Choosing to read (and what)

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how we decide what we’re going to read – something even more fascinating these days, when we have online material of all kinds in the picture.

This fall, I’ve been spending a lot of mental (and emotional, and physical) energy on work, so by the time I get home, I’m often not up for anything particularly challenging. I’ve been reading a lot of comfort reading (more on this below) and also a lot of things that are sheer mindcandy enjoyment, without a lot of challenge.

But I’m starting to miss the challenge. I want to dig my teeth into a complex book about desires, issues, and skills important in my religious community. I want to go digging deeper into history – especially social history – in several areas. A recent discussion as part of my school newspaper advising reminded me that my ability to explain statistics is not as good as I’d like. (I can recognise problems, but not always explain the issues behind the numbers, basically). And all of those things are slowly coming back online, as I start being able to look at something outside of work with a clear mind.

Until then, though, there’s the comfort reading. Comfort reading refers to the books or authors we return to, again and again, where the plots and characters are enjoyable, but not startling. There are no stunning unexpected plot twists, or ideas that must be pieced together from tiny fragments throughout the story. They’re often simply good stories (whether fiction or non-fiction) told in a compelling way.And one of my personal requirements is that I’ve got to be able to put the book down when I’m tired, otherwise I end up tired and cranky, which is not comforting. (For example, I regularly reread Lois McMaster Bujold’s works, but only when I know I have time to finish them before I should be asleep: once I’m into the last half to third of the book, I feel compelled to keep reading until done.)

People have very individual ideas of comfort reading. Some of mine include:

– Dorothy Sayers – a longtime favorite of my father, and my inherited copies are now all falling into pieces.

– Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, oddly enough, a book (and miniseries) I came to very early in life, and where my understanding of the book has continued to deepen and grow.

– Mercedes Lackey – an author of urban fantasy and fantasy novels. I started reading her work at pretty much exactly the right age, and while they’re not the most complex stories out there, they continue to pull me in. (They’re also light, and follow some fairly predictable tropes, which makes them easy to put down when I need sleep.)

– Historical mysteries in general – I get to enjoy an interesting setting, a plot that has a clear goal, and usually interesting characters sustained over multiple books (which means I don’t have to get to know a whole new set of characters each time.) I’m very fond of the Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters,  the Mary Russell books by Laurie King, and the Maisie Dobbs books by Jacqueline Winspear, but there are lots of others. (I spent a lot of the summer reading Laurie Joh Rowland’s series set in Tokugawa-era Japan, for example.)

– Microhistories, which I’ve talked about on this blog recently.


My librarian toolbox

Jessamyn made a great post today about what’s in her librarian toolbox. I like the idea a lot, so here’s mine.

I’m comfortable using a wide range of computer systems, software, and other tools. While I’ve got my personal preferences (Macintosh, Firefox, and a combination of organisational and task management tools), I’m pretty comfortable with sitting down and poking around at other options. (And I’ve done extensive work with Windows machines and some work with Unix boxen in the past.) I know what might break something or damage a file, and what won’t, and that gives me a lot of space to play around and try things out as I have time.

The social web:
I’ve been online since 1994, and I’ve got my own network of people around the world who have a wide range of skills, interests, and knowledge. It’s often amazingly easy for me to tap that web, ask someone a question about something they love talking about, and get a quick but thorough answer. I also make use of sites like

As a librarian, I believe that there are a lot of questions where facts, authortative data, and other such things matter a lot. But I also believe there are times that understanding another person’s viewpoint, concerns, or experience is just as important. The social web, when handled well (and when you’re getting a larger picture of someone’s life, not just a few quick snippets) can be a powerful tool for these information needs.

Wide reading:
Related to that social web, I read widely across many subjects. (I pity anyone who tries to profile my interests based on my Amazon pageviews or library requests!) I also read widely across my social web, and keep an eye of blogs and journals of people who write well about what they care about – which means I learn about a lot of topics I otherwise wouldn’t know much about. It’s hard to measure how much this helps me find answers for people’s questions, but I regularly have a “Oh, right, this would be the best search term.” moment and realise afterwards that I only knew about it because of that time spent in varied reading and learning.

The downside to this one is that it takes quite a bit of time: I estimate that I spend between an hour and two hours every day doing things that benefits my professional work pretty directly (reading books, reading online content, building skills, etc.) outside of the hours I’m actually at work. (I am planning on trying to track stats at some point to see how accurate my estimate is. I think I’m actually erring on the low side.) I don’t mind this much – a lot of it is stuff I enjoy. But there’s also no denying that the upkeep required is pretty extensive.

Practicing search artist:
I’m really good at refining searches and figuring out which results are going to be most useful. That’s largely a result of practice (though I do joke that my secret superpower is getting information out of Google: I can do searches very similar to those that other people have tried, and get far more useful results, sometimes – and no, it’s not Google snagging past history as a factor, as it’s often on their computer.)

I really think it’s an art form: having a wide knowledge base helps me intuitively pick the best search terms for a particular topic, or guess at a glance which result is going to be most helpful. But it’s almost always something that I do subconsciously without reasoned thought, like a dancer creating a particular combination or a painter knowing just how to mix colors puts things together in a particular way based on past experience.

And a few glitches: (because the tools that don’t work great are still in the toolbox!)
While I’m friendly, and do my best to be outgoing and easy to work with, I’m also enough of an introvert that that’s sometimes very hard work for me. (Especially if my personal life is currently demanding a lot of those skills.) That’s something I’ve been working on a lot this fall, and found that a major event in my religious community this weekend was a lot easier for me than past years as a result. It still means I sometimes come home from work exhausted, and not good for anything much in the evening, though.

I have a generally very good memory for information, but I generally only remember names if I’ve heard them several times in close succession in connection with something that sticks in my head. This makes working with students very challenging, because I don’t reliably get that kind of repeated connection. (Students I work with regularly, yes. The kids who check things out every week, yes. People I talk to every couple of weeks, or where their name isn’t part of the interaction, it’s a lot harder.)  I’m working on improving my skills here, but haven’t quite found the perfect way to make them stick yet. I’m not a very visual learner, so some of it is also that the face+name combo doesn’t always click clearly in my memory – interestingly enough, I’m a lot better with email addresses, even when they’re not made up of someone’s name.