Incidents and Accidents, Hints and Allegations

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A few words on selective reading
dresser, Montano, 2006
bruceb
I do want to talk about something that's a side trip from the Tor.com thread about The Thirteenth Child: the realities of selective reading.

When someone says "I have a problem with this book/story/etc, and here's what it is", one of the stock responses is along the lines of "But you can't just seal yourself off because of criteria like that!" There's an implication that if it weren't for that objection, of course we'd all be reading it.

Not so.

There was a time when you could read pretty much everything published as sf/f in North America each year. I grew up in the tail end of that. It's long gone now. It ended while the Cold War was still a going concern, which means we've got a generation of for-real adults for whom it's all history. The fact is that those of us who read genre fiction have to to make selections, all the time, and the time I spend on your favorite is time I don't have to spend on mine, and if I read your fave and mine, then there's someone else's favorite I can't get to. We have to juggle the time we put into reading anything in the genre versus other kinds of fiction and non-fiction reading, plus whatever time we put into other media, and the rest of our lives.

What chafes me, though, is when arguments about you really have to or ought to read a particular book become a hypocritical weapon. Some years back I grew repelled, on a gut level, by the thought of so many collections of thousands of books piled up that inevitably would never get all read. As I wrote at the time, I worried about myself slipping into hoarding habits and ending up one of those tragic cases who had things they couldn't bear to get rid of that weren't doing anything but collecting dust and slowly decaying. I've done quite well cutting back on purchases for the sake of purchasing, focusing more and more on getting only what I can make a plausible case I'll really use.

But that makes me quite an outlier in the hardcore of fandom. Boasts about the size of unread-book stacks remain ubiquitous, the subject of amused consideration. And yet people who take a self-deprecating pride in all the books they're not reading keep insisting that others who decline to read this book here are clearly being cowards and wimps or the slaves of political correctness, because otherwise of course they'd be reading this one and never mind their own tastes and judgments.

I am not impressed. At least not favorably.

The fact is that we do all make our selections, and so nearly as I know nobody actually reads purely and only the works they believe are most meritorious by some general standard. We skip classics for the current fad; we read for comfort, and cheap thrills, and prurient curiosity, and lots of other reasons. And you know, this is all quite okay, because as a species we can't run in top mental gear all the time. People who are stuck unable to take mental vacations succumb to a variety of physical and psychological impairments, and doing things that make rest (mental as well as physical) impossible is torture.

I'd like to see more honest advocacy of the idea that I have an obligation to read what I find offensive because you think it's worthwhile anchored in this reality. Particularly if it comes with a demonstration that you're willing to read what you find offensive, or just plain uninteresting, because I think it's worthwhile.

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As I wrote at the time, I worried about myself slipping into hoarding habits and ending up one of those tragic cases who had things they couldn't bear to get rid of that weren't doing anything but collecting dust and slowly decaying.

I am one of those tragic cases. I have a 4' bookshelf full of To Read books I never want to read. I am trying to work up the gumption to actually go through those shelves and pick out the ones I actually do need/want to read eventually to save, actually shelve the "copies I purchased of books I've read but didn't own", and ditch the rest.

However, that sort of cull is tied into a nexus of interrelated projects: overall cull, spring cleaning, carpet steam-cleaning, bookshelf construction, and general apartment overhaul... and it's too much to hold in mind at once, even enough just to start to break it down into intermediate steps.


Oh, sure. It's a big kind of thing, and you have a lot more of a social life, the constraints of a regular job, and stuff like that than I do. Different circumstances.

I do recommend the Getting Things Done principles for this kind of thing, by the way.

And you know, it's even worse with gaming books. It's as though I'm saying to myself "I finally acknowledge that I will never get to run/play in this really fun-looking game." I got rid of a ton of them, though, and in the final analysis I'm glad I did.

Me too. I made another pass just recently to unload a lot of oWoD stuff, as I looked at what I use and don't use in my current gaming and realized, "I'm never going to dive so deeply into someone else's world, or even my own, again. I just don't play that way anymore."

Two or three years back I decided I wouldn't buy any more gaming books until I'd done more playing with the ones I already have. That was more of a money-based decision than a space-based one, since my collection of gaming stuff is small compared to most of my friends.

Yet there's also a space-based component to it, since if my living space was uncluttered I could have people over to game.

When I moved overseas (10 years ago) I seriously trimmed back on my gaming stuff, and, having used none of it, trimmed a bit more before moving back (2 years ago). I should probably just ditch the rest of it, but oh well.

I'm like BUT YOU NEVER KNOW, I MIGHT STILL NEED MY SECOND EDITION D&D SPLATBOOKS ...

... yeah, I need to sell those suckers for some cash.

On the macro issue -- everyone should do the reading, if they want to discuss the topic usefully. Opting out of the reading means opting out of the discussion, or at the very least being willing to bow out when someone who has done the reading shows up. "The reading" will vary by topic. Bruce can't discuss Batman movies usefully as a whole (no DK); I can't discuss Victorian literature usefully as a whole (no "real" Dickens); I suspect neither of us can discuss Javanese shadow-plays at all; both of us have done the reading and can discuss SF.

On the micro issue -- Out of curiosity, I went over to the Tor board, inclined (as it happens) to disagree with you. Then I read comment 196. The book written by someone who could write this description of it simply cannot be a good book. Which is a shame, because it sounded like a good book, and Wrede has written books I've enjoyed (though mollpeartree hated them) before.

Oh, well -- as you point out, it's not like I've got a shortage of stuff to read.

I partly agree with you about needing to do the reading, but only partly. I agree that it's necessary to have a detailed discussion about the book in which one takes a position about what the book does or doesn't do successfully. But I think there are a lot of other discussions one can have about a book without having read it, and I'd go so far as to say that our overall exchange of ideas would be much the poorer by excluding people who haven't read what's under discussion.

For example, discussions of general themes or treatments of particular concepts or ideas for stories can be had meaningfully with people who haven't read particular examples of that theme. Discussions of whether to read a book can also obviously be had prior to reading a book.

I've had a lot of very rewarding discussions about books without having read them. In some cases, I've read secondary sources extensively; in other cases, the discussions focused on general themes and basic ideas. For example, I can discuss the basic premises of "The Cold Equations" usefully: I've read multiple analyses and deconstructions of the story, several respins on the story from different angles, and a lot about how it influences other thinking in SF. I'm sure I could discuss it even better if I got around someday to taking the volume containing it off my shelf and actually reading it, which I've just never gotten around to doing, but I don't think I'm completely disqualified from discussing it until I have.

Like just about everything else in life, I think it's a continuum rather than a binary.

Agreed. Different kinds of discussion call for different kinds of preparation.

I have not actually read this entry yet, but I wanted to reply here to tell you that I was reading your comments in the Tor thread and I think you're AWESOME. <3333

Boasts about the size of unread-book stacks remain ubiquitous, the subject of amused consideration

You know, I have only just started to encounter this -- I hang out media and slash fandom, not so much sf&f fandom, but there is some overlap, and I was surprised to see so much buying of books (I get nearly all of my books from the library) and so much hoarding of books.

My vice is music -- I hoard mp3s like the dickens. But it makes me feel BAD! I don't like staring at my increasingly diminished hard drive space or feeling like I'll never get through my huge stack of music that is supposedly there for my enjoyment!

(I can't believe I just said "like the dickens." Also, good post.)

I have done good in the world by giving you a chance to say "like the dickens". :)

Just too much Stuff out there...

Too many movies, TV shows, too many books, too many possible Things To Do... and a few years ago, after walking into Borders and feeling simply so overwhelmed I left without buying anything at all... I decided that there was simply no way I was ever going to read, watch, or do everything out there, even things I might enjoy if I had time for them... and I could give myself permission to pick and choose what books, what movies, etc. and not feel guilty about the ones I passed up.

Sometimes my roommate is a bit annoyed at me that I have no interest in reading a book she thought was so good, but I know her taste is not akin to mine and I don't feel I need to "give it a chance" just to prove that point.

I only have so much spare time, and reading is not as physically easy for me as it used to be, so I am only going to read books I really want to read. I'm only going to see a movie if it interests me (though I have wide tastes), and I'm going to give 95% of all TV a pass.

Now if I could just get the same mindset going on fabric for sewing projects.... I guess there's always something!

While I'm guilty of having a stack of unread books, I am reading through them. It will just take a while to finish. And I also have become more selective over the last year or two. I used to buy books just because I thought the cover was cool. But there is so much fantasy and sf being published these days, I can't even keep up with the authors I like. Much less add in totally new authors.

I'm not really talking about accumulation, though. I'm talking about accumulation as a reason for not having read this book or that while insisting that others have an obligation to read it even though, or because, it repels them. There's nothing wrong with having stuff to look forward to.

I'd like to see more honest advocacy of the idea that I have an obligation to read what I find offensive because you think it's worthwhile anchored in this reality. Particularly if it comes with a demonstration that you're willing to read what you find offensive, or just plain uninteresting, because I think it's worthwhile.

Yes, this reminds me of the anger over someone's list of all the authors who behaved terribly in RaceFail 1.0, and their intentions not to buy those authors' books. As though it's wrong to choose not to support people who hurt you. As though authors are entitled to readers.

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