Pleasure reading should be pleasurable

Makes sense when you think about it, right? Yet so many of us feel obligated to finish a book once we’ve started it, and feel guilty if we set it aside. We really should read it, because a friend recommended it, or it got a good review, or it’s on a topic we really ought to know more about, or everyone else is reading it, or we put it on our to-read list four years ago (but we can’t remember why), or it’s a classic…fill in the blank however you like.

But unless a book is assigned reading for school or work, then presumably you’re reading for pleasure, and pleasure reading should be pleasurable. Not that you shouldn’t ever explore a new genre or try a book that you find a bit difficult, but if you’re 25 or 50 or 100 pages in and you’re just not that into it, then by all means, put it down and pick up something else instead! You have this librarian’s permission.

This is something I have worked on for years myself. I was inspired partly by Knopf editor Marty Asher, who said something along the lines of “I don’t have time to read anything but great books” (and that was almost a decade ago). Of course, you might well think a book is going to be great and it turns out not to be: you can only judge so much by the cover, title, author, first sentence, first page, flap copy, reviews, etc. Most of us don’t choose books we think we’re going to dislike on purpose.

And yet it can be so hard to put down a book we’ve invested some time in already. It feels like giving up; it feels like failure. And who knows? We’re optimistic; maybe it will get better in another 25, 50, 100 pages. But no: at some point you begin to feel certain that this book is not the one for you, at least not right now. (“Every reader his/her book, every book its reader“).

One side effect of my free time having been somewhat curtailed of late is that I have become much better at putting down a book that doesn’t hook me quickly. This is usually not a reflection on the book’s quality; it’s just not for me, not right now. For example, I have decided to return M.T. Anderson’s Symphony for the City of the Dead to the library – despite the fact that it was personally recommended to me by a reader I trust, and that it was a finalist for the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults – because I just can’t get excited about the siege of Leningrad right now.

What can I get excited about? Young adult fiction, apparently: I’ve read nine YA novels so far this year, including some truly stellar books (all right, let’s name names: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, Like No Other, Dumplin’, Roller Girl, Echo, A Step Toward Falling, Bone Gap, Rain Reign). I’ve also read (and re-read) some excellent picture books. And, I got to read Gayle Forman’s upcoming adult novel Leave Me, which is just as good as her YA; I read it in just two days, and I have a three-month-old baby, so that should tell you something. (The thing it should tell you is “read Leave Me“!)

So there you have it, from a librarian: if you don’t like what you’re reading, and you don’t have to read it, put it down and read something you love instead. That’s the beauty of the public library: millions of books just there for the borrowing. Don’t do what I did and spend an entire month trying to slog through a book you aren’t that excited about: you’re not being graded, and ticking a box on a checklist you made yourself isn’t nearly as satisfying as spending time reading a book you love. In fact, I think there’s a song about this. Let it go…

[All that said…my library is hosting a 2016 Reading Challenge with some interesting categories, and one book can count toward more than one category. Click through to read more if you’re interested in participating.]

Do you debut? Focus on first books

I only realized how few new debuts* I read when I was offered the chance to contribute to another Reader’s Shelf column in Library Journal,New Year, Nearly New Books: Favorite 2015 Debuts.” Looking back through nearly a year’s worth of reading, there weren’t very many for me to choose from, but I did really enjoy The Magician’s Lie by Greer Macallister. If you like magic and illusion, turn-of-the-century America, and (possibly) unreliable narrators, it would be a great book to curl up with this winter.

*”New debuts” isn’t redundant, I don’t think: an author’s first book is a debut whether it was published ten years ago or ten days ago. And if it was ten years ago, then hopefully there have been a few since, and you’ve got some catching up to do!

Do you seek out debuts? I don’t make a point of it, though I certainly don’t have anything against them – if it’s recommended to me or gets glowing reviews or has a great hook, I’m just as interested in a first novel as a tenth, and discovering a new writer is a pleasure. Really, the only downside to reading a new debut is that you’ll be waiting for the next one instead of diving into an author’s backlist.

Do you like to read everything an author has written, or do you read more selectively, even if you really like the author? Do you like to read an author’s work chronologically, reverse-chronologically, or does the order not matter to you?

Coding in libraries

Does your library offer coding programs for kids, teens, or adults? These programs are becoming more popular in libraries (e.g. Girls Who Code). If your library offers, has offered, or has considered offering a learn-to-code program, take this quick 4-question survey to help the developers of a webinar for LITA (the Library Information Technology Association) understand the state of coding programs at libraries.

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For most people, it’s not necessary – and may not even be useful – to learn any one particular coding language, but having an understanding of how code works can be really helpful. More and more, how stuff works is becoming opaque and mysterious. We have a culture of obsolescence that encourages consumers to replace rather than repair something when it breaks. In addition to being wasteful, this can have dangerous implications, especially for privacy. Also, I believe that user experience will improve when the people who write the code behind the tools, platforms, and services we use are more diverse. People tend to design things with themselves in mind as the typical user, which often leads to poor design (this is why usability testing is so important!).

What do you think of offering coding programs in libraries?

Readers’ Advisory: Novels featuring real historical characters

The Massachusetts Library System (MLS) has a new series called “5 in 15 Booktalks,” where librarians talk about 5 titles in 15 minutes or less. I got to work with the excellent MLS staff to put together a “5 in 15 member edition” booktalk, where I talk about novels that feature real historical characters, including:Cover image of Wolf Hall

  • Thomas Cromwell in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies
  • Edith Wharton in Jennie Fields’ The Age of Desire
  • Mary Mallon (a.k.a. Typhoid Mary) in Mary Beth Keane’s Fever
  • Anne Morrow Lindbergh in Melanie Benjamin’s The Aviator’s Wife
  • Vanessa Bell (nee Stephens) in Priya Parmar’s Vanessa and Her Sister

Watch the video (me talking over slides). It was hard for me to narrow my list down to five titles, so I mention some others during the talk, including The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory, The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, Z by Therese Anne Fowler, Sutton by J.R. Moehringer, and a few others.

What’s your favorite novel featuring a real historical character? Or do you prefer your historical fiction to have a purely invented main character? Share in the comments!

Where do we go from here?: a content audit of library signage

Good signs help library users answer the questions, “Where am I? What can I do here? Where can I go from here? How do I find where I want to go?”-Aaron Schmidt and Amanda Etches, Useful, Usable, Desirable (2014)

Inspired by the idea of a content audit (essentially, an inventory), I went around the public library building where I work and took pictures of every sign. The library has five floors, and I took about 250 photos. I did not include signs in staff-only areas, nor did I take pictures of every single stack end, each of which is marked with the call numbers it holds (e.g. 910-919 for travel books).

Still: about 250 signs, with 100 on the first floor alone. The sheer number of signs is overwhelming, as is the variety: there are a few different “official” styles (gray plastic plaques with white printing; brown text on a cream background in plastic or behind clear plastic), some semi-official styles (laminated or in plastic sheets), and some that are just paper and tape.

The signs serve many purposes, and to some extent they follow Schmidt & Etches’ advice: “Different types of signs (directional, identification, instructional, regulatory, informational) should be visually distinct.” Donors, for example, are acknowledged with brass plaques, whereas programs are advertised on paper in plastic holders, so they can be changed out frequently. However, even the more permanent signage has two different designs (the gray-and-white and brown-and-cream), indicating that it was probably created and installed at at least two different times. The Teen and Children’s areas also have distinct signage of their own – again, not a bad thing, as they are distinct areas of the library.

Laminated sign over post-it over button to open door mechanically

“Please DO NOT bang.” A laminated sign, a handwritten post-it, and the automatic door button itself.

Where do we go from here, with this jumble of excessive signage? Ideally, we’d take a step back and create a “brand manual” for typography/fonts, colors, and logo/wordmark, then create templates for signage, posters, brochures, and the website. (We could even re-design our library card!) Personally, I’d love to see some brighter colors, and I like the idea of using icons rather than words wherever possible; they’re recognizable at a glance (the good ones are, at least), and offer better guidance to more people (especially people whose first language isn’t English, or younger children who can’t read yet).

Do you work in (or frequently visit) a library? What’s your favorite and least favorite thing about the signage there? What other institutions have good signage ideas that libraries could borrow?

Updated 9/22/15: Here’s another great piece from Aaron Schmidt’s UX column in Library Journal, Positive Signs.” In it, he talks about accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative in library signage. In other words, don’t tell people what they can’t do, encourage them to do what they can.

Librarians are also detectives

We received three beautiful framed prints recently, and although they tickled something in the back of everyone’s brain, no one in the group of assembled family and friends was able to recognize them with certainty.

Three framed prints of color illustrations

Naturally I brought them to the library, certain that the librarians in the Children’s department would know. No one recognized them right away, and an image search on the Internet was also fruitless. I turned to Twitter, choosing a few tags (#librarylife, #librarians, #kidlit, #kidlitart) and also sending a tweet directly to Mel of Mel’s Desk, who kindly re-tweeted to her many followers, a good percentage of which must be children’s librarians.

Screenshot of a tweet: Children's librarians, please help. Recognize these illustrations?

In a matter of minutes, I had my answer: not The Steadfast Tin Soldier by Hans Christian Anderson, but Get-A-Way and Hary Janos by Maud and Miska Petersham. According to WorldCat, this is “The story of a worn out toy horse and his friend, a wooden soldier doll, who travel to a land where old toys become new.” I requested it from WorldCat, since there isn’t a copy in my library system.

I’m glad that (a) I have an answer to my mystery, (b) the Internet can’t answer everything, and (c) librarians are awesome detectives.

 

LibraryReads October 2015 list

LibraryReadsLibraryReads is an initiative that was launched in September 2013 and has been going strong ever since. Simply put, LibraryReads is “The top ten books published this month that librarians across the country love”; it’s a list of ten books compiled every month by library staff across the country. All library staff are eligible to vote and write reviews. I’ve seen presentations from the LibraryReads organizers at least twice (once at the Massachusetts Library Association conference in May 2015, once at BEA in May 2014), and have written occasional reviews for the books I’ve managed to read ahead of time, but this is the first time one of my reviews has been featured, and I couldn’t be happier that it’s for David Mitchell’s Slade House.

Cover image of Slade House“Every nine years, Slade House appears in a little alley in London, and every nine years, someone – or multiple someones – disappears into it, never to be seen again. Slade House is a lacuna, frozen in time, and its inhabitants need a new soul every nine years for their continued survival. Fans of The Bone Clocks will inhale this compact, six-part work that draws on Mitchell’s previously established mythology and, of course, reintroduces a familiar character or two. New readers, however, won’t be lost, as important pieces are explained to each new character who is drawn into Slade House. Literary fiction, fantasy, and a dose of horror combine here to make a deeply satisfying book.”

See all ten of October’s LibraryReads picks here. I’m also looking forward to After You by Jojo Moyes, The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks, and Welcome to Night Vale. October is always a good month for publishing!