The Butterfly Effect of Reading

When it comes to discussion of books the three words I most dread are, “You should read….” I have developed a process for discovering books I want to read and I put my entire trust in that process. I call it the Butterfly Effect of Reading. I believe it is a result of the freedom I have had since I was very young to read pretty much whatever I wanted. I’ve gained a trust in my ability to know what will interest me far better than anyone else.

Before discussing the Butterfly Effect of Reading, I want to touch on two other reasons why I dread those three words. In both cases, it’s not that I don’t think I’d like the recommendation being offered. Instead, it’s that I know that it will likely be a very long time, if ever, before I read the recommended book and that fills me with guilt. After all, someone has gone out of their way to make a recommendation. It seems the least I could do to read what it is they are recommending–or at least give it a try. But there are two problems:

Call the first “typecasting.” When people learn that I have written science fiction stories, they seem to immediately assume that I enjoy science fiction movies. This is despite my having said it repeatedly here on the blog, at conventions, and elsewhere, I am, generally speaking, not a fan of sci-fi movies, and I rarely, if ever watch them. Similarly, if people know I am a science fiction writer, they will often recommend science fiction books to read. But I don’t really read much science fiction anymore. I have, at least for the time being, lost interest in it. Or better yet, I have gained interest in other things.

Second is what I would call “synchronicity.” Unless someone is regularly consulting my reading list, it would be hard to know what topic is currently occupying my mind. Upon learning I am a reader, a friend might suggest the latest Vince Flynn novel, when, in fact, my state of mind is centered around mid-twentieth century history. The recommendation someone makes, “You should read the latest Vince Flynn novel,” might be a perfectly valid one, and the book might be one I enjoy, but there is no way I am going to give up what I am reading at the moment to switch to the Vince Flynn novel. We’re just not mentally in sync on what we are reading.

Back to the Butterfly Effect of Reading: Even if the Vince Flynn recommendation is something that I would like, I can never commit to it until I am ready, and it is hard to say when I will be ready because of the butterfly effect of reading. Much of what I read next is based on what I am reading now, but only in a random sort of way. For example, I am at the time of this writing reading The Fifties by David Halberstam. I often have a short list of the next few books I’d like to read. That list, when I started The Fifties, included Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington, and Rush by Stephen Fried. But that small queue is very sensitive to what I am currently reading. So, as I read the chapter in The Fifties on the arms race and the making of the h-bomb, I was reminded of my long-standing desire to read Dark Sun by Richard Rhodes. (The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Rhodes was so good I read it twice.) Suddenly, Dark Sun went to the top of the queue. A chapter I read today may send me off in another direction. I have a great deal of trust in my own sense of what interests me, and especially in how this butterfly effect of reading works upon me, and that takes precedence over all recommendations from others.

The Butterfly Effect of Reading works in other ways. Last week, I was in Denver for a work-related conference. One of the speakers at the conference was Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Charles Duhigg. I was, at the time, reading Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. After listening to Duhigg speak, I was impressed and decided to bump his book, The Power of Habit up toward the top of my queue. I read it a few days ago, and enjoyed it.

Sometimes the Butterfly Effect of Reading acts as an alert for a set of mental lists I keep: authors I like or books I am anticipating. I know, for instance, that the new Stephen King novella, Elevation is coming out at the end of the month. That will jump onto my queue, bumping other things already there. Ditto for the second volume of Gary Giddin’s biography of Bing Crosby, Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star: The War Years, 1940-1946, set to hit bookstores around the same time as Elevation. And each of these books holds its own set of random connections, which may push the books that are in my queue today further down the line. You can see, therefore, that recommendations I get from friends might get shunted again and again until it becomes embarrassing to admit that I have not yet checked out the book.

When discussing books with friends, I try hard to avoid saying, “You should read…” unless I am explicitly asked for a recommendation. When I write about the books I read, I try to cast my writing as books that I enjoyed. There is absolutely no way I can tell if you would enjoy them. I do this because I am sensitive to the hypocrisy of recommending books when I don’t take well to such recommendations myself. I am not always successful, but I always bear it in mind.

My butterfly effect method of finding what to read has its flaws. As someone recently pointed out to me, my reading list would likely be enhanced by increased diversity in authors: more women and people of color. While this is certainly true, my methods for choosing what I want to read often overrides other sensibilities. My willpower is weak in this regard. I can stand in front of a display of cakes and cookies and without a second thought, ignore it and pass it by. But despite my efforts to maintain a disciplined queue of books I want to read next, something else will catch my fancy and I’ll throw it all out the window for that one read. This has been the way of things since at least college, when I had to read something for class, but would often put it off because I found something more interesting to read first.

For me, the Butterfly Effect of Reading is one of the most wonderful thing about books. In some respects, it is like the World Wide Web with hyperlinks acting as the connective tissue between seeming disparate topics. With the Butterfly Effect, those links remain unseen until I stumble right on them. There’s no advanced warning, no blue underlines calling them out. They are hidden doors that remain undiscovered until you realize you are standing before one, and dare to open it and see what’s inside.

Published by Jamie Todd Rubin

Jamie Todd Rubin writes fiction and nonfiction for a variety of publications including Analog, Clarkesworld, The Daily Beast, 99U, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and several anthologies. He was featured in Lifehacker’s How I Work series. He has been blogging since 2005. By day, he manages software projects and occasionally writes code. He lives in Falls Church, Virginia with his wife and three children. Find him on Twitter at @jamietr.