Methods to the Madness

Without trying to be too nostalgic, books come into our lives in many strange and wonderful ways. Often the story behind how we became interested in a particular author, genre or book is as telling as the effect those pieces of literature have had on us. How did you discover your favorite author, book or style of writing? A divine accident? A school assignment or recommendations from a friend?

Going a little further, how do you decide what to read next? Is it purely whatever catches your eye? Do friends and family recommend things for you to read? If so, do you heed their advice — or purposely go against it? Do you pay any mind to the wild and wacky world of book reviews? I’d like to know if a good review makes any difference to you in terms of your reading list — or if a bad review makes you that much more curious.

Let us in on how you pick your reading material and tell us what books you’re reading at the moment.

26 Responses

  1. Davey’s World of BooksI’m a
    Davey’s World of Books

    I’m a book snob. Usually, I ignore recommendations. For some reason if I don’t discover the book myself then it’s not good enough. Having said that, my dad recommended The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, which happened to be one of the best books I ever read.

    Most of the “old masters” I leared to love in college — Dickens, Twain, Hemingway. Three of my absolute favorites I “had” to read in college — Great Expectations, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Sun Also Rises.

    Most of the stuff I read now is either what I consider to be edgy, aggressive fiction (Thom Jones, Alex Garland, Max Barry and Chuck Palahniuk) or a “classic” — Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Twain.

    How do I figure out what’s next? Line ’em up and see which one jumps out at me. It’s the only way. If I’m not in the mood for it, it’s a waste of time.

    I’ll finish The Bride Wore Black by Cornell Woolrich in the next day or two. Then it’s either Syrup by Max Barry, Breakfast of Champions by Vonnegut, or The Contortionist’s Handbook by Craig Clevenger. I’m just gonna line ’em up and see which one speaks the loudest.


  2. Staring at meAround 1973 I
    Staring at me

    Around 1973 I walked into the Book Exchange at University of Maryland looking for something new to read, perhaps a Kerouac book or a special find, say Hesse maybe. While perusing the stacks I came across a book with a picture of the author Henry Miller on the cover, a collection of his writings. I decided to give it a try and needless to say it changed my entire life, maybe it was the look in his eyes. I’ll never forget the impact of that cover and that picture of Henry.

    These days I mainly read poetry and I get most of my stuff off eBay auctions, my favorites being Gary Snyder, Bob Kaufmann, Richard Brautigan, and Lord Buckley. Right now I’m reading Rommel Drives On Deep Into Egypt by RB and an art book called Primitivism in Modern Art that is awesome and part of my wife’s collection.

  3. I remember it like it was
    I remember it like it was yesterday

    When I was 16, I was getting ready for forensics season (which is competitive public speaking/performing, and for theater geeks it’s like football season), and I decided that year I would perform in the poetry category. The key to being a successful performer, other than not being godawful, of course, is to pick a piece that’s demanding and also not going to be performed by everyone else on the circuit. So, my coach and I were going through all these poetry books, and finally she handed me a copy of Howl. I’d never heard of Allen Ginsberg before, but I took the book home to give it a cursory read to see if there was a good performance piece in it. Of course, I couldn’t just give it a cursory read because I was absolutely blown away by it — I’d never read poetry like that before, and I was amazed. Ginsberg isn’t my favorite writer, or anything, but he did get me started on a Beat phase which lasted for years. I still like the Beats and all, but I got kind of burned out on them, and had to spend some time reading people like Faulkner, just for a switch.

    As for how I pick what to read next, well, I don’t really have a method. I sometimes buy a stack of books and read my way through them all, or sometimes I’ll pick an unread book off of one of the myriad bookshelves in my home and read it. It just depends. There was a time when I was getting books in the mail or recommendations in letters from my pal Jason, so he had a bit of influence over my reading selections for awhile. It was definitely an entertaining period in the history of my literacy.

    But now I’m not really reading anything. I have this stack of books right by my bed that I stare at sometimes when my head is hanging just right off the edge of my mattress, but I haven’t picked up any of them to read yet. We’ll see, I guess.

  4. Happenstance and
    Happenstance and Circumstance

    Yassssssss…I was hitching home one slutty summer day around 1973. We lived on a farm, equestrian horses, English riding shows and the like, supper at 8 p.m. Anyway, we lived in the country, so I hitched a lot. I was stuck for a couple hours beside a Mom-and-Dad house, and started rooting around in the ditch while waiting for a car to come. I came across this ratty copy of a book. It was by some guy I had never heard of before, this Tom Wolfe fellow, and was about koolaid or something. I slipped it into my pocket like a stolen jelly bean, stuck my thumb out, and promptly got a ride to where I live. And I’ve lived there ever since.

    So yeah — that had an impact. It opened my eyes to much of the standard 70s fare, but while sitting in a pile of piss and lamenting about my future I joined the Navy and then forgot. Although later I remembered.

    These days, I read in bunches. For instance, I once read nothing but Heinlein for a year, although I was younger then. Since discovering Kerouac like Columbus discovered the Indians, I’ve been stuck on that. This means I am reading nothing but beat or their influences, unless I’m reading something else. I always read a few books at a time. Currently I am reading Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe (outstanding book, but I found I was zipping through it, so have decided to slow the pace down), Shake Hands With the Devil, by General Romeo Dallaire (the Canadian General who led the ill-fated, mal-supported, globally-ignored Rwanda mission UNAMIR [think Nick Nolte]), and The Ship: Retracing Captain Cook’s Endeavour, by Simon Baker.

    OK…not all literary. I tend to mix it up simultaneous-like.

  5. I have nothing much to say
    I have nothing much to say about your post, Mark, except that I found it interesting you referenced 1973, as did I.

    It probably means nothing, but let’s pretend it does.


  6. I remember reading Electric
    I remember reading Electric Koolaid Acid Test
    and guess the year….also the Capn’ Cook book was awesome…..have you read HST’s Curse of Lono Knip?

  7. Well …… I was in seventh
    Well …

    … I was in seventh grade, in Mr. Magnus’s Social Studies class. At this point in my life, I had never read a grownup book, though I spent a lot of time reading books by writers like Paul Zindel, Beverly Cleary, Louise Fitzhugh, M. E. Kerr and my favorite, S. E. Hinton.

    The summer before seventh grade, I’d gone to my grandma and grandpa’s in Miami Beach, and I remember checking out my grandma’s bookshelf. She had some pretty racy stuff. I checked out “The Godfather” by Mario Puzo and I remember being really impressed that a book could have the word “fuck” in it (not to mention the fact that the book with this word was in my grandma’s bookshelf). I didn’t get too far into this book, though. I also checked out a few chapters of a strange comedy novel called “Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York” by Gail Parent. It was a sort of 70’s era “Sex and the City” book, and I learned a few things by reading some of it.

    I had still never finished a grownup book, though, until my friend Brian walked into Mr. Magnus’s class with a orange paperback called “Breakfast of Champions” by Kurt Vonnegut. This book had a fluourescent cover, was titled after a Wheaties commercial, and had pictures inside. I immediately decided this was my kind of book. Kurt Vonnegut became my favorite author very quickly — in fact he was basically all I read for about two years. “Welcome to the Monkey House”, “Slaughterhouse-Five”, “Cat’s Cradle”, “Sirens of Titan”, “God Bless You Mr. Rosewater”, “Slapstick” … it was the perfect match for the stuff I was thinking about during these years of my life. Eventually, though, I started discovering other authors, and I really haven’t read much Vonnegut for a long, long time now.

    Ironically, the friend who brought this book to class was a really obnoxious person (he would later play a cameo role as a mean kid in my coming-of-age novel “Summer of the Mets”). By the time Brian and I stopped being friends in 11th grade, I hated nearly everything about him, with one exception: he introduced me to my first favorite writer.

  8. No sir…Hell’s Angels and
    No sir…Hell’s Angels and that is it.

    But I will be correcting that…eventually.

  9. …and…all I can say
    …and…all I can say is…1973 was a wondrous year, my friend.


  10. Funny. I started
    Funny. I started Slaughterhouse Five as a youngster, but it didn’t grab me. On the other hand, The Godfather did.

    I still haven’t read a single Vonnegut, which, of course, must be repaired.

  11. Dog Soldiers, Luck, And Now
    Dog Soldiers, Luck, And Now Lists

    As a kid, I relied on the NY Times best seller list. The books seemed better then, but, I was also a less discerning reader.

    I checked out Dog Soldiers from the Austin public library because somehow I’d heard about it and then read A Flag For Sunrise and still love Stone’s prose.

    Now, whenever I hear of an interesting title, I write it in my calendar and look for it when I’m at a used bookshop. If I see something, I’ll buy it but don’t like to take a chance on fiction. I got Catch-22 by chance at the Kyobo book store in Seoul–the place to buy English titles–because I felt I should read it and then learned it is the zenith of fiction.

    I found McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show at a very good second-hand and new book store in Seoul’s Itaewon and zoomed through it this week and wonder why The Last Picture Show doesn’t rate more recognition. It isn’t as tightly written as Chronicle of A Death Foretold but is a more interesting read. LPS was written before I was in school and I never met anyone who read it. Possibly it’s because it is in Texas but that never hurt the cult film Dazed and Confused.
    I downloaded Beyond & Evil, Bierce’s Dictionary, and the 911 Report so that’s all I have to read for a while.

    I have The Corrections and Rushdie’s Fury and my Chinese books to read as well as my economics text, so I have a lot of stuff to read only it’s all boring so I surf the net too much.

  12. Beavers. It was a rough
    Beavers. It was a rough sketch of a beaver, you know, the kind that dam the river.

    On the next page, was a picture of the Y, if you know what I mean.

    In the adjoining sentence, Mr. Vonnegut explains how this water animal somehow became a code word for cops and reporters, whenever, they joyously discovered, a woman sittinng in the sporting stands, wearing no underwear.

    Beaver? Beaver? Mother, beaver? Underwear? No underwear? Wha the f…?

    Just then, Jeffrey Halsey (my archnemesis, whom my present wife once ran over in her car and broke his leg), reached over in eighth grade math class and grabbed my book from me. He had noticed obviously my intensity and for so being highly aroused…book strategically placed inside the wide flaps of my algebra textbook…forget algebra…

    He instantly began a maniacal fit of riot laughter.

    In swooped Mr. Weidmaier, pushing his way down the aisle of seats, snatching up the book, peering into the juvenile sketches of a beaver and a raw sketch of a woman’s, umm….well, then his jowly face flushed, and he roared…”Mr. Mejia! You come with me right now!”

    As I sat before Principal Hoehn and Mr. Weidmaier, I tried hard not to stare at my book perched up on the polished desk.

    When my mom came in, ruffled, annoyed, after being called into the school from work, they challenged her.

    “Mrs. Mejia, are you aware your son is reading this kind of smut?”

    She laughed. She snorted.

    “Sure, I bought that book for him, just yesterday at Waldens. So what?”

  13. I think this was why Vonnegut
    I think this was why Vonnegut grabbed so many of us and turned us into readers. His concepts were serious and mature, but his prose was clear enough to be understood by a kid, and his sensibility was definitely teenage. As were we all.

    I didn’t get in trouble for reading Vonnegut — there was a liberal streak in Long Island at the time, I guess. Still, I knew the stuff was so good, it had to be forbidden somewhere.

  14. Here are two questions I have
    Here are two questions I have about Vonnegut (who I’m a big fan of).

    1. Why isn’t he more appreciated? Maybe I’m wrong here, but I think he’s one of the, if not the greatest living author.

    2. Why is his website so awful? I know he’s into his paintings, but why totally ignore his books?

    I guess it’s like how many licks it takes to get to the center of a tootsie-pop. The world may never know.

  15. 3 Minute Rule ‘I’m reading On
    3 Minute Rule

    ‘I’m reading On the Road by my man Jack Kerouac.’

    This was the line from the Beastie Boys that introduced me to what I guess is still probably my favorite writer.

    I read a lot of Hardy Boys books growing up, probably all of them, but for some reason I stopped reading in high school. Then, my 2nd semester in college, I had to read a couple books for my Greek history class, Julian, by Gore Vidal; and The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault, which was kind of cheesy and looking back, surprisingly uncontroversial considering it was set in Athens and centered on a homsexual relationship. But then, this was back in the uninhibited Clinton years.

    Anyways, for some reason these two books got me back into reading and that summer I went to the Barnes and Noble and bought On the Road; Plato’s Republic; and Catch A Fire, Timothy White’s bio of Bob Marley.

    Kerouac introduced me to Wolfe and Ginsberg and Burroughs and Snyder, Snyder introduced me to Zen and Asian poetry; Charles Bukowski died my sophomore year of college, and the student paper did a tribute to him, which is how I discovered him. Buk drops a lot of names in his work, (John Fante, for example, or Celine, Dostoievski) which led me off in many directions.

    I read David Foster Wallace because he taught at my college.

    I read Under the Volcano because it was set in Mexico. Same for The Plumed Serpent.

    I picked up James Kelman because he’s Scottish and Irvine Welsh named him as an influence.

    I found The Snow Leopard because it was on the employee recommendation shelve at Olson Books in DC. (Employee Rec. and new fiction/nonfiction shelves are a really good place to find interesting books; even at the superstores, better than the NYT book review certainly.)

    I also have a couple friends who I trust with recommendations.

    My reading has never had much of a pattern. Outside of Kerouac, I’ve never sat down and read an entire oeuvre; usually I read a book or two and then get distracted by something I read there and have to pick up something else.

    Lately I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction; I read Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond (about why some societies rose to power and conquered others) in January and right now I’m reading his ‘sequel’ Collapse, about why civilizations fail.

    And I have a long plane flight in a couple weeks and I’m bringing along some Haruki Murakami (Wind-up Bird Chronicles and Norwegian Wood) and Spontaneous Minds, Ginsberg’s collected interviews.

  16. I’ve read two books by
    I’ve read two books by Vonnegut and I liked them both very much. One is Breakfast of Champions and the other is Hocus Pocus. I liked Hocus Pocus even though you don’t hear much about it. Have you read it, Levi?

  17. Music, Books & MoviesIn
    Music, Books & Movies

    In the late 70s, when I was around 13 or 14 I turned the radio dial and heard The Doors. I was hooked. I devoured everything Doors and when Danny Sugarman’s bio of Morrison, No One Here Gets Out Alive, came out around 1979?, I devoured that as well. Inspired by this book, I picked up a copy of On The Road and THAT was when the light bulb went off and the world opened up to me. I read OTR in one night. Since then I’ve read all of Kerouac, Hemingway, Vonnegut, Fitzgerald, etc, etc.

    To this day, I continue to read based on a combination of inspiration and appeal, of course I get more and more picky as I get older.

    Currently, I’m watching a DVD called The Stone Reader – a documentary about a filmmaker looking for an author of one book from 1972 who has disappeared. The documentary is really about love of books in general, as well as certain authors who pump out one volume and disappear. (Has some sweet interviews w/ Robert Gottlieb, Joseph Heller, etc) But this film is turning me on to a whole list of books I’ve never read. The filmmaker’s library is more extensive than mine so I have much catching up to do. I’m in my glory right now, because this little episode is marrying my two greatest loves – books and movies.

  18. How I discovered literatureI
    How I discovered literature

    I never read much as a child. I read a couple of science fiction/ fantasy series and a couple of the books in the Chronicles of Narnia, but that was about it. I liked the idea of reading, and managed to collect alot of books that went unread, Tolkien, even Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In high school, I did not read an entire book, or even text books, and I don’t remember taking a test that I did not cheat on. Then, my senior year of high school, I dropped out and was living on the streets of Atlanta, in squat houses. One of my friends, Eddie, was always taking about Jack Kerouac, and encouraged me to read Dharma Bums, which I never did. Even though I did not know it at the time, Eddie bore a striking resemblence to Dean Moriarty. He was so excited about things. To him, everything was God: “man when you’re hungry, peanut butter is GOD” “or just listen to the Stones ‘who who’ Mick Jagger is GOD.” We used to hitchhike back and forth to Florida, and sleep on the beaches in the Keys. Anyway, even though I never read Keroauc, it was a fascination for me, and I would talk about him like I knew him.

    In college, I read some Vonnegut, a few books in Literature class, but as few as possible.

    It wasn’t till years later, when I had graduated law school and was working for a judge in New Hampshire, that I was browsing in a book store, and saw a displayed copy of On the Road, the one with a photo of Jack and Neal on the cover with their arms around each other. I bought it, and spent the long nights in New Hampshire (where it gets dark in the afternoon) reading On the Road. It took me over a year to finish it (I read very slowly). Meanwhile, my girlfriend at the time bought me the collection of Kerouac’s CDs, where he’s reading parts of Visions of Cody and then with Steve Allen playing piano, and this ushered in the most magical time of my life. There was nobody in Concord, NH, and compared to New York City, I felt deep solitude for the first time in my life, late nights, snowy, in my New Hampshire apartment with hash and those Kerouac CD’s. I got a dictaphone, and tried to copy Keroauc’s voice, as I read the same passage (my favorite) the Three Stooges one from Visions of Cody. I started reading the books that Kerouac read, Moby Dick, Notes from Underground, Shakespeare. And, I thought about my friend Eddie, he seemed to know that I should have read those books, way back when we were a couple empty-headed kids on the streets of Atlanta. To this day, I wish I knew what happened to him, what he’s doing, if he still thinks everything is GOD.

  19. “3 Minute Rule” is a Beastie
    “3 Minute Rule” is a Beastie Boys track from “Paul’s Boutique”. I must praise Shamatha for the excellence of his inspiration.

  20. Books and ElseWalking around
    Books and Else

    Walking around my friend’s basement, his dad had huge bookshelves full of any type of book you could possibly imagine, they said because he lived in a cabin in the middle of nowhere for about 10 years. We’re playing pool and I lose so I start looking through these books and on the road pops out at me, no cover just a straight hardback with on the road on the side. I read it, and again and proceeded to read everything I could by Jack Kerouac. About a year and a half ago most of my books were stolen due to the fact I had taken them “On the Road” with me. I finally ended up back in my hometown living with some people and I gave up Jack Kerouac and haven’t read but maybe a chapter since. I gave up on beat literature to go to Ken Kesey and Stephen King, it’s weird, go to any bookstore and those three authors will be practically beside each other. I read everything by Ken Kesey I could find and Stephen King is the type of person I read for fun; I guess I could say, more of an “easy reader”. Jack Kerouac also led to Buddhism and from Buddhism to Hinduism so I try to read as much as I can about religion too.

    Stephen King got me jumped into science fiction and its not so much the style of writing but as the going beyond the norm as Kesey does but taking it to different worlds. Huxley talks about it but in a different context. HG Wells takes you out there sometimes, Kesey does it, and a guy named JP Hogan does too. Basically I try not to get stuck in a rut when I’m reading and in everyday life anymore. You know — keep your mind active but not actively dull. I also find if I stick on any one person to long if I try to write something I write in their style, like Fight Club, I read it and couldn’t get out of the you do this and you go here and yada ya. Just break loose from people you’ve read for the past however long and go into without any preconceived notions about whatever it is you have those notions about. As Kesey is a big influence … literarily GO FURTHUR.

  21. Vonnegut was my first
    Vonnegut was my first ‘alternate’ writer.

    Cat’s Cradle was my initiation. All was fine till I lent the book to a boyfriend, who was currently enmeshed in a few too many catastrophes in his family life.

    The phone call came one snowy Saturday afternoon. I had to go to the local K-Mart (which hosted the ultimate in mundane coffee counters around that part of suburban Toronto). There waited boyfriend, hunched over a table, with dried blood on his mustache. He looked at me and passed me the book, torn cover and, on one of the first pages, dried splotches of recently shed blood.

    I understood then that to me, Vonnegut would forever be tainted with patchouli oil and the vestiges of familial dysfunction.

  22. Intriguing story, Judih … I
    Intriguing story, Judih … I guess blood has been shed for many books in our world.

    And, Bill, I didn’t read “Hocus Pocus”. I’m pretty sure “Slapstick” was where I hopped off the Vonnegut bus. I loved the book, but I also felt it was somehow too much, excessive … I felt it completed his literary mission and that from that novel on he would be repeating himself. I don’t know where I got this impression. Maybe I’ll try “Hocus Pocus” and see if I had it wrong.

  23. The Big StorySo when I was a
    The Big Story

    So when I was a teenager, I was trapped in a suburban hell, and I wanted to escape off to a big city, and be artistic, and poor, or whatever. I discovered Tama Janowitz books, which I enjoyed I guess because she romanticized the city and being artistic and so forth. I moved onto other 80’s writers like Ellis and the Gang, I don’t know, they seemed to be doing writing styles back then that haven’t been captured since. I don’t have too many individual authors I always read. I just go for what grabs you. For example I love Douglas Coupland’s Generation X or Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation, but that doesn’t guarantee I’ll be in love with their other stuff. I jump around and start ten books at once and hope I finish all of them. Kerouac I started 10 years ago, I eventually hope to finish all his works like many others seem to. I like Dickens but I haven’t read him since high school. I like books with super-off-the-wall titles because you know what’s in store later. I have a long list of authors I want to start reading including HST; I have passed his books in the store a million times and wanted to read about this electric koolaid he spoke of. I want to read obscure French and Asian philosophers. I only seem to get advice on good books from the Waldenbooks cashier, or lit majors. Everyone else I know reads Koontz or some mainstream guy.

    If someone gives a bad review of a book, I am intrigued, much more likely to read it than a good review. And I follow the British press and either sneer at their new 25-yr old wunderkind they praise or secretly run out and read latest said book, and say, “if that guy can get published, then any of us could.”

  24. talking about hitch hiking
    talking about hitch hiking ive done the ocala, key west nagok, east texas(little white shack of america) and i remember a humbum named eddy living in higgs beach park …

  25. books and cinemaStrange as it
    books and cinema

    Strange as it seems, I started to read books thanks to Roger Corman and Vincent Price. I discovered that the pictures that scared me so much were based in an author called E. A. Poe. I borrowed an illustrated book with stories of him and I discovered that Corman added some cinematographic gimmicks to the tales that, of course, in Poe never existed! I was a fan of sci-fi thrillers for a while and I keep on enjoying Bradbury nowadays. I discoverd Borges and Lezama Lima, but this one, although I enjoyed him, is so hard to read. I dug the Gorostiza poetry, I smiled sadly with the tales of Saki, and laughed with Mark Twain, with particularly a tale of someone that carried in a train a piece of cheese that smelled awful in a coffin-shaped box! These are the main authors I read but sure there are thousands of them!

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