On Being a Bad Reader

I regularly read the livejournal of author Nick Mamatas, who quite often has some intelligent, no-nonsense insight into reading, writing, and “fandom”. One of the things that came up on his journal some time ago was the idea of there being two types of reader – the superior sort, and the inferior sort. I was hoping I could link to an individual post where he’d talked about this idea in some kind of detail, but it seems his words on the subject were spread around in a few posts and comments. This post has the bulk of it, though it is also about a lot of other things. He sums up one aspect of the idea pretty well in a comment there, though:

Bad readers can’t tell the difference between ‘this is good’ and ‘I like this.’

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One of the things I keep coming up against in my attempts to review the books I read is the question of whether I am a bad reader. I can say with absolute certainty that as a teenager I was a bad reader. I could enjoy anything, so long as I got invested in the plot, and I didn’t think much about the rest. I read some very awful books that I didn’t realise were awful at the time.

Have I improved since then? Yes, I think so. The question is by how much. I can tell when something is bad, but I have more trouble realising why it’s bad. Similarly, when I like something, I can sometimes find it difficult to say exactly what it was that made me like it. See for example my post last year about Jay Lake’s Trial of Flowers, where I struggled when it came to saying what it was his writing reminded me of (the second half of that post is pretty bad).

The more damning thing, when I reflect on my reading, is that I very rarely read something I do not enjoy. I did not like Bad Monkeys by Matt Ruff, last year, but my reasons for not liking it all came down to personal preferences. But that’s it: the only book I did not like out of a full year. Is it all selection bias (I almost never buy a book without having heard praise for it), or is it also a lack of discernment on my part?

On the other hand, the one book I didn’t choose myself – Seized by Lynne Cantwell, read last month – I can look at and say that the writing suffered from a large number of amateurish mistakes, that its plot and tropes were overly conventional, that when it came down to the final confrontation it failed in its portrayal of the antagonist to make him seem like a convincing threat. I enjoyed reading it, but can readily say that it was not a good book.

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So here’s where I stand, now. I have been the inferior sort of reader in the past, and may indeed still be, but I can aspire to become the superior sort. Part of that is to continue to read widely, and to continue attempting to put into words what I thought about the book, and what did or did not work.

Book-A-Week will continue, for at least this year, as that’s my goal. There have been gaps recently, because I have been reading non-fiction and comics, but I’ll be finishing three books over the next week to catch up. There’s a risk I could find myself reading for the metric instead of for the experience, but I see it more as developing better habits. I would read far more than one book a week if I could stop wasting so much time reading forums and twitter.

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All this is on my mind right now, by the by, because last week I read Nick Mamatas’ excellent non-fiction collection Starve Better, which contains advice on how to write short fiction or non-fiction and how to sell it. I am too much of a lazy fool to actually follow the advice (I am, after all, putting all of my writing up here for free), but it was food for thought, and it got me thinking about other insights and advice I have read from him.

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3 thoughts on “On Being a Bad Reader

    1. I suppose it’s more a feeling that if I’m reading widely, I should expect to find things that don’t work more often. But of course I don’t set out to read things I won’t like, so there’s the question of sampling bias again.

      1. Try exploring the fringes of what you like, perhaps. Books that are close to what you usually read, but a little different.
        I call these ‘maybe’ books–maybe I’ll like it, maybe I won’t.

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