Nov 29 2011 11:00am

On Changing Reading Habits or Savoring the Experience

Having just finished reading the fantastic collection 80! Memories & Reflections on Ursula K. Le Guin (ed. Karen Joy Fowler and Debbie Notkin), I’ve started thinking about the ways in which my reading habits have changed over the years — mostly because of one thing, which I’ll now confess:

I haven’t read all of Le Guin’s books. Or, even half. Not for the reasons you might suspect, though; certainly not from a lack of enthusiasm or desire. Ursula K. Le Guin is one of our best, as 80! makes a point of exploring in loving detail, and reading her is a treat beyond compare. Her prose is complex, handsome, and challenging in the best ways, her worlds are anchored so deftly in anthropological and linguistic detail that they never seem less than immediate, and her characters fill all walks of life in their worlds and ours.

If I had encountered her first as a teenager, I would have read her entire bibliography at once, gorging myself on the beauty, the stunning prose, the sensation of wonder that reliably comes on the heels of “The End.” It would have been a great month or two, and would have left me exhausted at the end. That was just how I preferred to read: find a new author, devour everything they’ve ever done that I can get my hands on.

Not that there’s a damn thing wrong with a reading orgy; I know a great many people who prefer to dive in head first when they find a new favorite. I’m sure there are plenty of folks reading this who are nodding along in agreement.

But, my reading habits have changed, and thinking on my engagement with Le Guin’s oeuvre has driven that point home. I have a nicely sized stack of her novels and collections on a shelf in my library; some are well-thumbed, but some are pristine, waiting to be read. And I like it that way. Reading is a pleasure that drives away the dark, that can make a truly foul day better, that can bring beauty and awe to an otherwise disappointing week or month or year — reading something as skilled and breath-taking as Le Guin’s books, especially.

So, I’m savoring it. I have my pile of books, unread, that I know I will love when I sit down with one. They’re something to look forward to, to parcel out like pearls on a string. Instead of reading them all at once, they will likely last me years. That’s a lot of bright spots, scattered out as rewards and presents-to-myself. That is how I plan on interacting with this astounding body of work which has already made lasting, lifelong impressions on me and will no doubt continue to do so.

Reading the ways in which other people have interacted with Le Guin’s books over their lives in 80! was moving, nearly to the point of tears in some essays. The differences books like The Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed or Four Ways to Forgiveness or Earthsea can make in a reader’s life cannot be understated, and the writers of the appreciations, essays, and tributes in 80! have all bared their souls in their explorations of what Le Guin has done for them.

For me, her work has been an island of revelation, pleasure, and genuine awe in often difficult times. I’m not entirely certain if The Left Hand of Darkness was the definitive turning point of my habits as a reader — if there’s such a thing as a definitive turning point — but it was one of the books I most remember putting down at the end in silence, so astounded that I could not bear the thought of picking up another piece of fiction afterwards. It needed space around it, space to be appreciated deeply, intensely, for all of the work it does (and doesn’t) do. I could not move on to the next in the pile, could not devour them all at once.

So, in the spirit of 80!, which has inspired this set of thoughts on reading: thank you, Ursula K. Le Guin, for stunning me so thoroughly that I could not just keep going, and for introducing me however unintentionally to the pleasure of savoring brilliant books one at a time, over time.

And in the spirit of audience participation: how do you prefer to read? Devouring all at once, or savoring slowly?

[Edit: Jo Walton asked a similar question in regards to individual books back in August 2010 if you’re interested in more crowd-sourced detail on reading habits.]

Brit Mandelo is a multi-fandom geek with a special love for comics and queer literature. She can be found on Twitter and Livejournal.

Marcus W
1. toryx
I used to be the type of reader who gobbled up whatever I liked. Now I'm the savoring type as well.

The problem is, the older I get the more I prefer exceptional books. I read a really good novel and after that everything else seems to be a shadow of the previous book's greatness. So I'm also reading a lot less than I used to, which makes me kind of sad.
Ian Gazzotti
2. Atrus
I think that my reading habits have changed more because of external factors than because of preferences. When I was younger I had a lot more time on my hands and read an average of 4 to 8 books a month. Since the librarians weren't particularly useful in helping me find something new to read in the SFF department, I would devour every book by a new author I found (and liked) simply because the alternative was re-reading something else. At the time I would have longed for a pile of unread books that I knew weren't going to suck.

Then college came, and the internet, and a job that allowed me to buy books rather than getting them from the library. And since there was a lot less time to read during the day, and a lot of more things one could read, I suddenly found that my to-read list was growing faster than I could go through it.

So I guess I became more picky about which books to read (and buy) simply out of necessity, and not so much because I want to 'savour the experience'. When I have the time, like on vacation, I still read anything I can find as fast as I can.
Liz Bourke
3. hawkwing-lb
I read indiscriminately. Large amounts of fluff (or what I consider fluff, anyway, which is my catch-all term for things which are easily read, enjoyable, and don't demand all my emotional and critical attention) get read as soon as I get my hands on them. Books like LeGuin's, which demand - not just reward - more emotional and critical attention can stay on my shelf for months, or even years.

Things also stay on my shelf when I'm not sure whether or not I'm going to like them, but feel I ought to read them to see... and then other books intervene, and months have gone by.

I might try to save the really good stuff - things that reward emotional and critical attention, but don't demand that you invest all your energy in them at once - but usually that only lasts a week or two. Because the stuff I know is going to hit many of my narrative kinks? Is usually the stuff I'm anticipating a year in advance. Current examples of which include: Hodgell's Honor's Paradox, Bear's Range of Ghosts, Aaronovitch's Whispers Under Ground.
4. dav
I used to be a devourer as well. When I was turned on to Raymond Chandler in college I burned through all of the books I could get my hands on, thinking that there would be an endless supply for all time, but toward the end I realized that he had only written like 15 books. Now I only have one that I haven't read and I've been saving it for 10 years.

There's a scene in Lost where we learn that Desmond is saving a Dickens novel so it's the last thing he ever reads and I completely appreciate that sentiment. I feel like the last book I want to read is that Chandler book I've been saving.

This has extended to my SFF reading too and has had the opposite effect of limiting myself occassionally. In the past when I would stumble on something like the Wheel of Time I would burn through the entire series just because... even if I didn't really love it. But then I sat down one day and cataloged every book I've ever read and estimated how many more books I might read in the future. It's not nearly as high of a number as I imagined it would be. Now I'm much more discerning with my selections and have more easily abandonded books and series that I wasn't connecting with (sorry WoT). For some reason I feel like I don't have time to waste so I can't spend it on something that isn't telling a unique story or moving me in some way.

So the devouring is over and I have a stack of books on my shelf that I look forward to reading over the next few years (that I occassionally rearrange if something new comes out that looks interesting... like Ready Player One jumped up to the top of the stack pretty quickly and The Scar has been sliding down the stack over the last year). I try to mix hard sci-fi, fluffier sci-fi, crime, fantasy, pulp, but do end up staying in one genre for extended lengths of time. I like that approach a little better than focusing on specific authors.
Pamela Adams
5. PamAdams
I feel like the last book I want to read is that Chandler book I've been saving.

Not me- when I find books I love (or think I'll love), I read them right off- what if I died in some sort of accident and didn't get a chance to pick up that last special book?
Marcus W
6. toryx
Pam Adams @ 5:

Me too. Since I have no way of knowing when I'm going to die except that it could literally happen at any time, I make sure I don't wait to read a book I really want to read.

For that reason, waiting to read a fantasy series until the last book is published makes no sense to me.
7. seth e.
I've always liked feeling that there's something more out there I haven't seen yet, and so I'll rarely read every single thing by an author. I've always avoided reading the last Italo Calvino book I haven't read, both because I've heard it's pretty weak and because I like to leave my catalogues unfinished. For the same reason I've never even tried to read P. G. Wodehouse's early fiction.

I used to reread ceaselessly, but now I hardly ever go back. Less time and less patience, I suppose. Even when I'm comfort-reading, I try to find something new now.
Kristen Templet
8. SF_Fangirl
My situation is similar to what Altrus@2 said. In my pre-teens and teens, I could read a book on a weekend day. I plowed through The Hardy Boys (pre-teen years) and Pocket Book's monthly Star Trek novel in addition to all the sci fi I could get from my local library Asimov and Heinlein especially.

College interveened and ate up time and I stopped reading ST media tie ins because they were so predicable. As a member ofthe Air Force, deployments provided a wonderful opportunity to read lots of books, but mostly I was too busy to read much. After completing a Masters degree online at night, I am very excited about having more time to read for pleasure again. I can make it through a book in a week or so now. I mostly read heavier sci fi and non fiction and sometimes they can take a bit longer to work through. But a few weeks ago, I felt the urge for something easy and quick to read and picked up book #2 of the Retrival Artist series. I'd rate it only a 3/5, but I did devour it in under 3 days and it hit the spot.

My current goal now is to maintain at about 2-3 books a month and maybe I'll make a dent in my very long "to read" shelf. I'l also add that at this point I very rarely re-read because there's not enough time in my life to do that.
Brit Mandelo
9. BritMandelo
@Atrus @SF_Fangirl

External factors are another thing that have definitely changed my reading habits - academia necessitates a hell of a lot of required reading, and that changed my habits quite a lot, too. Working around what I have to read versus what I want to read, when they don't always intersect, is tough and means less fluff books.


That's almost exactly what I do - I still will binge-read fluff and fun books, when I need them and when they're hitting the spot. Also, new books I've been anticipating that I know will ring all of my favorite-thing bells? Yeah, I can usually only put those off a week or two, unless external factors force me to wait longer.

@dav @Pam Adams @toryx

Is it weird to admit that the one thing that horrifies and keeps me up nights is the thought that I'll die with books unread that I desperately wanted to read? Inevitably? Because it does.
10. Greg2B
For me it really depends on how I feel about reading at the time. Unlike many have posted above I didn't read that much in my earlier years for fun. Most of it was school required reading. Every once while I might find a book to read but not to often.

It wasn't until my last years in college I stated to read or listen to books in a rapid pace just listening to books while walking or sometimes instead of doing other work. I find that now that I actually read more books I seem to devour them more, at least during the week during my daily commute around (2+hrs a day). So I have ample time to read. Maybe my reading cycle is a little delayed so I'm in semi-devour mode.

I do try to restrict my self to not reading too much during the weekends since I know I will probably finish the book/not do any other work if I can get away with it. I have tried to slow down a bit but every once in a while I'll find a book and read it rather quickly to get to the end and jump back in to the other book I was reading.
11. Whomever1
I have 35 to 70 minutes to read every day (on my commute to and from work), and sometimes am happy with any sort of sf or fantasy. But I spend an inordinate amout of emotional energy wishing the next novel by Terry Pratchett or Lindsey Davis would come out. And then I buy it and read it.
But I was shocked when our school psychologist said she'd only read 2 or 3 books in her life. I gave her Coraline, and she was quite proud of herself for not being able to put it down. I thought I'd try her on Desert Solitaire next, but maybe I should stick with fantasy.

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