Reading Habits

what i need is a literary mood ring

A short and wildly incomplete list of story (and song) moments that evoke emotions I want to experience repeatedly and on demand:

  • The Lighting of the Lighthouse in The Return of the King
  • “Kiss me, Hardy!” (Code Name Authenticity)
  • Starbucks vs. Apollo Showdown (Battlestar Galactica)
  • Neko Case sings: “I hold on to that teenage feeling”
  • Kelly Link’s Underground Prince Hat
  • “Song of the Night” by Samantha Crane
  • “Peaches and plums, bastards.” (Magician)
  • Gabriel Zevin’s Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow

Different people may call what I’m looking for “vibes,” but for me, vibes and emotions are different. Vibes are a sense of atmosphere, a setting, a genre you’ve always loved, a plot element used cleverly. Emotions are feelings, and I want these elements and more to evoke something bittersweet, something hopeful but in need of help, something loving but complicated by circumstances, being self-aware, loneliness, and longing for something.

But how does one go about finding the right book to evoke a certain feeling?

It’s part of a larger problem that’s too big for any one column: How do you find the books you should be reading? (By “shoulds,” I mean those that feel tailor-made for you, not any prescriptive “shoulds” that are good for you.) How do you know? How do you dissect the layers of language and description designed to sell a book and figure out whether the book itself will speak to you?

I’m sorry to say that I don’t have an answer for that – I just wanted to discuss it.

We’re at an interesting moment in terms of how books are marketed and described. Metaphors (a word fans know) are everywhere; when you browse bookish Twitter, it’s almost impossible not to come across an image layered on top of a series of words and phrases, often including “There’s only one bed,” “Lover’s Enemy,” and the like. For some readers, it’s gold; for some, it’s not. That’s how they find what they’re looking for, how to quickly and easily identify what makes a book work for them. But it’s tricky: your “dark academia” might be mine “they’re in one school, but where’s the darkness?”

I want to know more about who I’m going to spend long hours with. Of course, sometimes I want the type: a smart badass (Gideon, Starbucks, Buffy) or a hapless sensitive fool forced to grow up (Quentin Coldwater) or a complicated parent (Essen) or a noble young heart trying to do the right thing (Bitter Blue, Tess) or a character coming out of left field that makes me love them even though they’re not my usual type of characters (Amos Burton, Tomorrow and Tomorrow, and Marx Tomorrow). But even if I see these things being used as phrases, I’m not sure if these books are for me. How do the characters fit into their world? What kind of story are we talking about? Will I feel what I want to feel?

How can you fit that into a neat little phrase? Enter profile? Cover copy that appeals to every possible reader?

Impossible. Everyone seems to have a story about a book that sounds right for them, but once they flip the cover, everything goes wrong. There are some books that I absolutely love even though I picked them up because of the cover or the cover copy. But every detail of a book, from the title to the text on the back, to the typeface used for the title, has a reason. We just don’t know if that rationale fits ours.

Of course, we could talk to our friends or delve into Goodreads or Storygraph or other online reviews, though then you add more layers to the question: you also have no way of knowing whether the reviewer you’re interested in has the same tastes and interests. What you do bookish. (I love reading Goodreads one-star reviews of books I absolutely love; I love seeing things other people hate. Likewise, five-star reviews of books I hate. Tell me more! Tell me what I didn’t see!)

Essentially, what I’m saying here is that being a reader is more than picking up a book, thinking, “Oh, this looks interesting,” and taking it home to read. If you’re reading this column, you probably know this. But what does it mean to find something you’re most likely to like? What does it mean to read the profile? Do you read the comments? Do you trust the internet or star ratings on a website?

Given infinite time (and infinite books), I think I’d like to create a kind of endless Venn diagram of book emotions. You start with a bubble. Let’s say you put in season five. What do youlike best about that book? Is it the structure? The different voices? Is it a feeling of hope and doomsday at the same time? How does Jemisin connect so many different emotions and feelings, anger, love, fear, and everything else? What do you want it to overlap with? Could a little bit of the chart overlap with the complicated parental feelings in “I Leave the Exoskeleton to Me”? Could the fragile community aspect have anything in common with Meghan Giddings’ Women Can Fly? Is there anything in the geoscience-fantasy vibe that the series has? (This is a serious problem.)

Are there not just plot and genre but emotional connections? What book mentions the end of the world but makes you feel okay about it? (Appleseed is one of them for me.)

The understated but devastating heartbreak of “Code Name Verity” overlaps with “Never Let Me Go.” The carefully crafted maelstrom of post-disaster small-town life in Wendig’s “Wayward” shares space with some of the episodes of the series adaptation of “The Last of Us.”

But those are the books I’ve read. It takes some kind of magic to figure out the mood of something I haven’t read yet. That’s why stacking the deck with things I want to read next rarely works. I may not be in the right mood. The vibe is gone—not forever, but temporarily. That’s why sometimes a book buried on a shelf seems to be whispering some kind of song. If only I could wear a literary mood ring, a cheap color change stone from the vending machine, the kind you can buy for a few quarters. Maybe it matches the color of the book. Maybe it just knows.

So, how can you choose a book according to mood? Unfortunately, there is no foolproof method. Reading reviews and talking to friends can help, but ultimately, it’s a personal journey. It’s important to be open to trying new things and exploring different genres and authors. And sometimes, a book may surprise you and evoke emotions you never even knew you wanted to feel. So, keep searching, keep reading, and keep exploring.

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