I’m always asked whether or not I actually read books for pleasure or if it’s all about work. First let me clarify that I really dislike this phrase and should probably change it to “reading in my spare time,” but it loses a little something in that translation. I dislike the phrase because it implies that reading for work is not pleasurable, and I can’t even begin to tell you how untrue that is. If I didn’t like reading the books I read for work (my clients') I wouldn’t have signed them in the first place. Each time a client gives me a new manuscript to read, review, or edit, it’s a pleasure. It’s just more complicated than reading an already published book that has nothing to do with my client list. Books I read “for pleasure” can be read without thought or a notebook at my side. Books (or manuscripts) I read for my clients need to be read with 100% of my attention. I’m always taking notes and thinking hard as I read.
That being said, reading any book comes with a lot of thought. I’ve never been able to put a book down at the end and simply let it go. My guess is that a lot of you feel the same way, which is why we all love books so much. Books stay with me for at least a few hours, some a few days, and others forever. I relive the stories in my mind and the characters become a part of my life, but as a literary agent I feel that I take it even a step further, whether I want to or not.
Recently a client emailed to tell me about a new author she had discovered. She said that reading that author’s most recent book was a lightbulb moment for her, reminding her exactly what she wanted to be writing and putting her back on track with her work in progress. Well, I immediately put that book on the top of my reading stack and in one afternoon read it from beginning to end, and then in my usual way I obsessed about it. First I just thought about how much I enjoyed the book, reliving my favorite scenes, even sharing them with others, then I daydreamed about the book, placing the characters in different situations and experiences, and finally I dissected the book, analyzing what worked about this book for me and what didn’t.
Whether or not a book comes recommended, this is not an uncommon experience for me. Part of my job is analyzing books to make sure that I can find the flaws as well as the author’s strengths. Doing this helps me help the author make the book as strong as possible before it goes to the editor or even to readers. By dissecting already published books I learn how I can do my job better. By looking at what others do, the subtlety of creating a protagonist that’s tough but likeable, the pacing that’s perfectly balanced between fast, but descriptive, or the layering of stories without ever overshadowing the main character’s story, I become a stronger editor and a stronger agent.
So yes, absolutely, I read for pleasure as often as possible, but those books are also part of work. Luckily for me my job is one of my greatest pleasures.
Any chance you'll share with us that wonderful book recommendation?
Or, tell us the genre and we'll guess?
I read mainly so I don't end up disembowelling the person (man woman or child, especially the children) on the train next to me during the commute. Astonishing how, without a book to disappear into, you can find someone breathing next to you for an hour justified reason for throttling them with a sock.
word verification - Squor: a square divide into four parts, also squares, and then each new square divided again into four parts, and again divided by four, and again. Or a chessboard without the black and white bits
Or don't tell and leave all of your readers stagnate with suspense and unable to work for the rest of their day. Sigh.
Everything I read comes back to my writing in one way or another. It's impossible not to think like a writer/editor when reading anything, even a blog post.
What a nice post. I read agent blogs with frequent shudders over the huge volumes of obligatory reading that you all do. I could maybe do that with one or two books here and there but as a full time job it wouldn't take me long to get fired. Or starve, if I worked for my own agency.
Reading is transformative and escapist for me. I pick only things I think I might like or at least appreciate. If I don't like it, I don't have to finish it (although that rarely happens).
Andrew: I am going to use "squor" in a sentence sometime today. It's a great word!
WVS: burio: housing for burros who live in the barrio.
Cool post, Jessica. Heartwarming. I think your clients are in very good hands. :)
Great post. I think working with writers (or being a writer yourself) really does change the way you read. I find that when I re-read old favorites. I analyze them more than I did years ago. Instead of thinking, "that was a neat scene." I'm thinking, "Now what is that author going to do with that plot thread?"
It's fun. And it's a way to justify all of those trips to Borders. Gotta keep up with the industry.
"I dislike the phrase because it implies that reading for work is not pleasurable, and I can’t even begin to tell you how untrue that is." This is one of the main reasons you and your colleagues are successful, sought after agents.
A very understanding and engaging post. Readers or writers or agents, I think we can all connect with that delightful mind puzzle of dissecting a book which has just captured us, and the adventure of living it in our minds for a little while, or even forever.
Writing has changed the way I read, made me more critical I think. But if a story can still carry me away even when I am resisting then its really good.
Its ALL for pleasure.
I read The Elegance of the Hedgehog recently, it was written by a new French author, Muriel Barbery, and translated into English by Alison Anderson.
A very different book, and one which at first I thought I didn't like. I've been told recently that my heroines are cold and I've been working diligently to warm them up. : ) The heroine in this story was so cold in the beginning I couldn't connect but as the story unfolded I came to love her and to understand and respect her reserve.
The ending was a surprise but made the whole journey complete. I went back in and dissected the book to see why I'd had the feelings I'd had, what the story was really about (because it doesn't hit you until almost the end) and why the ending was satisfying.
This is a story that has stayed with me for weeks and I think it gets better and better with each thought, as each subtle nuance of story falls into place. The characters feel so real, like they are distant relatives or old friends.
When I was an editor, I found I had to keep up my "outside" reading, because otherwise when plowing through the stacks of submissions, something mediocre would suddenly look good in comparison to all the dreck. It was crucial in terms of keeping my standards high! Also because reading all the dreck was depressing. Of course, that's also a big reason why I'm not an editor anymore, but I thought I'd mention it as another important reason for agents/editors to find time to read "for pleasure" and in fact why it can even be vitally important to one's work.
I usually pick up a lot of good pleasure reading tips from blogs like this one. I just finished a self-published book last week that was spectacular. I found it by checking out a blogger profile I'd seen on a comment thread.
First I just thought about how much I enjoyed the book, reliving my favorite scenes, even sharing them with others, then I daydreamed about the book, placing the characters in different situations and experiences...
I do this all the time! Sometimes I devour books - quick reads in a few hours - but other times I purposely take my time, savoring every scene. This way when I'm doing the dishes or making dinner I can daydream about what is going to happen next or imagine the characters lives right now, as if their stories are still going on.
I do wish you'd share that book, Jessica! Please? :-)
I read other authors to keep my own writing fresh--at least that's the excuse I give myself when I'm curled up with a good book and ignoring an upcoming deadline! It's true, though. Example--I just finished reading Joey Hill's BELOVED VAMPIRE. It's a Berkley Heat title, but Joey's stories go so far beyond the eroticism and I can only compare her writing to the sense of liquid silk. Words flow, characters come to life and the settings are so perfectly drawn that the visual is set in full color and three dimension with very few words.
Reading different authors keeps me fresh with my own writing--while I'm losing myself in their worlds, I'm constantly reevaluating how I describe my own. One author will remind me to work on my dialogue, another, like Joey, reminds me of the magic of descriptive phrases. I love to savor a book, and I almost always read the really good ones twice--first for the story, and then to study the way it was written that made me love it so much.
I'm trying to learn to read that way to help me learn to write. Writing my reviews is helping. How did you learn to start reading that way? I'm guessing school helped a lot.
It's great to hear that you still delight in characters and stories, even when they're a means of paying the bills. If only everyone enjoyed their work like that!
What a wonderful job!
I loved this post, too. Sometimes it's so easy to forget that the BOOKS are the whole point ... of writing them, of publishing them, of selling them ... of life, in general, really.
I'm surprised people would assume you didn't read outside of the reading you do as part of your job. I would assume agents, like me, love books and have a very difficult time NOT reading.
Glad to hear I'm not wrong!
yes it must be very hard as an agent, getting peice after peice of different books, it must be hard, but at the same time its great because you get to see how much talent the world has to offer.
I read down through all the comments to get the name of that book, and no name!
@Laurel: your comment made me laugh.
Quick! Somebody! If you've got a recently published book, drop the name now. Something like,
"oh, Jessica, I'm so glad you loved (insert name of book you wrote here), the book I recommended."
I have a hard time with leaisure reading. I seem to drift toward self help type books. :O)
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