Dispatches | May 18, 2011

I am a person who writes poetry, or tries to, and now that I’m looking to have a bit more free time, I hope to be a person who tries to write a lot of poetry – and reads a lot of it, too. Poetry, and fiction, and nonfiction, and drama, and everything that I put off because what I’ve been doing was being too busy to be doing what really, as an aspiring writer, I should have been doing all along – that is to say, reading beyond what was assigned in my classes and beyond what was necessary for research projects. Reading, especially, more literature that has been written and published and praised/censured/talked about in the last 10 or 20 years.

Wanting to read more contemporary literature is all well and good, but the sheer, largely unfiltered quantity of books out there becomes more overwhelming the longer I rest my weary eyes upon it. As someone who craves structure, my approach to planning my contemporary reading list has—thus far—been fairly logical. It being the very beginning of my first post-undergraduate summer, I’ve only just begun to investigate the resources that are available to me. The list that follows represents most of what I’ve already started consulting, and a few of the reading materials I’ve added to my list along the way:

Lists of major prizewinners and finalists. I figure that if someone’s work has won or almost won a Pulitzer or a National Book Award, there’s probably a reason. On my way home from the TMR office the other day, I stopped in at the indie bookshop located a few blocks away and came back out with, among other things, a copy of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. I’m excited to read it, not just because it received this year’s Pulitzer for fiction, but because people I know have read it, liked it, and recommended it.

Word of mouth. This is more likely to make me read new work than anything else, and I’ve found that both listening to people talk and inviting lit-happy friends to suggest books and authors for me to read have been extremely helpful. I have a roommate who is absolutely responsible for the Zach Schomburg and Heather Christie reading in my future. A friend or two—and my thesis adviser—have been pretty insistent that I read US! by Chris Bachelder. It seems like every fiction writer I know has read Benjamin Percy’s Refresh, Refresh!, and if I let one more poet talk about Tomaz Salamun in front of me before I’ve read some of his actual books instead of just the poems dispersed across the internet, I’ll have no one to blame but myself.

“Best” lists and anthologies. There are some no-brainers here, like the Best American series, year-end lists from the NY Times, the New Yorker’s “20 under 40,” etc., etc., etc. The number of lists out there is almost as overwhelming as the number of books, but—ever systematic—I plan to do a certain amount of cross-referencing, both between lists and with titles and authors I’ve been hearing a lot about, like Nicole Krauss, whose novels The History of Love and Great House are both firmly on my reading list.

Other literary journals. One thing that I am ashamed of, and rightly so, is the lack of time I spend reading other literary journals. That’s not to say that I never do, or even that it’s not a regular habit, but given the number of quality litmags out there, I need to start more fully taking advantage of my access to them. Unfortunately for those who crave structure, there doesn’t seem to be a particularly logical way to go about choosing which magazines to read. My strategy on this front:  Pick up the nearest literary journal I’ve been meaning to read and read it. Repeat with the next-nearest journal. Today, that journal was AGNI. Tomorrow, based on the tantalizing array of journals spread out on a table in TMR’s library, my guess is I’ll be thumbing through The Southern Review. How haven’t I been reading these already? It’s baffling.

This list is by no means exhaustive. I have other plans to track down the good stuff:  read more reviews, pay more attention to the books that are mentioned on blogs, read more blogs, visit (virtually or physically) more independent bookstores more often, keep track of the books that are being published by small presses, etc., etc., etc. There’s a lot of reading material out there, and I need to stop letting myself be so intimidated by it all. I’ll never keep up completely – I know I won’t – but it’s high time I started trying.

What about you? How do you go about deciding what to read, and what will you be reading this summer?

Sara Strong is a graduate of the University of Missouri and an editorial assistant at the Missouri Review.