Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Top 10 on Tuesday: Breaking out of your comfort zone

Readers, in many cases, tend to get stuck in genre ruts.  Like the mystery reader who devours the latest installments of a dozen different series, but will complain that there's "nothing to read" while waiting for a new title to be published by one of their favorite authors.  Or the medical thriller guru who knows more about forensics than the writers of CSI, but who will turn his/her nose up at any title that doesn't involve gurneys or a visit to the medical examiner. You might not be guilty of this yourself, but you probably know someone like this and are nodding to yourselves right now.  On the off chance that you're feeling the genre rut a little too keenly these days, are caught in the wasteland between books by your preferred list of authors, or are just willing to loosen up and try something a little outside of your comfort zone, I have some strategies to get you started.

1) Try something similar.  If you're a hardcore space science fiction junkie, chances are good that a sudden leap into cozy mysteries might not be quite what you're looking for.  (Then again, I could be wrong--more on that later.)  However, moving over to something like techno-thrillers or alternate reality sci-fi might help broaden your horizons without being too jarring.

2) Find out who your favorite authors read and/or are inspired by, and use that as a reading list.  Stephen King fans, go read Jack Finney or Ray Bradbury, some of his inspirations.  Readers of George R.R. Martin who are avidly waiting for book 6 of A Song of Ice and Fire to be published (it's going to be awhile, kids) could go and read epic fantasy by Daniel Abraham or the old-fashioned space opera by James S.A. Corey, Leviathan Wakes, which Martin mentioned fondly on his blog.  Not sure who your favorites read?  If, like Martin, they have a blog which they update on a regular basis, they'll often mention who or what they're reading.  Others will have websites with a bio or FAQ that often will contain the information, or have mentioned inspiration in interviews.  Worst case?  You can always write and ask.

3) Try reading a genre that plays to one of your other interests.  Mysteries are often especially good for this: wine enthusiasts, gardeners, foodies, world travelers, weekend antiquers, pet-lovers--there is something out there for all of you! 

4) Go back to the classics.  It's not terribly daring, no, but it might give you a better insight into your current genre of choice.  Mystery readers, try Agatha Christie or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Chick lit devotees, many of your current favorites are heavily influenced by the works of Jane Austen.  Do a little digging or stop by your local library and ask a librarian help you find the roots of your favorites.

5) If you're a fiction reader, switch to non-fiction, or vice versa.  Chick lit humor ties in nicely with the works of Jen Lancaster and Amy Sedaris, popular authors like Barbara Kingsolver, Stephen King, James Patterson and Anna Quindlen (among many others) have written works of non-fiction, and if you're looking for a better understanding of your preferred historical fiction's time periods and figures, you could read for years by taking a stroll through the non-fiction collection.  And non-fiction readers, the same goes for you.  Anything from decorating to environmental concerns, politics to cooking, there is plenty in the fiction collection waiting to tickle your fancy.

6) Historical fiction readers, is there a particular time period in which you find yourself stuck?  Start branching out a little, or a lot! Elizabethan England got you caught up in a web of intrigue?  Move from the Tudors to the Borgias or Medicis.  Can't seem to escape the Civil War era?   Follow the Civil War into the turn of the century and beyond--World War I, the roaring 20's...  There's so much more history to soak up!  Keep it moving!

7) Go extreme and try something totally outside of your comfort zone.  Fantasy geek?  (Don't get crabby, I count myself in this camp an awful lot!)  Go read a thoughtful memoir.  Non-fiction purist?  Try award-winning fiction to get your feet wet.  Best-sellers only?  Move on to indie presses, debut novels, and quirky genre fiction.  You might just surprise yourself and find a new love in your reading life.

8) Be deliberate.  It's one glorious thing to wander the stacks and pick and choose whatever strikes your fancy.  But do you have a reading bucket list?  If you don't, you should.  Anything you find mention of that makes you think "hmm, I've always meant to read that" belongs on that list.  Once you start keeping one, read those books.  No, not to the exclusion of those idly-browsed treasures, but in addition to them.  Being careful and deliberate in what you're reading, at least sometimes, will help you start to branch out by the nature of the intent.

And on the heels of that...

9) Give yourself a challenge.  What that challenge is?  Well, that's up to you.  But to get you started, here are a few to try: pick a book outside of your comfort zone on each trip to the library (and read it), try reading a different genre every month, read from lists of award-winners or bestsellers, etc.  Guilty of always reading "short" books?  Pick up a weighty tome next time--no one's judging you on how fast or slow of a reader you are.  On the flip side, if you only take out giant books, stop judging your books by the size of the spine. 

10) Join a book club.  I'm not talking one of those "wine and cheese on a Thursday night" ones, either--those are fine, but what are you really getting out of that, other than some delicious snacks?  Being part of a well-run book club should challenge you to read books you wouldn't ordinarily pick for yourself.  Even if you hate that month's selection upon finishing it, discussion with other members about why you didn't like it will make you a better, more critical reader in the future.  And maybe this is the book-geek in me talking, but I can think of few things I enjoy more than sharing thoughts about books and authors with other readers.

What's my point in all of this?  Reading more, and more variety, makes you a better reader.  Think about it like this.  Reading in a single genre is a bit like being a picky eater.  There are so many different flavors out there, but sticking with the same familiar 5 foods over and over is not only boring, but also might make you a bit malnourished and tough to have over for dinner.  Likewise, reading broadly gives you a more expansive vocabulary, better critical thinking skills, and you'll always have something to talk about over dinner.  Oh, and your brain won't wind up malnourished, either.

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