The Self-Aware Reader

I’m not sure if I’m particularly self-aware in my reading choices, but I thought that this tag that’s doing the rounds on BookTube sounded interesting and so I’m going to try to answer its questions. The tag was invented by the booktuber Courtnery Ferriter. Here’s her video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NNKCHwVxQ2g. I found it via Bookish: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qqawV6x77_E.

1. What most draws you in to a novel or story and makes you want to keep reading – plot, character(s), writing style, atmosphere, something else?

I guess it’s kind of a combination of all of these elements. I usually find new books to read by surfing my favourite booktubers’ channels or by stumbling across reviews or by recommendations from friends. Then I go online and read the first pages of the book. For me to buy the book, I must like the writing style. I want a certain complexity. I also want interesting characters, and they can’t be all unlikable (for instance, I generally don’t like reading crime novels from the point of view of the criminal). The character must be interesting and generally likeable although they can have their dark side. They must be complex. The plot must be well-done but doesn’t have to be particularly surprising. I like novels with traditional plot lines as long as the characters and the writing style are good. Complex plots can also be great. I can even do without a plot entirely, if the writing and characterization is good enough. Atmosphere is important, but it’s hard to define. The idea behind the novel must also be interesting, but I’m interested in almost everything if it is well-written. But it’s also hard to define what I find “well-written”. There’s a lot of intuition involved, I guess.

2. What is a convention or trope that will immediately turn you off in your reading experience with a novel or story?

I hate it when the protagonist of a novel is stupid or shallow and needs to be rescued all the time. I hate it when characters in crime novels act as if they have never seen a thriller on TV and do all sorts of dumb things that nobody with a shred of self-preservation would do. I mostly don’t like romance unless there’s a non-romance plot also involved.

3. What most appeals to you when reading nonfiction and makes you want to keep reading?

I must be convinced that the author of a non-fiction book knows the subject that they write about. I need footnotes and a bibliography in the book, as otherwise I can’t take it seriously, and there’s no point in reading non-fiction if it isn’t well researched. An exception to this is memoir or autobiography. I don’t need an author to footnote their life – although I do have a liking for footnotes in any book. The writing must also be good, without too much jargon or intentionally opaque as in so much academic writing.

4. What is a convention or trope in nonfiction that will turn you off in your reading experience?

I can’t stand it when authors make unsubstantiated claims. Speculation can be interesting, but I need the author to explain how they arrive at their speculation and on what facts they extrapolate from. If they drift off into fiction, I generally don’t like it.

5. Would you say you read more for pleasure and enjoyment or more to learn and exercise your brain?

More for enjoyment, but I can’t enjoy a book if it doesn’t to some extend teach me some new things. If my brain isn’t engaged, then the book doesn’t do it for me. I do occasionally read something simply for the thrill, but not that often and afterwards I sometimes feel let-down or that it was a waste of time.

6. Which type of books are you likely to rate more highly and enjoy more overall – brain “candy” (pleasure/enjoyment) books or brain “protein” (learning/exercise) books?

If I like a book, I’ll rate it highly. If I read something for escapism and it does it’s job well, there’s no reason not to give it a good rating that points out that it delivers what it set out to do. Nowadays I read about 25% brain candy and 45% literature or non-fiction that helps me grow as a reader or teaches me something. After quite a long time of not reading classics or contemporary literary fiction, BookTube has inspired me to read much more those kinds of books and I’m finding it very satisfying and enjoyable.

7. Do you have a sense early on of whether or not the book you’re reading will be a five-star read (or a book you will really like)? Has a book ever surprised you in this regard?

I was surprised by how much I liked Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, when I buddy-read this with a friend in 2017. It was so good and had such modern themes even though it was written in 1747. I would never have thought that I would like it so much. The same goes with all the Dickens novels I’ve been reading this year. It’s surprising how enjoyable they are. Somehow, I always expect classics to be boring; I think as a young reader I read some classics when I just wasn’t ready for them and therefore didn’t enjoy them. That left me with the suspicion that classics might be boring, but I’m aware that that is prejudiced and I no longer let it stop me from reading them.

It would really surprise me if I read anything by Toni Morrison that wasn’t excellent (but I’ve only got two more of her novels to go and I’m sure they’ll be great).

8. Considering books that you’ve rated five stars in the past (or if you don’t rate them, then books you really loved), do you think you would feel the same way about them now? Why or why not?

For me it’s more the other way around. I tend to like some books more when I reread them. Offhand I can’t remember a book that I liked and then didn’t like on rereading it. But I read Jane Eyre when I was in primary school, and didn’t like it (too young, obviously). But then I reread it in high school and adored it. I still like it just fine now that I’m in my fifties. I read War and Peace in high school and didn’t particularly care for it, but I reread it this year and liked it a lot. I enjoy rereading children’s books that I liked when I was in my early teens. One of my favourite author of children’s literature is Joan Aiken. I love her Wolves Chronicles. As I’ve grown older, my reading tastes have expanded, but I haven’t grown out of most of my earlier favourites. There must be some books that I wouldn’t like today that I used to like in the past, but I can’t think of any at the moment. There are books that I enjoyed uncritically as a teenager in which I might find things to criticize today, or books that haven’t aged well, but I still tend to keep a soft spot for them. I still absolutely adore The Lord of the Rings although I now recognize that there are problematic themes in it; same goes for the Narnia books. It takes a lot to make me dislike a book that I initially loved.

Keep safe, world.

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