How Do We Know What We Like?

books-2596809_960_720Personal taste is hard to define. When I ask friends for book recommendations, I often struggle to articulate what I’m looking for, saying, “I can tell you what I don’t like, at least.” Even after years of this, I haven’t come any closer to narrowing it down; I’ve only learned who to stop asking because I dislike so many of their suggestions.

But, it’s hard to find something to read if you don’t have anything to go off of. I’ve always been an avid library patron, and it’s difficult to pick out one book in a whole building full of them. The internet makes things even worse. It gets a lot of praise for allowing us to access so much information, but it can be overwhelming without a way to parse it. When you have access to every novel that’s been published, where are you supposed to begin? The most obvious answer, of course, is trial and error– but no one wants to waste time slogging through multiple books they don’t enjoy.

In high school, my solution was to read through all the books in the library’s popular fiction section because it was all housed on one stack of eight shelves (small school). That got old quickly. Most of them were formulaic; a rehashed contemporary romance between the nerdy girl and the edgy bad-boy, packaged under the pretense of a coming-of-age story (although sometimes it was a nerdy guy and the edgy bad-girl. Wow, what a twist.) If not this, it was one of a thousand dystopian series starring a cool teen rebel. I found some things I liked (this is when I got into historical fiction) but it was disheartening. I didn’t even make it through the first shelf before I realized I needed a new method.

My next solution was to read through the classics. I found lists with titles like “100 Books to Read Before You Die.” That was when reading started to feel like a chore. Standardized tests didn’t mean anything, but I’d always prided myself on achieving near-perfect scores on reading comprehension. According to the numbers, I’d been reading on a college level since fourth grade.

Like I said, that doesn’t mean anything.

I went to the public library and stuck to the “Teen” section. I was wary of Young Adult books because I can’t stomach John Green and I’ve never read Twilight. Most of the books I’d gone through in the high school library were YA and, although I didn’t like the subject matter, they were more accessible. They ran the risk of being condescending at times, but they were easier to read. As a genre, it seemed to be more vocal about pushing boundaries and championing diversity. I did a little more digging into YA articles on social media and found authors I did like. I tried to teach myself to stop reading a book if I didn’t like it. It’s harder than it sounds, but if nothing makes you want to keep reading, that’s a perfectly acceptable excuse to stop. You don’t have to see how it ends just in case it gets better.

Over the summer, I had an online internship where a lot of my writers wrote about the college experience. I was editing a lot of articles that talked about the struggle to find something good to read when we’ve feel like we’ve outgrown YA but haven’t quite reached the point where we enjoy popular “Adult” fiction. But the line is muddled anyway, and the only thing that qualifies a book as one or the other is usually the publisher. One of the great takeaways from all of these articles was that I got a handful of great recommendations, some of which I decided to give a shot.

After I had taken a dip into what I’d call “Real” fiction, if I’m feeling cynical, it was strange to return to the smaller stacks. I’d stepped out of my comfort zone and found a really solid landing. Coming back to YA wasn’t as familiar as I had expected it would be. I felt out of place, and as I wandered aimlessly, without any results, I realized– I don’t have to be there anymore. Without noticing it, I’d moved on.

The hardest part about figuring out what you prefer to read is that it’s a constantly developing process. Sometimes you’ll encounter something you weren’t anticipating and find that you really like it– which can then lead you in a whole new direction. So, once again, I find myself at a loss for books, with a short list of authors I like (a very finite resource).

I think that’s part of the reason so many of us are dissatisfied with how infrequently we read compared to when we were younger. It’s become a treasure hunt to even find a book that’s worth checking out. And even then we have to figure out whether or not we actually do enjoy it. In my case, at least, it’s not necessary that I don’t enjoy reading anymore. I’ve still found myself, on occasion, pulled wholly into a good book. They’re just fewer and farther between, which makes them feel even more precious when I find something I love.


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