Books get judged every day a thousand times over, by, among other things, their titles, their cover, their concept, their philosophy, and their impact (are they useful? funny? educational? important? inspiring?) We all make these judgments whenever we pick up at book, and I think readers are a more discerning and demanding cohort than, say, movie-goers or museum-goers because you spend a lot longer with a book than you do with other forms of art. Unless you are a particularly fast reader or you have an unusually large chunk of free time, when you commit to reading a book, you commit to spending at least several weeks of your time immersed in those pages. It’s a big commitment.
Another reason why readers are particularly judgmental is that inside every adult is a kid who had to read a book they really didn't want to read. Deathly boring history textbooks come to mind. Once free to read whatever we want, most of us relish our right to choose. John Irving put it so well when he said, “Grown-ups shouldn’t finish books they’re not enjoying. When you’re no longer a child, and you no longer live at home, you don’t have to finish everything on your plate. One reward of leaving school is that you don’t have to finish books you don’t like.”
I buy way more books than I will ever read, so judgment happens even after the purchase is made. Some books make it into my home, but don't make it into my hands, or don't stay there long once they've been chosen. (This is all, of course, critical for a writer to consider as she writes – who is going to buy your book, and why, and what will they get from it, and how? Answering those questions is the way we lay a firm foundation for our books. If you want guidance in this area, today is the last day to sign up for my Blueprint Sprint on July 14 – it’s a special quick version of the Blueprint that comes with 5 live interactive discussions with me over the course of the weekend.)
Here are some of the ways I have judged some of my recent reads.
The Coaching Habit– self-help/business
Books sometimes come to us in the most serendipitous way, and that was certainly true for me with The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier. I had seen an article by Stanier online -- Exactly How I Self-Published My Book, Sold 180,000 Copies, And Nearly Doubled My Revenue. Most self-published titles sell around 100 copies, so180,000 copies is a LOT of books. Curious, I clicked through and read the article with amazement. There are so many great lessons in this piece – it’s like a mini marketing master class for writers. Among the lessons:
- There is not one path to publishing success
- You have to write the book you have to write
- Writers need a team to support them
- Writers need a strategy not just a PR firm
- Book covers matter
- A launch takes time
- A writing career takes time
- Some advertising works and some doesn’t
- Ask for what you want (especially if you are talking about amazon reviews)
- Blurbs matter
- No one really knows what they are doing
I was so impressed with the article that I bought the book – and on the day it arrived, my virtual friend Jen Louden, who is a bestselling writer and a wonderful teacher, sent an email introducing me to Michael, whom she has known for a number of years. So weird and wonderful!
I read the book, and I thought it was fantastic. It’s short, highly actionable advice for anyone who trying to coach someone through anything – think of a manager, a teacher, a parent, an actual coach. There are 7 key questions Stanier suggests you ask in these coaching situations.
- What’s on your mind?
- And what else?
- What’s the real challenge here for you?
- What do you want?
- How can I help?
- If you’re saying YES to this, what are you saying NO to?
- What was most useful for you?
On the day I finished the book, my 21-year-old daughter called from college 3,000 miles away in a bit of a crisis. When I felt myself slipping into “MOM FIX IT” mode (a ridiculous stance to take with a child who is an actual adult!) I opened Stanier’s book and said, “So what else is this really about?” That question turned out to be the key to my being able to help without having to solve, and all I had to do was remember to ask it. It was awesome!
I am hoping to get Stanier to agree to an interview for my upcoming “Introduction to Book Coaching” course.
Lincoln in the Bardo– adult novel
I was so excited about this book because it came with such fanfare -- the first novel of a beloved short story writer, an inventive tale about Lincoln and death and the way we wrestle with big ideas -- but in the end, I didn't even make it 50 pages (and I purchased the $27 hardcover!) I just couldn't get over the unusual language, the many voices, the lack of plot. I tried several times because so many smart people I know are loving it -- but it only served to make me feel not smart and then those thoughts began to dominate my reading of the book -- What am I missing? Are we all being punked? Am I so shallow that I need an easy-to-follow plot to guide me? I ultimately decided I'm not going to read it. I may not even keep it, because my bookshelves really only have room for books that are very important to me, but that’s a whole different discussion.
My Life with BOB -- memoir
I almost didn't buy this book because of the title. I almost skipped right past it, and then when I realized that BOB means "book of books" and the author, Pamela Paul, is the editor of the New York Times Book Review, I changed my mind, and decided to take a chance on this memoir about keeping track of every single book Paul ever read. (But it’s certainly a cautionary tale against a title that’s too clever for its own good! The first job of a title is to hook the reader not confuse them…)
I am a sucker for a great structure, and I LOVED the structure of this book. Paul chose one book to represent a period of her life and a point she wanted to make about life and reading. So we get, for example, a discussion of The Grapes of Wrath and a point about being “Among Readers” when Paul travels to live with a family in Paris, and finds a common understanding outside of the bounds of language when she learns that they had all read Steinbeck’s classic; we get a discussion of The Magic Mountain and the way different people can find different lessons in the same books while Paul chronicles the demise of a relationship; we get a discussion of The Hunger Games and a lesson on the pleasures of reading for escape when Paul loses herself in the popular series just after giving birth to a child. This structure allowed Paul to explore the idea about books being read in context -- in a particular time and place in your life -- and how that makes the experience of reading them almost like a timestamp in a passport.
The book inspire me to think about books I have read at important times of my life – and it made me wish that I had kept a written record like Paul.
Like Lincoln in the Bardo, My Life With Bob book also made me feel not-smart because I hadn't read or in some cases even heard of many of the books Paul discusses. She is incredibly well read and has lived her life in the world of books, and the fact is that she reads on a somewhat different plane than I do – a more serious plane. I noted some titles that I thought would be good reads (in the “good for me to read” category), but I also know that I won’t probably read them.
This feeling is one of the reasons I didn’t walk away loving the book or wanting to press it into the hands of my friends (the mark of an excellent book, in my mind.) I liked it very much, and admired it very much, but something about it left me feeling as though I was watching a virtuoso performance of someone who was aware they were performing, and not just sitting back immersed in the music.
The Girl Who Drank the Moon– middle grade novel
I took this Newberry award-winning novel on vacation in the Sierra’s (here I am hiking near Huntington Lake – no book in sight on that day) and was primed to really adore it, but my reaction ended up being mixed. SPOILER ALERT if you plan to read it – I spoil things here:
On the Thumb’s Up side:
- An intricately plotted novel with multiple points of view that all weave together into a seamless whole – a very hard thing to do.
- World-building that includes an oppressed people and a cultural divide that felt incredible real and relevant.
- Multi-layered characters who defy easy categorization (good/evil) but who, like real people, are a mix of motivations, desires and fears.
- Rich vocabulary, which would push any middle grader (as well as many adults) to learn some wonderful new words.
- Lyrical, lovely, poetic writing.
On the Thumb’s Down side* :
- I never felt that anything was at stake for the main character. Secondary characters had more to lose. I wanted Luna to have more to fight for, or perhaps more of a sense of what she might gain or lose.
- Some dropped threads. There were some key questions that didn’t get answered – about the way the magic works and who gets it, for example, and how it is controlled. I felt a bit frustrated by those loose ends.
- The cultural “message” seems to take over in a way that began to feel heavy handed and message-y. It began to feel like the writer was making a POINT rather than telling a story. All stories make a point, but they can also go too far.
*shout out to my daughter, Carlyn, who read this book, too, and with whom I discussed these points. She helped me clarify some of my dissatisfaction about the magic, in particular.
My measure of an excellent book is if I finish and want to start again, or want everyone I know to read it (which I said, above, I didn’t feel with My Life with BOB.) I didn’t feel that pull with this book.
Once I was done, I went to read a bunch of articles about it, and interviews with the author, Kelly Barnhill, to try to understand my reaction – the book, after all, won the Newbery! So again, I wondered what I had missed…. I may not be a superfan of the book, but I became a superfan of Barnhill. She sounds like a soulful and wise person. I will leave you today with three powerful quotes from her about writing.
This first is from the book – a passage about a woman who writes her way from insanity to sanity (which feels very much like what a lot of us do every day):
“She could remember only the touch of paper. She was hungry for paper. At night she dreamed of the dry smoothness of the sheaf, the painful bite of the edge. She dreamed of the slip of ink into the deepening white. She dreamed of paper birds and paper stars and paper skies. She dreamed of a paper moon hovering over paper cities and paper forests and paper people. A world of paper. A universe of paper. She dreamed of oceans of ink and forests of quills and an endless bog of words. “
These others are powerful Barnhill said about writing:
“Part of making art is breaking down what you thought you knew and shattering what you have always believed in order to get at the heart of the matter.”
“I sat down, over months and months, and wrote a story. Then I erased that story and recomposed it from memory. Then I erased it again, and recomposed it again. The story lived in my eyes and my fingers. It lived in my messy hair and my wool socks and my fuzzy slippers. It lived on my skin. It lived in my mouth. It lived in my ears. And then I sold it to a publisher, and the publisher said, “I love it! Let’s change everything!” And so I did. It’s called the editorial process, and it is a magic thing. Editors are people who have eyes made of titanium and tongues made of steel. Their hearts are carefully built of the most delicate and complicated clockwork gears in the world. They never sleep. They never eat. They are fed on starlight and birdsong and the dreams of children. And they are almost always right. So I changed lots of things and rewrote lots of things and the story I wrote became the story it could be, and that has made all the difference.”