Welcome to the Book Nerd’s Guide to Life! Every other week, we convene in this safe place to discuss the unique challenges of life for people whose noses are always wedged in a book. See past guides here.
There was a time when I likely never would have picked up Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, with its dark and startling (and deeply satisfying) modern premise. Likewise, there have certainly been times when I’ve flat-out refused to read things like Northanger Abbey, because Jane Austen and I, we’ve never really been chums. And as for Ms. Marvel, a younger, simpler, dumber me would wonder, “What could I ever learn from a superhero comic?”
But each of those books I’ve read in the past year, and each of them I have loved.
For most of us, reading habits are a matter of comfort. Much of the pleasure of books lies in their sense of escapism. We retreat into our current reads. They absorb and nurture. The seduction of one genre can be overwhelming. The siren’s call of your usual authors can drown out the magnetism of something more exotic in your to-read pile—or something you’ve never considered picking up because it doesn’t live in the same aisle you always go down in the bookstore.
But reading teaches us lessons similar to those of child-rearing, including: you can’t always dote on your favorite, even if the thought of dealing with the other one exhausts you. (I have no children.)
Every now and then, it’s safe to dip your toe in stranger waters. When it’s time to select your next book to devour, you should take a good long look in the mirror. Leaving your comfort zone can be as easy as answering some simple questions.
How old are you?
We fetishize age these days, as if the year you were born—and the decade in which you ate paste with your peers—determines your social caste for the rest of your life. (Shout out to all those who can also still sing lyrics from “Reptar on Ice.”) So maybe, just maybe, you could branch out by simply picking up and consuming books written from the perspectives of those who wouldn’t relate to the same nostalgia listicles you do. Add 40 years to your age and find an author with that kind of census data. Likewise, subtract 10 and see what the generations that follow you have to say.
Apply the same logic to your ethnicity, nationality, and gender identity and you’re really cooking with gas.
Who are your favorite authors?
Find an anthology or collection that includes one or more of them. If they’re any kind of prolific, I can all but guarantee they’ve contributed to at least one. Legend has it that every time a bell rings, a fantasy anthology gets a new Neil Gaiman short story.
What are your hobbies or passions?
We often get boxed in by genre choices. It’s easy to consider yourself a fan of romance or a steampunk devotee. But that’s not the real you—or that’s not the complete you. You’ve got endless passions, all of which have been written about. It’s easy to identify your interests, too: just think of the cause you’re most concerned will be obliterated in the upcoming calendar year. Pick up its Ur-text, or find a compelling current commentary on a topic, like Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World.
Which book has the coolest cover?
Let’s dispel this myth once and for all: You can totally judge a book by its cover. You just can’t judge all books by their covers. If the powers that be didn’t want you to judge books by their looks, then why would they have given us the beauty and majesty of featured bookstore displays? Pretty things can be good. If something catches your eye, give it a chance. It may not be better than a well-loved mass market paperback, but it might just be worth the reading anyway. So you’ve never considered yourself someone who would pick up the latest buzzy mystery novel? Well, you also never thought you’d have a favorite kid like we all know you do.