December 21, 2012

Ralph Waldo Emerson & Book Overload

Courtney and I spend so many of our conversations discussing one of our mutual favorite pastimes: reading.  As we were talking about the pressures we sometimes feel as book bloggers to be constantly reading new material and posting our thoughts to our blog, I was reminded of this one class discussion I had earlier in the semester. The week's topic was on the idea of information overload and how people should handle this phenomenon.

Of all the readings that we had, I instantly made a comparison between Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "Books" and the concerns and difficulties that I encounter as a book blogger. Emerson's speech and subsequent essay may have been intended to give college students advice about how to handle their workloads, but academia is not the only place to suffer from an information overload. The literary marketplace is literally inundated with books: the product of a book overload, if you will. Although the information overload that Emerson and other readings of mine alluded to is not quite the same as a book overload (mainly because reading books for pleasure does not have as long a history as reading informational books does), nowadays I'd argue that the problem is just as prevalent among "pleasure" books. All we need to do is look at publisher's seasonal catalogs, or posts detailing the month's new releases. There's no possible way that we can read all the books being published (especially on top of those already published we have yet to read).

How, then, do we pick and choose what books to read?

In his essay, Emerson gives three suggestions for how to process so many reading materials:
1. Never read any book that is not a year old
2. Never read any but famed (famous) books
3. Never read any but what you like

Well...the majority of book bloggers break the first rule all the time. But I understand where he's coming from. If we're reading books that haven't reached a large enough audience just yet, then how do we really know whether the book is good enough for our time? But by waiting around to see whether the book is good, we'll lose the chance to participate in the initial hype and the chance to be among the first of its readers. And then there are books that seem to become inexplicably popular yet aren't necessarily very good. Not such an easy dilemma. The second rule goes along with the first. But there's a decidedly murky area in determining what makes a book famous. Just that others are reading it? Does enjoyment play a role? Does it have to become a New York Times bestseller or on Oprah's book club to become famous? Emerson continues to explain that he believes the quality of a book matters, but, once again, there's no easy answer for determining that. His final point is by far the most confusing. We are to read what we like? Is that in disregard with his other two rules, or in conjunction with them? In other words, find books older than a year with positive reviews that you think you'll enjoy. It's not nearly so cut-and-dry an argument in Emerson's essay, as he goes on to try to explain his suggestions in further detail. But, then, neither is the process of determining which books to privilege with your reading time.

One way that I have been managing the book overload issue is by avoiding opportunities to receive galleys and ARCs. My logic is that I'd rather wait and read some reviews from bloggers before deciding whether the book is worth my time if I decide that it is, I then can borrow it from the library, buy for my Kindle, or (if I'm particularly certain that I'll like it) buy a physical copy of it from my local bookstore. I'm also very skeptical in regards to hype. With working full-time and attending grad school, I just don't have the time to read books that I'd consider to be sub-par. I'm sure that I'll change my mind at some point, but as long as I have some certain standards and can give a rational explanation of why I want to read certain books, perhaps that will be enough.

I am curious to hear what others think about this issue. What's a book blogger (or any reader, for that matter) to do?
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Amanda loves few things better than sitting down with a cup of tea and a book. She frequently stays up far too late, telling herself she just needs to finish one more page. When she's not wrapped up in the stories of others, Amanda works as a children's librarian in a public library.


  1. I agree entirely with Emerson though it is hard to define what he means by "famous," and I don't know if I would read a book just because it's on Oprah's list. Though I did with The Help, but that was more because I heard people raving about it, and I wasn't disappointed. I think fame could be defined as when a book is described as a "classic." Though many people detest classics, I find classics to be very attractive and most of them are wonderful reads that survive the passage of time. Though most people would define fame as books that become popular reads, such as Twilight or Shades of Grey (a definition I would not trust in the slightest). They are famous, but do they deserve that fame? Then again, I have to admire the authors for knowing what an audience would like and how to attract readers.

    I have raised my standards as well because I'm sick of reading "sub-par" books. But sometimes, a book isn't as good as I imagined it would be. It happens.

    Great post! Very intriguing! :D

    1. P.S. I had this dilemma yesterday which concerns #1. I saw Fallen Kingdoms and considered buying it because I was excited, but I was unsure since it was relatively new. I wanted to see more reviews before making that step. So I bought an older book by Diana Wynne Jones, a favorite author of mine. I consider that a smart choice. :P

    2. Falling Kingdoms*

    3. Yeah we had some interesting discussions over what Emerson meant and how we should apply those rules and all. And actually I wrote something a few weeks ago about my views on classics. I don't think all classics necessarily deserve the elevation/status we give them. And to be honest, I don't want to wait on something and find out down the road I should have read it years ago.

      haha I have no answers at all. Too many factors in this equation. It is good to bring them up, I think, and I did very much enjoy reading your thoughts on this issue. :) And I agree with your recent book-buying choice!


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