Wednesday, March 2, 2011

What to Read? Part 2: The Reader’s Formula

In my last post, I likened finding good books to dating, and I promised to share my process for choosing what to read next.  Consider me a matchmaker who helps “bind” books and readers (sorry for that).  In order to find a satisfying partner for a literary love affair, one needs some method of selection from a multitude of promising candidates – sort of like the method mathematician John Nash (whose life was depicted in A Beautiful Mind) developed for choosing which women he and his pals should pick up in a bar. (Keep in mind, I’m no schizophrenic supergenius, this isn’t anything like game theory, and we are just talking about books here lest anyone is confused and thinks they landed on an Internet dating site).
First, the reader must have a list of things he/she is looking for in a book, and the reader must consider his/her own limitations.  Here is what I know about my reading preferences as well as the constraints that work against me:
  1. I want to read the best new releases when they come out instead of getting on the library’s wait list, but I can only afford one, maybe two hardcovers a month (my limitations are urgency and money).  I don’t have a lot of time to research (another limitation), so I will read reviews of only the newest – say, those released within the last three to six months. 
  2. I don’t want to neglect the Classics because a well-rounded reader should make an effort to read what is timeless (if for no other reason than to appreciate references to these works in other literature).  I suppose the genealogist in me compels me to read Classics – I think we have better perspective of the present if we know what came before.  Mark Twain put it so aptly:  “‘Classic.’  A book which people praise and don’t read.”  (Ironic that Twain’s books are now classics, and I still haven’t read one.)
  3. I like reading nonfiction as much as fiction.  Learning for the sake of learning is a value to me, and I’d like to be informed by more than just watching the evening news (which I avoid) or searching Wikipedia (to which I’m addicted).
  4. My children are a priority, and I like to read the books they’re reading and preview things I think they’ll enjoy.  Children’s literature and YA are a couple of my favorite genres because the necessary read time is usually minimal. 
  5. I am a writer, and need to read books that inspire and educate me so I’m more productive, creative, and efficient.  This type of reading might fall under self-improvement, career, or inspirational, and it helps us contribute our own verses to the world.   These materials are most directly related to real-life action.  For example, I might be reading Blogging for Dummies right now, which leads me to write a blog.

After evaluating this list, I came up with these parameters:
  • Assets = I have broad interests, a modest book allowance, access to a library with interlibrary loan, a decent collection of unread books, daily allotment of time to read, willingness to read Classics which are cheap and easy to come by, and my obligation to juvenile literature takes very little time
  • Liabilities = my reading budget is smaller than my wish list, my library has long wait lists for new releases (and I’m impatient), I don’t have extra time to waste researching books or reading mediocre books
  • Requirements (or non-negotiable priorities) = reading to my children, reading books that help me with my work (if you are a student, requirements are materials you read for classes)
  • Desires = new releases for sheer reading pleasure, satisfying Classics, interesting nonfiction

Let’s put that into a formula:

Assets - Desires - Liabilities - Requirements = Optimal Reading List

Now – how do I leverage this equation into an action plan for creating a customized, optimized, and energized book collection?  And, how do I avoid a stale, prescriptive formula that doesn’t allow for recommendations, book gifts, and those occasional crazy one-night stand reads?  I get bored very easily and have a bit of a random streak.  My method needs to allow for a few variables.  Let’s adjust the equation. 
To assets, I will add an “x” for that unexpected boon of a book gift or loan.  To desires, I will add a “y” for the quickie impulse book that I can’t resist.  I don’t anticipate any more liabilities (hopefully, I’ll always have enough money for at least one new release a month.  If I don’t, I have greater problems than deciding what book to read next).  My requirements should remain constant as well, unless I do something uncharacteristically social, like join a book club.  

Here is the revised formula:

(Assets + x) - (Desires + y) - Liabilities - Requirements = Optimal Reading List

Are we geeking out yet?  Wow, maybe I am a schizophrenic supergenius mathematician!

Now we have to start placing values into the formula, and when I say “values”, I mean it more in a sociological sense than a math sense.  Values are ideas about whether experiences are important or unimportant.  They guide our judgment and behavior.  These will vary from individual to individual.  To add my values into the mix, I allow the reading Muse to inspire a “theme” for my selections.  The inspiration comes from something that is happening in my life now, whatever crisis or celebration is going on in my world.  The theory behind this?  When life and reading converge, my assets are well spent.

So here is the final formula (I know, I know – if you were a math nut you’d be off calculating something, not looking for books.  Last formula, I promise J):

Values ((Assets + x) – (Desires + y) – Liabilities – Requirements) = Optimal Reading List

Your values influence all other parts of the formula:  your interests, your willingness to read some things but not others, your desires, how much time and money you’ll invest, what you feel obliged to read versus what you’ll shirk off.  Like book boons (x) and impulse buys (y), “Values”, or (v), is a variable that will change as your life situation or interests change.  For me, values change every couple of weeks or month.  I, *ahem*, like novelty (again, so sorry).  Your values may be less fluid than mine.  If so, beware getting stuck in a genre rut.
Like my husband says, “If there’s no real world application, this means nothing to me.”  Next post, I’ll give an example from my real-and-true life to demonstrate how the formula works, and to prove there is method in this madness. 

(Disclaimer:  I’m obviously not a mathematical super-genius, but the jury’s still out on whether I’m mentally ill.  Overanalyze and critique the formula at your own risk.  I bear no responsibility for resulting migraines or academic hissy-fits.  Sometimes a janitor is just a janitor, not Good Will Hunting.)

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