Mailbag: Deciding What to Read, Using Notebooks

It’s time to get back to the mailbag, readers! I’ve gotten a bit behind these past two weeks, but I’m back now and ready to respond to your thoughtful comments. Today I’m talking about deciding what to read next and wondering who uses notebooks anymore. So let’s get straight to the comments!

Julia said:

I listen to my sisters, we all like the same kind of books. I also go with authors I have faith in, as well as what kind of mood I’m in. For this winter, I have started a couple of books that are well written, and good tales, but deal with sad stories, and the winter depresses me enough without a sad book adding another level of bad, so I’ve gone to David Sedaris.

Thanks, Julia. A lot of us have our go-to person for recommendations, that person who we’ve discovered to have similar taste in books and is therefore someone to trust. I also listen to my sister’s book recommendations, my parents, and of course, my writing teachers. No offense to the recommendations others give me, but I tend to grab up any book a teacher recommends for me. But other writers who have similar taste in books also have great influence on me and can cause a book to get moved to the top of the list.

James Thayer said:

On his TV program Cosmos, Carl Sagan stood in the Library of Congress, and he said there were 23 acres of book stacks in the library. He said that if you are a good reader–a book a week, as I recall–you’ll read this many books in your adult life, he said, and he took eight or nine steps along one stack, out of 23 acres of stacks. That’s the day I decided life is too short to read a book that isn’t holding my interest. So I finish one out of four or five books I start.

Thanks for bringing up this wonderful program, James! I am a HUGE fan of Carl Sagan’s enlightening and surprisingly spiritual (but always scientific) view on the universe and its wonders. If anyone out there has a Netflix account, you can watch Cosmos online, and it is well, well worth it. That moment terrified me as well — it got me wondering how well I was doing, and made me determined to choose wisely! I do, however, try to finish every book I begin. I’ve only put down a book without reading once in my life, for a book called Ring of Bright Water that as a middle schooler I found interminable.

After the jump: more comments, more responses.

Russ Petcoff said:

I get some book suggestions from friends. I mainly get them from reading book reviews and blogs, looking at books on display in a bookstore (good covers and blurbs generally catch my attention), and listening to podcasts (such as Books on the Nightstand). I keep a list of books to read, and am always updating my wish lists at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Thanks, Russ! I, too, am drawn to the visual appeal of some books when I go to the bookstore, but it usually takes something extra (“I’ve heard of that!”) to make me buy it. Thanks for the podcast recommendation — I’ll definitely check it out.

mary brady said:

I was given the Pushcart prize anthology as an afterthought by my boyfriend’s mother for Xmas. It clearly was being re-gifted. The really GOOD book she gave me was “The Help,” which I found unreadable…random chance is one way to find books. I also find books by listening to authors interviewed on various NPR programs (esp. ‘Fresh Air’), by reading “Briefly Noted,” in the New Yorker, & listening to Book TV on C-SPAN.

Oh yes — so many people we love and admire are so, so bad at recommending books! Not everyone is a discerning reader or is able to tell what you personally love to find in a book. Thanks for reminding us as well of those great book resources — I always read the New Yorker’s briefly noted as well.

Margaret said:

For poetry books, I often buy a book by one of my favorite poets, or I buy a “best of 20xx” (I’m reading the Best of 2010 right now). For writing books, I go by recommendations from friends.

I also rely on the “Best American” series for my yearly dose of the year’s best short stories. They’re usually a terrific collection and a good way to observe trends in fiction.

Now let’s get to comments about my post wondering who uses notebooks anymore.

Elemarth said:

Well, I’ve always been old-fashioned, but I think a notebook is the best thing for writing outside of your home. I do use a computer most of the time, but if I think of something I want to remember in the middle of the day, or I have ten minutes between classes and want to try to write a bit, of course I want a paper notebook…The only drawback is, when you’re doing a major writing project, you can’t move sections around or add paragraphs in the middle of what you’ve written.

Thanks, Elemarth, for summing up the same pro’s and cons that I struggle with! When I’m out and about, there’s still no replacement for a good small notebook by your side. When writing at home, though, there’s a certain phase of the editing process that just goes by so much easier by rearranging things on the computer. With some editing, however, it’s still best to print out the story and really see the words on the page.

James Thayer said:

The internet has entirely changed the way I research. Most novels need some research to make the story credible…I used to go to a library–often to the University of Washington’s vast system–and find a book on the arcane subject I needed, and take voluminous notes on paper. Now I find what I want on the internet within seconds, and I either bookmark the web page or cut and paste the information from the page into a computer file.

It’s true that research is the area that has been most dramatically changed by the internet. Nowadays any bit of information is within arm’s reach, and it has resulted in a more critical readership, full of people willing to crosscheck you with Wikipedia. If you’re not certain, make sure you’ve checked online about a particular fact! At the same time, it’s a little sad — we used to be more able to suspend our disbelief and become engaged in a story.

Angela said:

I have never stopped using pen and paper. Since I write mostly shorts its easy for me to write out a rough draft. …Regardless of how much technology there is I will always use paper. I think we are going to have lots of bad eyes by using all of the technology.

A vote for pure pen and paper! Glad to hear there are still purists out there, even if they are no longer the norm. More power to you, Angela — and it’s true what you say: I probably didn’t get my legal blindness from computing, but I now have to wear reading glasses over my strong contacts. Computers might be to blame!

Toni Walker said:

I’m a pen and paper fanatic. I buy notebooks even when I don’t really need them. I love the feel of paper and the process of writing by hand. The flow from my mind to pencil to paper is so smooth and comfortable. It’s something I can’t quite get from the stiff and icy computer.

I know what you mean, Toni. I often tire of staring at a screen while writing and deliberately step into another room, writing by hand or on my typewriter for a while so that I can look out a window. The flow of writing is important, and it sometimes works best with a pencil rather than with a keyboard.

I wish I could feature the many more comments, but you’ll just have to check out the post and weigh in there. Thanks for your comments as always, readers, and stay tuned to Writerly Life.


  1. mary brady says:

    Your editing of my remarks makes me sound like a schizophrenic moron.

    “I was re-gifted the Pushcart Prize Collection! ‘The Help’ is unreadable! Luckily, it was tossed my way! I hated it! No! I loved it! It was great! I found an author inside my TV while I watched NPR! I can do cartwheels!”

    This isn’t the first time you’ve made me sound like a moron, so I’ll assume that representation is correct. I am not, however, schizophrenic.
    At present, I’m only clinically depressed.

    L&K, MaryB

    • mary brady says:

      I apologize for the remarks written above. They are mean-spirited and make no sense at all.

      I believe they were written by my evil twin. She looks just like me, except she has a small goatee, clearly indicating Evil. Periodically, she shaves it, but it regrows in full overnight.

      (She tried ‘Nair’ on it once but the results were disastrous.)

      In any event, I will do all in my power to ensure she makes no further remarks on this site. Sorry.

      The good twin

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