There are so many lists of books to read before you die, or before you turn 30, or before your job sucks the life out of you. But you probably wouldn’t need to depend on a list from someone else if you could just figure out how to pick your own.

The best way to get good at picking books to read is to know when you’re picking badly. And, believe it or not, this does not have as much to do with the quality of the book itself as it does with whether you are the wrong person to be reading that particular book. I’ve learned this by watching my own history of picking bad books. Here are the five biggest missteps in my literary life:

1. Nancy Drew and the Secret of the Old Clock
I was a latchkey kid with no TV. On top of that, we lived in a rich neighborhood where not a lot of other families had working moms, so kids were not allowed to come to my house, and there was no one to drive me to other kids’ houses. That circumstance put me at the library on most of my after-school days. I read a lot of great books; kids who hang out with librarians get the inside track.

But left to my own devices, I’d often pick up some Nancy Drew books. I started with number one—The Secret of the Old Clock. And I never stopped. I liked that they had an order, so I always knew which to pick next, and I could read them with only partial attention because every book was really the same story.

The reason they were such a waste of time is that what I was really looking for was a way to vegetate, escape my own reality and not have to think so much. What I was really looking for was a good TV show. I should have just told my parents. “Normal kids have a TV and we need one too, because I keep reading about the constipated relationship between Nancy and Ned and it’s bad for me.”

2. Wifey
Surely you’ve all read a Judy Blume book. And surely, you have read the two-minutes-in-the-closet scene with Philip Leroy many times. For a fourth grader, the kiss is very exciting. By the end of fourth grade I had finished all the Judy Blume books for kids. Including Forever, which really, I cannot recommend enough to girls who want to read about steamy sex between kids who your parents would think are okay to be friends with.

After Forever I still wanted more, so I wandered through the library and I found that there was an adult book by Judy Blume: Wifey. I spent many hours trying to figure out what was going on. To give you an idea of how lost I was, I spent lots of time just pondering the cover: It’s a woman’s bare stomach and she is taking off her wedding ring. I wondered and wondered: Is she wearing a bikini? I read the book twice and have no memory of what it’s about.

It is definitely good to read a little beyond your knowledge in any given subject area. But Bain Consulting has great reaserch from their mentoring program to show that you want information that is just beyond you, but not too far beyond. So Bain gives young people mentors who are 3-5 years ahead of them in the workplace. I should have done the same with my sex education books; I would have learned a lot faster.

3. The History of Tudor England. All of it.
I took modern history in high school and somehow got the teacher who was so bad at pacing that all we got through was Tudor England. I memorized every date of every head that rolled and much much more and got an A. So I took AP world history, and got the same teacher, and it seems that the AP part is just that you memorize more Tudor minutia.

Today, of course, it’s all online so I don’t need it in my head. And anyway, the teacher was fired for placing horse bets from the high school phone.

But wait. There was an important concept: Henry VIII was a religious reformer because he wanted to be able to divorce his wife and marry another woman. So Anglicanism is a pet project from him to enhance his sex life, and still, today, the British are Anglican. It is the same as the Americans who wanted to get out of British tea taxes and then, as an afterthought, started philosophizing about unalienable rights. Maybe all big ideas start out as small-minded selfish ideas.

4. The Odyssey
I actually reference this book—Wait! No! All you literature snobs, be still! I know, it’s a poem, not a book. Anyway, I reference this book all the time. I say that it’s important to have a literary canon that we all share so that we can have a common set of references to talk about other topics. For example, learning about sex with Judy Blume. Really, it’s a travesty that more people have read the Odyssey than Forever. But if you want to be part of a common language of cultural references, you need to be able to talk about the Odyssey because it’s on every college freshman reading list in the world.

The thing is you don’t really have to read the Odyssey in order to be able to refer to it in a way that tells people you share an understanding. You can just know the important characters. Don’t believe me? Sometimes people call me Pen-a-lope instead of Penelope. And I think, “You did not go to an accredited college.”

5. A Theory of Social Justice
Another great book. For someone who is going to be a philosopher. On a bad day I ask myself how I could have spent so much time reading political philosophy. It did not stop at Rawls. Ackerman, Novak, Walzer. All the big ones, all impossible to understand in one reading, and all take so much time that I could have read all of British literature in the same amount of time.

Which is my point. I should have been reading the literature, because that’s what would have really engaged me, but I was nervous that novels and poetry paved the road to nowhere. I loved reading poetry and fiction in college, but I worried that those classes were for people who were not as academically studly as I was, so I took classes just because they were hard. I knew I could get As, so I wanted to do it in hard classes. Now I see, though, that if I’m reading a book to impress someone, I shouldn’t be reading the book. Books are best for figuring out what you love and what makes you think deeper.

Of course, someone is asking, “What about having fun?” And I have written before about how fun isn’t my forte. But People magazine is fun. And I read that. And more importantly, books can fill a ton of needs, even fun, but when you read, you need to know what you’re looking for to make sure you get it. There are a lot of things to read in this world, and relatively little time to do it in, so you should pick your books carefully. Even the ones that are just for fun.

39 replies
  1. Holly Hoffman
    Holly Hoffman says:

    I am returning the most bizarre set of books to the library this afternoon – A Million Little Pieces, Shopaholic, The Old Man & The Sea, and Catherine the Great (perhaps the misguided of them all). The first one made me angry, the second made me dumb; the third bored me and the fourth was mind-numbing. The library has been one of the best and worst things for me – not spending money, a plus; not being at all choosy with my checkouts, a minus.

    I actually purchased a book this weekend, the Tropic of Capricorn by Henry Miller, and for the best reason – an intriguing boy told me it was his favorite.

  2. Joselle Palacios
    Joselle Palacios says:

    I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction lately, especially self-helpy ones because I don’t know what to do and am trying to fix myself (now I’m taking a break on making myself better on the inside and just want to dress better so I’ve ordered Isaac Mizrahi’s new how-to). I used to be a voracious novel reader but recently thought, “I don’t have time to read a novel. I need to change my life.” But most self-helpy books (I add a “y” because they are not really by experts but by people as lost as me) say the same thing. I want to go back to reading great, vast stories by people who stun with me how they structure a sentence. I think there is more to learn there.

    One of the self-helpy books, Three Black Skirts, which despite it having a pink cover and cute drawings is actually really subversive and smart, recommends reading children’s books like Eloise and Horton Hears a Who when depressed. I’ve never read Eloise. As a child, I read everything else but not Eloise or Madeline. And I jumped from Judy Blume, Lois Duncan and Paula Danziger to Mary Higgins Clark and Danielle Steele (and got in trouble for the last one) at 7 or 8. So last night, I went to the library and took out Eloise and Madeline. After that, maybe I’ll finally get around to reading The Secret History, which has been on my list forever and whenever I open a page of it, there is a sentence that stuns me.

    Pen-a-lope (I love that!!!), I just ordered your novel from half.com.

  3. prklypr
    prklypr says:

    I’m a little confused..do you mean reading these books was a waste of time, or that you used these books as time-wasters when you really should have been doing something else? Sounds like you yearn to use reading as a way to escape, but somehow feel guilty reading anything that’s not weighty or important. As someone who watches little TV (and in lieu of TV time, reads 30-35 books a year, both fiction and non-fiction), my personal philosophy is to never read anything that wastes my time. As you so aptly said, the key is to “pick your books carefully.” Reading should be the joy of your life! And not just People magazine (that’s more like a guilty pleasure than actual reading, Pen-a-lope). You can get some unexpectedly great books just by perusing the shelves of your local library. I recently grabbed a book that caught my eye b/c the cover typography was great – The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (and it just won the Booker). Read it, your time will not be wasted!

  4. Patricia Fraser
    Patricia Fraser says:

    Just a note from someone who has always been interested in Tudor history (and Tudor architecture, and two-door Fords, but that’s another story).
    Henry VIII started the Anglican church so he could get a divorce from Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, not so he could marry a divorced woman.
    Edward VIII wanted to marry a divorced woman, Wallis Simpson, so he abdicated.
    And two books that I go back to again and again are “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” by Anita Loos, and “Understood Betsy” by Dorothy Canfield.

    * * * * * * *
    Oh.This is a good edit. Thank you. I think this might be a result of me having “marry a divorced woman” on the top of my brain :)
    I’m making the change in the post right now.

    -Penelope

  5. thom
    thom says:

    Egad, Penelope, history is /so much more complicated/ than that! Do you really think that the Anglican church got going simply because Henry VIII had sex issues?

  6. Jay Wigley
    Jay Wigley says:

    Sure, history is complicated. But only because we make it that way. That’s the thing about history: it doesn’t exist independently of what we think about it. So write your dissertation on the origins of the Anglican church if you want, but just know that others will have different opinions on the whys (not the whens) and that the whys are just opinions. There’s no one answer for any of it. You never know the why. Not really.

  7. Lee
    Lee says:

    I read prolifically and indiscriminately when young, sometimes well above my grade level. Due to too little librarian supervision probably. Everything from Harlequin romances to science fiction to Jane Austen to Daniel Defoe. If I didn’t understand something, I just skimmed ahead to where it made sense again but I got the gist of it and over time my vocabulary increased beyond my every day conversations. I re-read a lot of books too. The downside – my guess at pronunciation was not always right (I still secretly pronounce naive as ‘nave’ in my head.)

    So, I don’t think that any book is really a waste of time. If it’s not interesting to you, then you wouldn’t be reading it. If you are bored, then stop and go on to the next book. Nancy Drew’s privileged life was far removed from mine and so even though the books were not challenging they opened my eyes to a different world.

    I think that reading widely, across many disciplines, will give you a better perspective and allow you to develop the ability to see other people's point of view. It's similar to the advantages of traveling but less expensive.

  8. Holly Hoffman
    Holly Hoffman says:

    @thom – But that IS why the Anglican church was founded… well, less sex issues than power issues. Which is, in my opinion, why most religion sects, and religious wars for that matter, are started – power struggles. Henry VIII couldn’t stand that the Pope wouldn’t give him an anullment from Catherine (after, by the way, he sought the pope’s help to sidestep that whole sticky law against marrying your brother’s wife, which Catherine was), and basically that the pope wouldn’t cave in to him on this. So, yeah, Henry seceded from the Catholic church so he could divorce Catherine & marry Anne Boleyn. And so on until he got a male heir. Who died anyway.

    Why wouldn’t history be shaped by sex? So many male decisions are, and why wouldn’t men of absolute power make decisions based on that?

  9. Chris
    Chris says:

    Funny, I have always said that I read the way most people watch TV. I will read anything and I never thought of it as a bad thing. No matter what I read, I get something out of it, even if it’s a better understanding of how to identify CRAP.

    I recently suffered a severe case of reader’s block though. My brother gave me a book he LOVED and it was the first book in my life that I could not get through. I vowed to not read another book until I finished that one.After 8 months, I finally had to throw in the towel. I broke down and finally read Pride and Prejudice. Reader’s block defeated.

    And I *loved* the comment about mispronouncing words. I have always pronounced “peculiar” as PECular with my inside voice because I saw it written before I ever heard it.

  10. Jessica
    Jessica says:

    Holy mackerel, someone else (besides me and my mom) has read Understood Betsy?! I love that book!

    This post reminds me of being in the fourth grade and writing an extremely negative book report about a Bobsey Twins book. I thought it was boring and stupid, as I recall.

    • Deborah Madaris
      Deborah Madaris says:

      I, too, have read Understood Betsy when I was a young girl. It was probably around 1963 when I was in third grade. I think I’ll hit up Amazon.com, find a copy,fix a nice cup of tea and sit before the fire on Christmas eve for a quiet, mellow evening.

  11. melanie gao
    melanie gao says:

    My mom wouldn’t let me read Forever! Now you make me want to go read it. Aren’t we dating ourselves though with this talk about Judy Blume books? Does Gen Y relate to that?

  12. Shefaly
    Shefaly says:

    @ Penelope

    I think the real waste of time is reading lists – and being influenced by them – compiled by self-appointed ‘experts’ whose only expertise is in drawing lists of books they judge to be essential reading or reading that may make one look smarter than one really is. Hardly a way to live life, isn’t it?

  13. Caitlin
    Caitlin says:

    @Shefaly I know what you mean. The problem I found with most of the lists is that they would rely too heavily on white American males writing non-genre fiction in the middle of the 20th century (many such lists were compiled several decades before the century was even over).

    So for example, Ernest Hemingway would have seven books on many of the canonical lists. Now, I believe Hemingway is a great author but I don’t believe he wrote 7% of the best English language novels of the 20th century! That’s why I pulled from several sources, discussed it with other book fans online and offline, and produced a heavily edited list. No reason anyone else can’t do the same.

    I wouldn’t discount the list idea entirely. I don’t read from it exclusively but some of the best books I’ve read in the past couple of years have come from this list and I probably wouldn’t know about them otherwise. It’s been a wonderful experience and not at all a chore.

  14. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    @Holly & Penelope – Please let me know if the two of you decide to collaborate on a post or literary work of some sort on power, sex, history, etc. – that would be a must read in my opinion!

  15. earlgreyrooibos
    earlgreyrooibos says:

    The reason they were such a waste of time is that what I was really looking for was a way to vegetate, escape my own reality and not have to think so much. What I was really looking for was a good TV show. I should have just told my parents. “Normal kids have a TV and we need one too, because I keep reading about the constipated relationship between Nancy and Ned and it’s bad for me.”

    Actually, one of the things I liked best about finishing grad school was being able to read fluff books that I didn’t have to think about. Being able to read anything I wanted, without judgment, was the perfect antidote to 6 years of intense literary study. Of course, I was never into Nancy Drew as a kid, either. But I’ve always loved a mix of fluff and non-fluff. And I actually find fluff novels more enjoyable than fluff TV. I can escape in a book much better than I can into television, for some reason. Not sure why that is, but give me chick lit over cable any day.

    I think what I love about the public library is that I can check things out indiscriminately, and if I hate them, I can just return them. I don’t feel like I “have” to finish something I’m not enjoying just because I paid for it.

    It’s actually really hard for me to think of the books that were the biggest waste of my time, probably because they were so boring that I’ve forgotten about them.

  16. Jean Gogolin
    Jean Gogolin says:

    I’m reading David Denby’s “Great Books” in part because I never read so many of them — and I did go to an accredited college. Denby, who took two great books courses at Columbia as an undergraduate and then went back and took them again 30 years later, has written a book that’s like very intelligent Cliff notes.

    My favorite mispronunciation is from a teacher my husband had who pronounced it “KO’ per nick us.” In college!

  17. Monica O'Brien
    Monica O'Brien says:

    I know it’s weird that I’m responding to a blog post when I can just walk across the room to your office. But I read Nancy Drew when I was younger, only because for my generation the cool books were Babysitter’s Club and Sweet Valley and only one new book came out a month for each, and I ran out of reading material too fast. But even at 10 years old I thought Nancy and Ned was a completely horrible relationship, so G-rated and boring that he may as well have been her younger brother or personal assistant because he was so whipped.

    The only Judy Blume book I ever read was Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. I think it was one of my favorites.

    Everyone reads The Odyssey in high school now, or even junior high. I think I’ve read it at least 3 times, and I still can’t distinguish it from The Iliad when people reference it.

    I agree though that you only need to know the characters of this type of literature because nobody talks about the plot in conversation, they are more likely to make a reference to the character. Like if you call someone Rosalind, people know that means you’re a tease or you dress like a boy, depending on the context.

  18. NYC
    NYC says:

    This goes back to your other post: why we shouldn’t read things that are too difficult for us to understand or too easy that we’re just reading for a lack of better things to do.

    You are essentially saying we should read books that are able to inspire us and that we are capable of being inspired by… right?

  19. jenX67
    jenX67 says:

    Wow. A rich latchkey kid. That is interesting. See – you never know. So – what about the 5 books that put your time to best use? I think I’ll blog about that tomorrow, since all the ones that wasted my time have slipped my mind.

    I hung out at the library a lot, too. I never got to watch Nancy Drew on TV b/c the show aired on Wednesdays, and in the Bible Belt we goes to mid-week services on Wednesday.

  20. Mary Baum
    Mary Baum says:

    “But if you want to be part of a common language of cultural references, you need to be able to talk about the Odyssey because it’s on every college freshman reading list in the world.”

    Agreed. Only, maybe this is a public/private-school discrepancy – €“ but here in St. Louis, at least in the independent schools, kids read it in ninth grade. (Except that some schools do the Iliad instead.)

  21. earlgreyrooibos
    earlgreyrooibos says:

    Agreed. Only, maybe this is a public/private-school discrepancy – €“ but here in St. Louis, at least in the independent schools, kids read it in ninth grade. (Except that some schools do the Iliad instead.

    In the wealthy Cleveland suburb where I grew up, students read the abridged Odyssesy. Unless you were one of like 3 students deemed worthy enough to read the unabrdiged version. Which I was not – they didn’t think I had the skills to master the full text. And it was frustrating, because seriously, I got more out of the Wishbone episode about the Odyssey than I did from reading the heavily abridged version in my English 9 textbook. Flash forward a few years to find that I did honors coursework in English during college, and that I now have an M.A. in literature. LOL.

    I actually have never read the fully Odyssey. Never came close to it in college. I went to school at Kenyon, where you pretty much only read it if you were a classics major, or if you took an interdisciplinary course that combined English, philosophy, classics, and political science. I didn’t major in classics and I never took the interdisciplinary class, so the Odyssey never crossed my path.

  22. sadalit
    sadalit says:

    I surreptitiously read parts of “Wifey” when I was a kid and my mom was reading it. I have never forgotten the gynecologist scene, and as an adult I feel two ways about it: that that theme is hopelessly cliché and overworn, but yet we have stereotypes and clichés for a reason…

  23. Susan Greene
    Susan Greene says:

    I LOVED LOVED LOVED Nancy Drew books too. Read every one. And I read all of Judy Blume’s books. But like you, Wifey, her adult book, was the one that didn’t do it for me. I didn’t like it and don’t remember it.

    As someone who grew up without a mom, Blume’s “Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret” was pivotal in helping me understand the transition from girl to woman.

    It was interesting reading your kid book list. How about telling us some of your favorite grown-up books?

  24. chris keller
    chris keller says:

    I think you learn something from every person and from every book. As in, learning from your critics/enemies. Nothing is a waste of your time: no regrets.

    You can read anything (thus honing your own tastes & finding what is in your best interests) because reading begets more reading which, in turn, begets writing, which eventually begets clarity and/or good storytelling.

    AND (I tracked back to one of PTs 2003 posts on reading/introversion) readers who appear to be hiding out behind the covers of books may simply have a more vivid interior life than others. They can see, in their mind’s eye, the stories, the characters, the plot lines. They feed their own imagination, which is so interior.

    Reading/feeding one’s interior life and one’s imagination, is job #1. Job #2 is, of course, that you go out into the big bad world and (net)work . . . But job #1 feels more enriching.

    I, too, like the Tudor stories and have enjoyed Phillipa Gregory’s embellishments upon that time in history. Allison Weir, who was factual about Henry VIII, finally wrote a fiction work in the last couple of years. Cannot recall the title.

    I also re-read things . . . and am amazed at how much my “absorption” and viewpoint changes over time . . .

    CAK

  25. CAT
    CAT says:

    how precious are you?!! just read what you wanna read – life’s too short to do otherwise……what a waste of a life if that’s al you do – read and do what you think you should……

  26. Caitlan
    Caitlan says:

    “Sometimes people call me Pen-a-lope instead of Penelope.”

    This happened to me in high school! We were reading the Odyssey aloud and everyone was bilingual in Spanish and so were reading it intuitively in a Spanish accent and when it was my turn I could tell I should do the same thing but I was too shy.

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