Shortly after graduating college, full of ambition and desperate to travel, I packed up and moved to Dublin. My first interview was for a small press that publishes literary fiction and Irish-interest nonfiction. It couldn’t have gone better—or so I thought. A week later I received a lovely letter informing me that despite my many charming qualities, the company was looking for someone with a stronger foundation in modern Irish writing.
I didn’t know how much I had wanted that position until I was rejected. So I started reading like crazy, as much out of spite as out of a desire to educate myself. Pretty soon, I realized I had a problem: funds were limited, my apartment had no bookshelf (can you believe it?), and most of my personal library was in a storage unit back in Indiana.
I have always had a tendency to buy books on impulse, with the unfortunate result that I own a lot of things I have never read and most likely never will. So this time, I decided I needed to lay down some rules. If I was going to buy a new book, it had to by an Irish writer (or a writer living in Ireland), published by a small press somewhere other than London or New York, and released within the last twenty years. I’m sure I missed out on a lot of great literature, particularly from the big international houses, but I wanted to see what Ireland’s small press scene had to offer. I also promised myself I would read at least fifty pages of every book I bought, which meant I had to make a real commitment with each purchase.
Although I couldn’t turn back time to get the job I wanted, I discovered a host of up-and-coming writers I never knew existed. When I went to conferences, I had something to say. And the best part is I finished pretty much everything I bought.
I like to think of this as “literary portion control.” The goal is not to be miserable but to challenge yourself to finish everything you read, and to focus on trying new things. Give yourself three months, or a summer, identify a maximum you’re willing to spend, and start buying what’s missing from your bookshelf. (“But wait!” you say. “Can’t I just go to the library?” Well, of course you can, but if you’re like me, you probably won’t.) Like with any decent diet, you’re allowed to cheat every now and then and still reap the benefits. If you’ve waited years for The Winds of Winter (you poor thing), go ahead and read it when it comes out. You can make the rules however you like, but the goal should be to restrict yourself to a category that interests you and then push yourself to read in that category.
Here are a couple of organizing principles you can consider:
1) 1) Buy only books in a chosen genre. If you want to write the next YA bestseller, but you don’t know any teenagers, what better way to acquaint yourself with what they’re reading? The one huge caveat here is to pay attention to the publication date—you don’t want your Millennial protagonist to come out sounding like Huck Finn or Holden Caulfield. If you read enough recent books in your chosen genre, you’ll start to get a sense not only of what has been successful but what has started to become passé.
2) 2) Buy only books by women, or writers of color. Taking aim at the serious gender imbalance in panels and prize submissions, the Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie has suggested that 2018 be a year of publishing only women. Meanwhile, the We Need Diverse Books campaign has done much to promote a broad definition of diversity in publishing. But the problem isn’t necessarily that we don’t have diverse books; the problem is many of us don’t read them. If you limit your purchases to books by diverse authors, you’ll discover how much is already on the market.
3) 3)Buy only books in translation. Back in 2008, the Nobel committee’s permanent secretary pissed off a good few people when he said of American writers, “They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.” While he was soundly rebuked by many, he did have a point. At most three percent of books published in the United States are translated from another language, compared to 27 percent in France and as much as 70 percent in Slovenia.
Depending on your goals and your budget, there are plenty of ways you can make a literary diet work for you. Because I had such limited space, I kept a list of all the books I read and then gave most of them away. When friends would ask me for recommendations, I always had something to share! Being able to pass it on gave me a great sense of satisfaction. On the other hand, if you’re settled and want to build your library, this can also be a great way to start filling your shelves. Whatever your circumstances, I challenge you to set some rules and give one of these diets a try. You just might find your new favorite book.