Finding Good Books

Melissa Littlefield is an Associate Professor in the Department of English and the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health. Her research investigates the cultural and historical intersections of the neurosciences and the humanities. 

Frankenstein by Mary ShelleyI read for a living—that sounds kind of wonderful, right? Novels and short stories and lots of articles for research and/or the courses I teach: this semester it’s “Science Fiction,” so Frankenstein, Island of Dr. Moreau, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, and World War Z are all part of the plan. In Spring 2017, it will be a healthy dose of Techno-Cultures (Engl 597), recent non-fiction I have been longing to read myself—if you’re at all interested in Science and Technology Studies come on out for the class!

The irony is that reading for a living leaves me largely uninterested in reading during my leisure hours. Those who know me best will tell you that I’d rather be making or doing: knitting a sweater, spinning up some wool, building a house, baking, or just walking anywhere and everywhere. Reading for fun became something I did occasionally on long flights. I would pick up a random bestseller at an airport, read it while traveling, decide it was middling, and deposit it in a hotel room somewhere along the way, hoping, perhaps, to fill some other traveler’s empty hours.

John Steinbeck’s The PearlPart of the trouble, I suppose, is finding a *good* book in this sea of options. When I was younger I refused to admit that there were bad books in the world. I was a firm believer that all books were worth reading—that is, until I read John Steinbeck’s The Pearl. [As an ironic aside, I went on to read all of Steinbeck’s novels over one lazy summer and he remains one of my favorite American authors.] Tastes change. In my teens and twenties I found Falkner, Nabokov, and Joyce. And, as much as I loved the classics when I was a kid (Little Women, Peter Pan, The Secret Garden, The Princess and the Goblin); I love messy, untrustworthy first person narrators more; I like complexity and wit; I enjoy speculative fiction, if it can follow through on its premise. I sound picky. I am. As an adult with limited time, so many books disappoint me within the first few pages.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne CollinsLuckily, during those years in which I was uninterested in untested fiction, my son and my grandmother kept me in the loop. When my son was little, we would read together (everything from Jack and Annie, to the A-Z Mysteries, to Harry Potter). Once he started reading on his own, which was many, many years ago now, I wanted to stay in touch with his interests and so we often had read-a-longs and I volunteered at his school library (so I could always tell what was flying off the shelves). This is how I found out about The Hunger Games, Rick Riordan’s adventure series, Divergent, and The World as We Knew It. All excellent books that are more than just “young adult fiction.” (Sigh . . . labels.) My grandma, on the other hand, encouraged me to branch out into some other contemporary fiction—you see, we have an arrangement: she often sends me novels (such as The Secret Life of Bees) and I send her a new novel to read each year around the holidays. Usually, I vet these novels by reading them first. That’s how I happened to read The Goldfinch and Bellweather Rhapsody.

The Year of the Flood by Margaret AtwoodSometime in 2014, when my son was far outpacing me in the novel read-a-longs, I decided to have a go at picking up random books. I thought this was the secret to my son’s success (I have since learned that it is not!). Being un-selective has led to less curated reading and a strange mélange of books, including The Insect Farm and The Dynamite Room. I found the Twilight trilogy abandoned in a “free” pile in our neighborhood, and I actually thought “why not?” I wanted to know what all the fuss was about anyway. Turns out, these books are funny and “fun”—who knew? And you can read them while knitting. Being late to the party is also a theme for me: I found a short story in the New Yorker by this guy named George Saunders—you heard of him long before I did, I’m sure . . . after “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” I followed up with his collections, Tenth of December and Pastoralia. They are excellent. I will also admit to some purposeful hunting: China Miéville has long been on my list, so I picked up This Census Taker. You should too. I have also been working to catch up on Margaret Atwood’s recent novels and short stories and so finally made some time to read The Year of the Flood, the second book in her recent trilogy. I cannot recommend Miéville and Atwood enough—the books I just finished are chock full of allegory, fable, speculation, creepy mystery, apocalypse. And each follows through on its awful, awful premise.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte BronteReading for a living can be dangerous to one’s taste in and time for fiction. I don’t think I’m any less picky, but I’m becoming more willing to take chances again, to meet new characters, to revisit new books by favorite authors, and to admit that twenty-first century fiction has some new and exciting trends. Plus, I’ll be the first to admit that I missed that feeling of full-immersion. My son, who continues to be a voracious reader, can often be found senseless to the world, pouring through his latest acquisition. When I call him to dinner (for the third time), I am reminded that my best hours were spent likewise, curled up in some window-seat reading Jane Eyre or The Sound and the Fury or Oryx and Crake for the first time.



About iprh

The Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was established in 1997 to promote interdisciplinary study in the humanities, arts, and social sciences.
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