If you are reading this post you are likely an avid reader or, at the very least, not opposed to the act of reading. You may, like me, be an English or creative writing major, or you may just be someone who enjoys a good book, story, or poem every now and then. More importantly, you probably know what it is that you like to read. Knowing your taste is important for a reader, it is akin to finding your favorite type of food or the wine you enjoy the most. Eventually, however, we must remember that variety is the spice of life and eating only American food makes for quite the bland diet.
The first step in expanding your reading tastes is acknowledging the limits of your choices. No one genre can capture the gamut of human experience, or ways to read and interpret the, or another, world. While you may not initially see the benefit of trying another style of writing, you can start by thinking about the situations you might be able to experience and divorcing yourself of stereotypes. You may not be interested in magical schools, but you will likely not find a system of government that combines the worst elements of capitalism and the Egyptian god-kings. If you read only romance, you may not be able to find a story that really delves into the reality of human grief. Genres are powerful and diverse groups, but none can capture all of possibility. Only by seeing where the genres stop, or blend, can we begin to advance as readers.
Because I am usually reading fantasy and young adult novels, I tend to not always know the examples brought up among more literary-inclined English majors. The only times I would get the reference was if I had been forced to read a certain book or study a certain author in one of my classes. And by expanding, you challenge your abilities as a reader by reading more challenging literature or literature that stretches your imagination. Your mind is strengthened when you are able to absorb yourself in multiple worlds. And you may find books and types of literature that you thoroughly enjoy which you may not have given a chance. I likely would not have chosen to read Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex, a novel about the coming of age and eventual transition of a young intersex girl, had a friend not suggested it. It is a deeply literary piece of the ilk I would have thought boring, but the deep contemplative nature of the prose and the complexities of the main character’s life drew me in and I finished the novel in two days.
There are several ways to begin expanding your reading palette. My undergraduate thesis advisor once selected alternating between a book you really want to read and one off of the New York Times bestseller list or the Pulitzer or Nobel shortlist. One of the easiest is to ask your friends who are also readers. Likely, they know their taste and what might appeal to someone who isn’t already inclined to like that genre. This is how I came to read Neil Gaiman for the first time and the reason I read manga at all. I am very picky about what epic fantasy I read, but I read Sabriel by Garth Nix on a friend’s suggestion and quickly finished the whole series. Another way to get suggestions is to find online lists. You can search for books that blend or blur genre or appeal to people who read what you read. If you like romance and want to expand, you could search for “mystery books that appeal to romance enthusiasts” or “paranormal romance.” There are also subscription services that will allow you to try a wide variety of books, like Kindle Unlimited for e-books or your local public library. Not to mention, you can sign up for the Kindle First newsletter where you will get access to e-books a month before their publication date for free or at a reduced price.
As an avid reader, an English major, or writer, what we read is very important. It expands our view of the world (and vocabulary) and lets us find more good books. For a writer, the language we can imbibe from reading a new genre is like adding tools to our repertoire that are invaluable as we learn and grow. You can’t give up on this path if you want to be a well-rounded reader and able to talk about any genre at any time with authority. Set up a pattern and stick to it. Keep asking your friends for suggestions. Keep lists of books you want to read and don’t be afraid to try something new. You may like it.
S.M. Echols is a MFA Candidate in Creative Writing at Roosevelt University and serves as a reader/editor for issue 43 of Oyez Review.