Before signing on as a judge, my normal way of reading was so mellow. I’d have two books going at once—a work of fiction or poetry and a work of nonfiction—so I could move back and forth between them as my mood dictated. In a typical year, I’d read approximately 100 books that way, two-thirds nonfiction—memoir, literary biography and literary history, sports, science, music, popular culture, food. Occasionally, I’d accept a review assignment from a newspaper or magazine, and even though I like to do reviews I would grumble about having to interrupt my free flowing rhythm of this-leads-to-that. Ah, the old days: No more of that freedom and flexibility for me until 2012. Outside forces are determining what I read!
Before I complain too much, I should say that being a judge has led me to read some terrific fiction, books I most likely would not have read otherwise: Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, Frederick Reiken’s Day for Night, Peter Bognani’s The House of Tomorrow or Leslie Jamison’s The Gin Closet, from 2010, and several books this year that I probably shouldn’t name until the finalists are announced. It has also allowed me to work and become friends with my cohorts on the judging panels: Donna Seaman, an editor at Booklist, and the writer Lisa Fugard.
Left on my own, I make reading decisions unpredictably, intuitively. I careen, one book suggesting another, choices influenced by sudden and often tangential enchantments. For example, a few years ago I realized that I’d been missing the irresistible pull of traditional storytelling. I felt that so much contemporary fiction I was reading seemed focused on post-modern gimmicks, authorial self-displays, distracting intrusions, rather than deep development of character and direct narrative. So I decided to read some of the adventure novels I’d missed reading as a boy, tales by Robert Louis Stevenson, H.G. Wells, Jack London, Arthur Conan Doyle, and others. I began with Jules Verne. I loved A Journey to the Center of the Earth and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, then felt such a passionate delight in The Mysterious Island that I dropped my plan to read all those adventure novels and decided to read some more castaway novels. So I turned to Robinson Crusoe, The Swiss Family Robinson, Lord of the Flies, The Coral Island, Foe, The Island of the Day Before, The Life of Pi. After four months of being stranded on the island of castaway literature, I mentioned it all to a friend who told me not to forget Shakespeare’s The Tempest. So I came to The Tempest out of fascination with castaway stories, which is like coming to The Merchant of Venice out of fascination with investment stories. But there you are, that’s how I read.
And now, at least for the next three months, I must continue to subdue my exuberance for following oddball tangents, and pick up another book of new fiction from the vast piles that are accumulating on my Judge Shelf.
But I’m already dreaming about next year’s possibilities. There are all those adventure novels, abandoned when I skipped over to the castaway novels. And there’s Alexandra Styron’s memoir of her father William Styron (father-daughter writers! I should read Erica Heller’s memoir of her father Joseph, and re-read Kaylie Jones’s memoir of her father James, and ask my independent bookseller friends to recommend some others), which makes me want to read a copy of James L. West’s 1998 biography of Styron, and maybe I should re-read Set This House on Fire to see if I still love Styron’s least-admired novel as much as I did in 1970, which reminds me that back then I admired Walker Percy so much and still haven’t read the Percy biography I’ve had on my shelf for years.
Floyd Skloot is a creative nonfiction writer, poet and fiction writer whose work has received three Pushcart Prizes, a Pen USA Literary Award, two Pacific NW Book Awards, an Independent Publishers Book Award, and two Oregon Book Awards. His writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Atlantic Monthly, and Harper’s, among many others. His seventeen books include the memoirs In the Shadow of Memory, A World of Light and The Wink of the Zenith: The Shaping of a Writer’s Life; the poetry collections Approximately Paradise, The End of Dreams, Selected Poems: 1970-2005, and The Snow’s Music; and the novels Summer Blue and Patient 002. His newest books include his first collection of short stories, Cream of Kohlrabi, and a forthcoming collection of poems, Close Reading. He co-edited The Best American Science Writing 2011 with his daughter, Rebecca Skloot, the bestselling author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife, Beverly Hallberg, a weaver and landscape painter.