When my dear friend and colleague Isaac (Ike) Pulver, the director of the Saratoga Springs (N.Y.) Public Library, served on ALA’s Notable Books Committee, he found he needed to take “reading vacations” to stay up to date with his demanding reading schedule. Members of the Notables committee are required to read all the books nominated by other committee members, and keeping up requires nearly superhuman reading habits. So, at least once a year, Ike took vacation time from work, gathered up his books, and set about reading his way through some of the best writing of the year.
Ike tells me he doesn’t take reading vacations now that the pressure of Notables is off. Like many readers, he no longer feels the need to plan out his pleasure reading, and instead goes for the serendipity of discovery and surprise. But me, I am a planner. And the idea of a reading vacation sounded like my ultimate getaway. So, 10 years ago, I began my taking my own annual year-end book retreats.
My reading vacation is a carefully constructed end-of-the-year focus on books. Every year I miss many highly recommended titles, and I find myself struck by reader anxiety—worry about that gotcha moment when other readers discover how behind I am. After all, I am the executive director of a large library system locally known for its commitment to books and reading. People often ask me what I am reading, or what I recommend. And that panic I’d feel over possibly disappointing readers was exacerbated every January, knowing that I would be part of an annual reader’s panel on a local public radio show. That call-in segment could really make me sweat!
Over the years, my annual year-end reading vacations became a way to expand my reading horizons. For example, preceding those radio shows I’d always always include a strong dose of nonfiction, because my natural inclination is to read fiction. By forcing myself to read outside my comfort zone, I discovered remarkable books like Donovan Hohn’s Moby Duck in 2011, and Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo in 2012.
And how did I ever miss In the Distance by Hernan Diaz? Thankfully, PW had it as a top 10 pick for 2017—and it became a great part of my 2017 holiday reading feast.
My other inclination is to avoid titles that sound too obtuse or scary no matter how popular. But, at the end of the year, I'd always make sure to read them, knowing I had to be prepared to discuss such bestselling titles on the radio. In 2010, for example, I resisted Room by Emma Donoghue until the night before the show. And that brilliant book stayed with me well into the new decade.
Beyond the usual best-of lists, my reading vacation usually takes a detour to the past as well, including classics that I somehow missed along the way. In 2008 I had presciently chosen The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope, a novel of 1870s financial scandals, right before Bernie Madoff was arrested that December.
Having read Middlemarch by George Eliot in college, I chose Daniel Deronda in 2016. It was the perfect title, since I had just returned from Jordan and was planning a trip to Israel. For 2017, it’s Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. My reading of Mrs. Osmond by John Banville would have been much more enjoyable had I read the original James story.
Unfortunately, I’ve found that recommending classics tends to flop at cocktail parties. People always want the newest, best titles. The top conversation starters this year have been Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan, Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, I Was Told to Come Alone by Souad Mekhennet, and Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann.
My most popular reader’s advisory category is always the mystery and thriller genre. There is something compelling about knowing your local librarian has an interest in murder and mayhem. This year The Force by Don Winslow, The Dry by Jane Harper, The Switch by Joseph Finder, and Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke have all been worth talking about.
And for this year’s reading vacation I threw in Michael Connelly’s new female detective, introduced in The Late Show. I like to be at the ready with book suggestions for every reader.
As I sat down to write this column, I wondered whether other readers had strategies of their own for budgeting their reading time. So, I asked three of my co-workers how they do it. Laurie Kincer, a reading and writing specialist, reads based on her mood. When she needs a “palate cleanser,” she says, she picks something radically different from her last read. And recommendations from friends or a favorite podcast will often jump over anything on her to-read pile. She might take a reading “mini vacation”—a reading day—but that’s a luxury.
Wendy Bartlett, CCPL’s collection development and acquisition manager, will take a reading vacation if she’s preparing for a radio or television interview. But her “best vacations ever,” she says, are her planned “theme reading” weeks each year, during which she might go for Irish authors, or classic noir, or Melville and Hawthorne, and take time to immerse herself deeply in the genre. She resists playing catch-up by going back and pulling from the many year-end lists. There are too many wonderful and fresh books being published, she says; she just can’t back up.
My constant reading companion is Bill Kelly, adult programming manager. Bill and I select the authors for our annual William N. Skirball Writers Center Stage Series, events that raise money for our CCPL Foundation. Bill was on the Notables committee when Ike was chair, and later served as chair himself. After a stint on the ALA Carnegie Awards Committee, Bill is now back on Notables, and he is one of a very few people whose recommendations I will always read. In fact, Bill’s December pick for me, Solar Bones by Mike McCormack, went on my 2017 reading vacation.
Bill shared his reading planning with me—a strategy that has been part of his life for 30 years. He has a to-be-read journal divided into categories, and a journal for books he’s read. He says he plans about 90% of his reading and will take a reading vacation to catch up on the Notables or the to-be-read list. When not serving on the Notables committee, he still follows a very specific plan. For example, he might pick three authors who have last names that all begin with the same letter, such as Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Flaubert, and try to read all of their books in one year.
So, what’s my fascination with the reading vacations or reading plans? I think it’s that the readers I know and most admire are always so intentional about the books they read, the books they recommend, and the books they choose to keep on their shelves or devices. Among great readers, there is a continual eagerness to share the pleasure (and sometimes the disappointment) of a book as a way to connect with others.
If you don’t have a reading plan, maybe the beginning of the new year is a good opportunity to start one. Finding a way to read more books in 2018 certainly can’t hurt.
To quote the great educational philosopher Robert Maynard Hutchins, “I am not saying that reading and discussing the Great Books will save humanity from itself, but I don’t know anything else that will.”
PW Libraries Columnist Sari Feldman is executive director of the Cuyahoga County Public Library in Cleveland, Ohio, and a former president of both the Public Library Association and the American Library Association.