do you know why you read what you read or does it just kind of happen

“A reader’s tastes are peculiar. Choosing books to read is like making your way down a remote and winding path. Your stops on that path are always idiosyncratic. One book leads to another and another the way one thought leads to another and another. My type of reader is the sort who burrows through the stacks in the bookstore or the library (or the Web site — stacks are stacks), yielding to impulse and instinct.” ― Jane Smiley

I’m a creature of habit and my strongest habit is inconsistency.

During the Vietnam War, bar girls in navy liberty ports used the phrase “butterfly man” to describe sailors who weren’t “loyal” to the same woman every time they came to port.

Assuming I can forget where that phrase came from, it aptly describes the apparent inconsistency of a writer’s reading habits as well as his/her seemingly slapdash approach to the art and craft of writing itself.

As Smiley says, our paths are winding and are choices along them are idiosyncratic and ruled by impulse and instinct. I grab books off the shelves because they seem like they’re going to be good. I am seldom fooled by this approach, though I have gotten stuck with a few books I wished I hadn’t grabbed off the shelves.

When I try to outline or, so to speak, plot out my reading choices (such as reading only one genre or reading all the books that receive certain prizes), I end up with a mess. Inconsistency makes perfect sense to me because I trust instinct and impulse more than I trust to-do lists and step-by-step plans.

I spent a lot of time out doors when I was growing up, and while certain things were good to do based on experience, one had to be ready for anything, to watch for signs, changes of weather, become attuned to sounds and scents and wrap that all together into moving up a mountain or along a trail with a fair amount of intuition. Sure, a lot of it was knowledge that had become internalized and then followed without having to think about it. But instinct kept one aware of dangers and wonders that plans never uncovered.

The worst thing people can for me is to recommend books. Then, suddenly, I start feeling an obligation to read those books, and get back to them the moment I’m done as though I’m doing a school book report. Funny, how there are people I like and agree with about a lot of things except the books they want me to read. “They want me to read book ABC because it’s by the same author and/or similar to book XYZ which they know I liked.”

I know NPR and other media outlets mean well with their lists of a year's best books, but I don't take those ideas a gospel.
I know NPR and other media outlets mean well with their lists of a year’s best books, but I don’t take those ideas a gospel.

I dislike most of the books suggested to me based on that kind of reasoning.

This will sound superstitious and insanely inconsistent, but I’m a “force is with me” kind of reader and writer. That is to say, if I’m “supposed to read” a certain book, I’ll find if by myself one way or another. If it’s a book I probably won’t like, I either don’t hear of it or stay away from it for unknown reasons.

My wife and I often finish each other’s sentences, but we seldom finish books one of us reads and recommends to the other. If you’re not my wife (and the odds are 100% that you’re not) you have a snowball’s chance in hell of handing me a book to read that I’ll be happy with.

Over the years, family members have given up on picking books for me as gifts. When Christmas and my birthday approach, they want to see a wish list from which to choose. (I just need to remember not too buy anything off the list before December 25th and August 12th have come and gone.)

So, how have you fared? Do family members and friends tend to know what you want to read and suggest or send books to you that you actually like. Or do they strike out?

I feel bad when people send me books I don’t like because having to tell them I don’t like the book they selected is about as difficult to do without injury as answering such questions as “how do you like my new dress,” “isn’t my hairdo just perfect,” and “would you like some more of my green bean casserole?” So many hurt feelings, busted noses and broken marriages come from answering those questions incorrectly.

Seriously, if we like each other, please don’t say, “Malcolm, you really need to read Lust in a Broken Birdbath (or whatever).”


Malcolm R. Campbell’s Vietnam novel “At Sea” is free on Kindle August 15-17.

6 thoughts on “do you know why you read what you read or does it just kind of happen

  1. I tend to be the same way. I’ve also found as much as I’ve wanted to belong to book clubs, belonging to a book club is a sure way to get me to NOT read a book. I think maybe it feels too much like school. When I have to read it, I suddenly don’t want to read it.

  2. Ooh, these points sound familiar. I find it hard to have people recommend me books because they just don’t seem to realise that I’m not likely to read them. The only time this has ever been — spectacularly, life-changingly — not the case was a decade ago now (!) when a friend gave me Outlander. Imagine if I hadn’t read it?!

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