Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Scouting for Good Reads

You may have noticed the recent flurry of activity on my book lists. Attribute it to: 1) My intermittent panic that I’m failing to make a dent in my reading wish list—never mind the ongoing short-listed award books cranked out month after month, and 2) My last trip to the library—when I meant only to pick up a book my husband had on-hold, but also came away with a handful of titles I noticed in passing. I’m like the freelancer who takes every job because there’s no guarantee another will come along. I scooped up the books before someone else did or before the library decommissioned them (the more likely scenario).

Which is to say that I’ve been reading on a schedule. But now that I’ve finished the library books, I can return to my own inventory and read at leisure.

Last night, I started a book that held little appeal for me during its prepublishing blitz: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Even after it started winning accolades and awards, it didn’t make it onto my Top 10 list. (Confession: I tend to avoid books and films about injustice. They upset me too much. I know … I’m a wuss.)

Then last year I read a short memoir* by Rebecca Skloot in an anthology of dog tales. I admired her sensibilities and her writing style and was eager to read more of her work, so I took to Googling. It didn’t take long to make the connection as to why I thought I knew her name: Her debut book, Immortal Life, was the one I’d been avoiding. Immortal Life rocketed to my Top 10 list—I couldn’t not read it now.

This is how my reading wish list has evolved of late. Rather than getting recommendations from others or following the bestseller and awards lists, I sample short stories in anthologies and journals. If an author impresses me, I’ll scout out more of his/her writing.

This method is not foolproof. Some authors write better in short form than in long form; some are better at fiction than nonfiction. The theme of the anthology also influences my choices. (The essays of two of my favorite writers in one anthology were duds. Had I not already been familiar with them, I might not have discovered their better works based on that particular anthology.) However, in the long run, the method is a scavenger hunt of my own making that has no downside. All discoveries are serendipitous. There’s no shame or guilt in disliking the book recommended by a friend or reviewer.

As for Immortal Life, I simply had to wait for it to become available at my local library. Soon after I added it to my wish list, though, it arrived at my door; a friend had mailed it to me. How’s that for serendipity? It felt like Christmas. And now a little surge of that feeling will hit me each time I pick up that book.

To good friends and good reads, my abiding gratitude.

* The short memoir was about Skloot’s dog, Bonny, who was viciously attacked by a pack of wild dogs in New York City. If you’re on Facebook (which I’m not), you should be able to read the entire drama there, taken from Skloot’s blog. (If you find it, can you copy it into a file and send it to me?) If the Facebook series is anything like the short piece I read, it will provoke your ideas and convictions on legislation, dog training, and the value of any life. Note for dogsters: You may also enjoy reading Skloot’s article on memorializing her other dog, Sereno.

[Pics are HeLa cells, all originating from Henrietta Lacks.]

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