where the writers are
Choosing what to read

Dirk van Nouhuys' essay on the novels that have stayed with him (this blog, 2011.9.28) has got me thinking about how I choose fiction to read. Dirk has no patience for those lists of the 100 or 1,000 or however many books "you must read before you die"(try Googling "books"+"before you die" for examples), as though there could be one list for everybody (and as though there were only that many possibilities). I too think such lists are silly, but since I know I'm never going to read more than a tiny sample of all that's worth reading, I need some way to guide my choices.

So, how do I choose? For starters, I always try to read the selections of my local reading club in Carboneras, which are usually good and always promote lively discussions (all in Spanish, which I review on my Spanish-language blog Lecturas y lectores). Beyond that I have two major criteria:

  • The book promises to tell me something I really want to know, for example about a culture or a time or a place or a psychological experience, and/or 
  • I expect to learn something I can use about the craft of writing. 

I'm most interested in books that do both. Thus, so far I've been less engaged by Cormac McCarthy (fascinating craftsman, but I don't much care for or need to hear his strange view of the world) than by, for example, Mario Vargas Llosa (another amazing prose crafter, but one who engages social issues that I do care about).

But even limiting my reading to books that do one or the other of those things, my actual reading is still largely a matter of chance: what I happen to have heard about and what I can get easily.

I'm not going to try to create a list like Dirk's, but if anyone is curious about the books I have found important enough to read and comment on, you're invited to take a look at my "Little Library of the Lair" Fiction Readings or, if you read Spanish, the different collection in my Pequeña biblioteca comentada.

On another note, I'm glad to see that some of my earliest work is still being cited by scholars. A recent example is this MA thesis by Javier Fernández (University of Georgia, 2004), which makes good use of parts of my 1979 book Working-Class Émigrés from Cuba (Palo Alto: R&E Research Publications, 1979; published version of my 1975 PhD dissertation), which must have been in his university library — it's pretty hard to get these days, but a recent query made me aware that it has also been a resource to other younger scholars working on issues including migration, Latinos, the Cuban revolution or racial and gender conflicts. (For more about this work, see my entry in Academia.edu, Working-Class Émigrés from Cuba.)