sharing.

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