Book Salad: What are You Reading?

19:16, Nov 15 2012

Have you ever had the chance to review your reading?

I'm a big fan of the Tasman District Library's new website, and one of its features is the "My Library Account" button which lets you look at everything you've checked out so far. For somebody who's lived in the area for six months and spends a disgusting amount of money at, I think my total of 42 items is alright.

Most recently there's The Windup Girl by my new favourite author, Paolo Bacigalupi; a swag of Art New Zealand magazines; bits and pieces by Peter Singer and a lot of reviewing research. China Mieville's excellent attempt at a crime novel, The city & ytic eht, must have confused cataloguers - the title is written in mirror image on the cover.

For me, composing a reading list is a little like making a salad. I like to keep my ratio of fiction to non-fiction around 70/30, mixing perhaps one nutritious classic with three or four edgier pieces and balancing it out with ethics, music journalism or fashion writing in the Roland Barthes tradition. Toss with a liberal sprinkling of magazines.

A meal like this will take me a few weeks to get through at different paces. David Foster Wallace's great work about the American tax system, The Pale King, is ideal to slowly munch through over months but the Mieville novel was pacy enough to be nearly devoured in one sitting. Haruki Murakami's fat, stylish 1Q84is waiting to be the next course.

The website also lets you look at what other people are reading, to a degree. The hottest subject last week was large type books, while the current hottest author is the adorably-named Daisy Meadows, who writes children's books about fairies. Happily, the New Zealand Listener is the most popular title overall.

From a brief and very unscientific Facebook survey, I found to no great surprise that several of my friends are working their way through science-fiction classics. Ursula le Guin's The Disposessed was in the mix, as were graphic novels Hellblazer and The Walking Dead, a three-volume anthology of Phillip K. Dick, Neil Gaiman's wonderful novel American Gods and uh, a book involving a description of Lady Gaga taking a wee through her stockings. Multiple people including myself were reading Joseph Heller's Catch 22, and I also had a Master and Margarita-reading buddy.

Later on, Facebook yielded a vote for Murakami's most famous novel, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, and news that a former Harry Potter fan had moved on to read J.K. Rowling's "adult" offering The Casual Vacancy. She was unwilling to write it off completely, but said she had barely reached 100 pages weeks after buying it even though the style was still "brilliant".

On the non-fiction side we had Maajid Nawaz' Radical: My Journey from Islamist Extremism to a Democratic Awakening, Cormac McCarthy and multiple "I'm reading it for work, please don't make me tell you the name because it's really boring"- type excuses.

Readers who visited Wellington City Libraries this year apparently are keener on crime fiction and a little romance. Books from Stieg Larsson's Millenium Trilogy edge out some newer offerings by Lee Child, while last year's Daughters-in-Law by Joanna Trollope makes a random appearance in the top five.

Apparently this is pretty standard internationally. This article says romance writing used to be king in libraries, especially when done by Catherine Cookson, but the genre has been steadily overtaken by crime novels in the most-borrowed lists of the last decade. Lee Child himself thinks this is a direct result of 9/11:

"In the decade following 9/11, I believe crime fiction has become more important in people's lives. It gratifies their desire for safety and security and the rule of law, because at the end of crime novels, order is restored."

Personally, I would be surprised if many New Zealanders admitted to still feeling consciously affected by 9/11 these days, but perhaps we're just influenced by trends from overseas readers. Do you agree? What are you reading right now?