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What books should you choose? Finding the balance between fluff and tough

Written by Marilyn Herbert

Life as a book reviewer is a tough slog, but it’s great exercise. Just think of presenting a novel to a book club or classroom as a virtual highwire act — the wire has to be high enough off the ground to present a challenge, but it can’t sway too wildly or you’ll fall off.  This is life in the discussion arena.

But life for readers presents the same challenge: how do you choose what to read in order to satisfy the itch for a good story, an enriching experience, and a great escape? Many readers look to bestseller lists as a guide for selecting their next novel.

The idea of “bestsellers” can be misleading, though. The word doesn’t suggest that these books are superior works of art, only that they are selling extremely well at that time. It is an indicator as to what people like, though, and as such is a useful (but limited) guideline.

But what about the books that fly under the radar of these bestseller lists? These are often books that have a more complex writing structure, a more challenging range of themes, and, often, a less-than-firm plotline, if they have one at all.

As an example of what I mean, of all the books I reviewed this past year, there are two that stand out on the extreme edges of the reading pendulum. They are both excellent, but for different reasons. The first is Jamie Ford’s very readable and enjoyable Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. The second is Miguel Syjuco’s extraordinary but difficult novel Ilustrado, a complex metafictional mystery set in the Philippines. I had no trouble getting people to attend the discussion for Hotel, but I practically had to pay people to come talk about Ilustrado, let alone have them read the book. This is no way to make a living.

Why the struggle? I believe the answer is simple. Everyone wants to be literate, but they may not always be willing to put in the effort needed. In order to appreciate the details that enrich a book like Syjuco’s, we need to put in a certain amount of analysis. That way we get all of the author’s in-jokes.

In Charles Foran’s Globe and Mail review of Ilustrado, he muses about the exciting and innovative writing that Syjuco’s novel brings to literature, comparing the structural potential of the novel to that of a computer:

“Most owners of personal computers make use of only a small fraction of their capacities. The technology is almost frightfully large, capable of negotiating anything our intellects present it, but few of us wish to explore that far.

Novels, too, are innately capacious, and have been since the form first emerged four centuries ago. That said, the majority of novels are likewise content to use just a small fraction of their structural potential.

But some novels are interested in the form’s capacities, and from Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1760s) through James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004), these books have had to negotiate being called difficult or even unreadable. They have also nearly always been what is new and most exciting.”

Syjuco, and other writers like him, would agree; literature can be life-changing. It can act as the conscience of the world, and we can thank writers like James Joyce, Herman Melville, Virginia Woolf, Albert Camus, Gertrude Stein, and countless others who are read with difficulty, but whose names and thoughts we recognize in so many literary, social, and cultural areas of our lives. It’s like the Buckley’s cough formula for literature — it may not taste good, but it works.

I think readers (and reviewers) need a balance between the easy-to-read but good books and those works that change the literary landscape, allowing both readers and writers to grow. We’re entering a wonderful phase of literary change. There are many fantastic writers who prod and poke us to become better readers and thinkers. We can look forward to discussing the layered works of authors like Jennifer Egan, Nicole Krauss, David Bezmozgis, David Grossman, Junot Diaz, Jonathan Franzen, Tom Rachman, and Yiyun Li. At the same time, we can truly enjoy and appreciate the excellent stories from writers like Ann Patchett, Helen Simonson, Kathryn Stockett, Chris Cleave, and Lori Lansens.

Lighter reading does not mean lesser reading — some books just need more discussion than others. That’s my job, and I like to think of myself as more than a discussion leader. The former teacher in me wants my readers to walk away from our meetings feeling a little taller, a bit more enriched, a lot more satisfied at having stretched themselves. The effort is always worth it. The biggest compliment to me is when they tell me they are rushing home to read the book at hand (for the first time)!


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