How do writers/book dragons manage to read so widely and voraciously? Where do they find their books? How does one cultivate the reading habit? What do writers read when they are working on a story? How do they update their TBR lists? In this new feature, writer, literary translator and literary critic, Jenny Bhatt speaks on her consummate reading habit and the books that changed her life.

Do you plan your reading? If so, is it at the beginning of the year?

Before I started actively doing book reviews, I didn’t plan my reading at all. It was all simply about my mood or if I knew a favourite writer had a book coming out that year and it was on my must-read list. That said, about a decade or so ago, I realised that I was reading too many works by white male writers. I began tracking my reading through the year and made a conscious effort to diversify in terms of writers as well as genres and themes.

How do you choose what you want to read – by genre, by author, or on recommendations? What do you look for in books? Who is your most trusted book recommender?

Mostly by genre as I tend to prefer the literary genre with fiction and the sciences with non-fiction. Then, some favourite writers do tend to top those lists. I do read reviews by certain trusted literary critics and, sometimes, they’ll nudge me to one or the other book too. As for what I look for in books, first and foremost, it has to be that a book will expand my own thinking and knowledge. Even with fiction, I want a book that will challenge my usual expectations, whether in terms of themes or craft or both.

Do you buy all the books you want to read or do you also borrow books? Do you have a specific budget for books? Are you a member of a library? Do you lend books?

I used to borrow a lot of books when I lived in the US and had access to decent libraries. Where I am right now (Ahmedabad, India), I need to buy as there aren’t any decent libraries nearby. But I also get advance review copies for those books I’m asked to review. I never did have a budget for books till about a decade ago when I decided I needed to be more disciplined. So, yes, there’s a monthly budget and I try to stay within that. I prefer not to lend
books out. If I think someone will really enjoy a particular book, I’d sooner just buy them their own copy than give them mine. My personal library is my reference for a lot of my own writing from time to time.

Between a physical copy and an eBook-reader, what‟s your preference? Why?

Over the last five years, I’ve come to rely on my Kindle a lot more. I like that I can change the font size, highlight and annotate, etc. I don’t do that with physical books — never have. Also, a lot of the books I review are published in other countries and it’s easier to get e-copies.

About a decade or so ago, I realised that I was reading too many works by white male writers. I began tracking my reading through the year and made a conscious effort to diversify in terms of writers as well as genres and themes.

What’s your favourite genre? Any guilty pleasures? Do you read a genre that you are not particularly interested in or that does not resonate with you just to explore it?

My favourite genre in fiction is the literary genre but, I must say, the best fiction books are those that defy any genre classification. I don’t think of any kind of reading as a “guilty” pleasure. It has been one of the purest forms of pleasure for me from a very early age and I think of it as essential as breathing. And, yes, I’ve been making conscious efforts to widen my genre scope in recent years by reading books I normally would not have picked up. And
each such book has been such a terrific journey that I intend to keep doing more of this kind of exploration.

Do you work on book reading projects? Like reading all the works of a particular author? Or books on a particular subject or theme? If so, could you elaborate on the most satisfying such project that you had undertaken? Are you working on such a project now?

Yes, I’ve been doing reading projects for decades now. In the past, it would be centred on a particular writer where I’d read one or two of their works and then want to read all of their books. I’ve done that with several of my favourite writers (Woolf, Eliot, Dickens, Byatt, et al.) I’ve not tried to focus on a particular subject or theme because that becomes too large to handle within a finite period of time. That said, I’ve picked sub-genres like bibliomemoirs or
letter collections or published journals.

This year, I’m doing that with Toni Morrison. I’ve read some of her works before and I’m trying to fill the gaps now. What’s fascinating for me with this project is my own response to some of the novels I’ve read before — in some ways, I feel more strongly about certain themes/ideas and in other ways, I’m picking up aspects I’d missed the first time around and responding as if for the first time.

My most satisfying reading project of all time has to be my “Year of Reading Woolf.” I still reread at least one or two of her books and several of her essays each year. Why satisfying? I think, when you understand a writer’s entire oeuvre, you get a much better sense of what they’re trying to say with each work. Many writers have certain lifelong preoccupations that they revisit through most of their works in different ways. Woolf left behind not just these
amazing novels and short stories but so many essays and journals and letters. And there’s so much within all of them about her challenges as an untrained, uneducated woman writer in a world of men, about feminism, about mental health, about the place of art in our lives, and much more.

How many books do you read at a time? Do you decide how many pages you’d like to read on a particular day or do you just go with the flow?

I used to be able to read at least three books at a time: fiction, non-fiction, and a collection or anthology of shorter works (essays, short stories, etc.) I find I can’t do that so much anymore. I need to just immerse myself into one book at a time so I can focus and get the most from it. I don’t set any daily page count targets. I tried it a few years ago and I might try it again. I think it’s good practice to do so if you’re the kind of person who gets easily distracted. And,
these days, if you’re on social media, that’s an unfortunate reality for most of us.

My most satisfying reading project of all time has to be my “Year of Reading Woolf.” I still reread at least one or two of her books and several of her essays each year.

Once you’ve planned your reading, do you digress and pick up another book to read because it’s won a prize or has become a bestseller or because someone has recommended it very highly to you? Do you experience the fear of missing out on reading what others are? How do you tackle that fear?

Once I commit to a book, I’m all in. I’ll read the conversations and reviews of other books but I won’t abandon a good book to switch to another because of any fear of missing out. The book’s always going to be there for me when I’m ready for it so I don’t understand this need to follow the herd. In fact, the more a book’s getting hyped on news and social media, the more I become wary of approaching it. If I’m well into a book and it’s not doing anything for me, I will abandon it to turn to another. But never because it’s “the book” of the moment.

Name three of your favourite authors and three books you return to again and again. Which books do you have by your bedside?

Three favourite writers: Virginia Woolf; Toni Morrison; Vincent Van Gogh (for his vast personal letter collection.) Three books I revisit often: Virginia Woolf’s Diaries; Vincent Van Gogh’s Letters; Dhumketu’s Complete Short Stories (in the original Gujarati.)

Books by my bedside: These change from time to time but I always have one book of poetry to dip into; one book of essays; and my current read. So, right now, I have the following: Sitter Gujarati Kavayitrio (Seventy Gujarati Women Poets, 1985) by Geeta Parikh; The Source of Self-regard (essays) by Toni Morrison; Platypus Press Shorts (a selection of short stories the press publishes as standalone volumes in an ongoing series.)

Do you remember everything you read? Do you take notes? Do you write in the margins of books or underline sentences? Do you write a summary of the book to be able to recollect the details?

Oh, I wish I could remember everything I read. Sadly, no. That said, I do write about my current reads in my journal. And, if I’m reviewing a book, I take notes as I go along. That kind of writing helps me retain more than I would otherwise. I do not write in physical books ever. Never liked doing this. It’s not that I’m particularly fetishistic about the book as an object. It’s just that they’re not designed for the kinds of notes I like to make. No, I don’t write a summary of books I’ve read. Mostly, I’m writing about specific aspects that have given me food for thought — this holds true for my published reviews and my private journal notes.

When you are writing actively, do you read something to inspire you or perhaps something from the same genre that you are working on?

When I’m writing actively, I’ll read something entirely unrelated to what I’m writing. So, if I’m writing fiction, I tend to read non-fiction and vice versa. There might still be similar themes in both my WIP reading and writing but I must confess to a certain anxiety of influence. I don’t want to unconsciously end up sounding like another writer so it’s best to avoid reading someone from the same genre/style.

As a writer, which three books on writing would you recommend?

I’m not necessarily a fan of conventional writing how-to books. I think we learn how to write in a certain genre or style by reading works in those genres and styles. That said, I think Virginia Woolf’s diaries, where she often writes about how she’s approaching her own work-in-progress reading and writing, offers timeless insights. Francine Prose’s book, Reading Like a Writer, is a terrific how-to (though it does focus on mostly white writers and the literary genre.) And the various volumes of The Paris Review Interviews are always worth dipping into because the writers often get into so many aspects of writing as a craft, a way of life, and more.

I’m not necessarily a fan of conventional writing how-to books. I think we learn how to write in a certain genre or style by reading works in those genres and styles.

What happens to the unread books in your library? Do you take stock of such books periodically?

I do have unread books in my personal library. And, every few years, when I move to a new place, I will do a bit of spring-cleaning and give away books I know I’m never going to read. In general, though, I find myself doing less of that as I grow older because I’m more judicious about what I buy now.

When and where do you read? Do you finish reading every book? Have you abandoned a highly recommended book because it did not appeal to you?

Mostly, I read at night in bed because my daytime is taken up with writing work or other chores. I finish, maybe, 95% of the books I start reading. Abandoning a book without finishing it, whether it’s highly-recommended or not, is also rather rare for me because I try to choose more carefully.

Is there a so-called “must-read” author you haven’t read or a book that everyone seems to have read but you haven’t? Have you ever pretended to have read a book that you hadn’t?

There are so many “must-read” or popular writers I haven’t read. But that doesn’t bother me much, really. What good is that kind of anxiety? I don’t believe I’ve ever pretended to have read a book I haven’t. I often admit freely how I’m a slow reader and have way too much of a backlog each year to get through.

Name three books that have influenced your life and writing the most.

Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own; Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer; and Vincent Van Gogh’s Complete Letters. Plenty of life lessons and writing how-to gleaned from these three.

With so many distractions—social media, unsolicited messages, inane forwards, news, fake news, views, opinions—how do you manage to weed out the unnecessary and reach what’s worth reading? Or do you have to manage all of it?

I struggle with this as much as anyone else. That said, I try to be pretty self-disciplined about my online time and reading. On social media, I avoid anything that isn’t to do with books, writing, literature. With reading articles and essays online, I stick with certain publications and use Feedly to organise and read them. It does create a sort of filter-bubble or echo chamber sometimes because, if you have a regular list of folks you follow on social media,
they often amplify the same things. I haven’t found a better way to manage all of it yet.

What’s on your TBR list now?

Next on my to-be-read list (all fiction, for a change):

1) K M Munshi’s The Patan Trilogy, translated by Rita and Abhijit Kothari — Munshi is one of Gujarat’s literary lions even now. This trilogy is historical fiction and filled with all kinds of spicy Bollywoodsian masala. I’m looking forward to getting into it.

2) Katy Yocom’s debut novel, Three Ways to Disappear — about an American who returns to India, where she’d spent part of her childhood. There’s also stuff about endangered Bengal tigers, sibling conflicts, and more.

3) Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby — This is part of my #2019AuthorReadingGoal. And it’s one of Morrison’s books I haven’t read yet. So I’m looking forward to it.

There are so many “must-read” or popular writers I haven’t read. But that doesn’t bother me much, really. What good is that kind of anxiety?

Share five time-tested tips to become a happy reader.

Hmm. Let’s see.

  1. Don’t follow the herd with your reading choices. Reading is food for the mind. Focus on what nourishes and stretches your mind.
  2. Don’t chase annual book counts either. Read at the pace you’re comfortable with. It’s not about how much you read but what you get from the reading.
  3. Do try to read diversely because we are what we consume. If we just read certain kinds of books, we are not allowing ourselves room to think and grow intellectually and emotionally through our reading.
  4. Do read “around” a favourite book now and then — see what the best literary critics have written to help expand the conversation around it; read other similar works, etc. By all means, make up your mind about the books you read but there will always be nuances we miss and others will pick up.
  5. Read more living writers because they’re trying to write to the times that we live in. And that’s very important too. Yes, timeless classics can also speak to our times. But support living writers because they keep the entire literary ecosystem alive and well.

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