Read a book you think you'll hate in 2010

Why you should get out of your literary comfort zone this year

Published January 5, 2010 8:06PM (EST)

Image of a hand selecting a red book from a bookshelf (Andreas G. Karelias)
Image of a hand selecting a red book from a bookshelf (Andreas G. Karelias)

Every New Year, I make a couple of major resolutions (write a book, get my finances in order, renovate my decrepit kitchen) and one minor one: keep a list of the books I read. And every year, I usually manage to check off the more difficult items while failing abysmally at maintaining that damn list.

A recent post by Patrick on the blog for Vroman's Bookstore in Los Angeles is a reminder of why anyone who reads a lot might want to keep a journal of each year's books, preferably with notes. Even the truncated lists I've kept in the past seem more revealing to me now than any diary. What we tell ourselves about ourselves tends to be a bit of a performance; what interests -- or bores -- us is who we really are.

A journal of the year's reading can also serve as a reminder of your own blind spots. Now that blogging has made personal year-end lists ubiquitous, I can't help noticing the persistence of many lamentable old patterns: A lot of men only read books written by other men. (Women, with the exception of romance buffs, tend to be more ecumenical.) Other people exclusively read fiction or nonfiction, and still others never crack a book that wasn't originally written in English or part of a particular genre, or about a favorite region.

Even those of us obliged to read a wide variety of books develop our own highly specific crotchets. I will resist any book set on a ranch like a cat fighting a bath; likewise, memoirs by women obsessed with their mothers. If I happen to flip through a graphic novel and see a scene in which 20-something characters complain about their relationships in a cafe -- back on the display table it goes posthaste. Historical fiction set in early 20th-century America, especially the silent movie business? No, thank you very much.

We all have our little biases, and far be it from me to suggest that people force themselves to read books they don't like, but sometimes that's all these preferences are -- prejudices. Getting out of your rut can lead to unexpected and exhilarating rewards. I once had "ironclad" rules against novels about stage magicians or rabbis in Prague (you'd be surprised how many of these there are), but if I'd stuck to that, I'd have missed one of my favorite books from the 2000s, Michael Chabon's "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay."

Champions of the book like to think that reading broadens the mind and expands the sensibility. It can't do that, though, if the reading lists we choose from are too narrow. So this year, I'd like to join Patrick at Vroman's by inviting Salon's readers to make and share resolutions that will nudge them into new literary territory. He's sworn to read at least two novels published before 1900. For myself, I resolve to try at least one contemporary French novel (another phobia) and at least three works of nonfiction on science, which I tend to skip out of sheer laziness. (I'm still drawing the line at stage magicians, though.) How will you widen your own reading horizon in 2010?

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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