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President’s Post: Rediscovering Reading – The Secret Life of a Book Awards Judge

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by Florrie Binford Kichler, Executive Director, Independent Book Publishers Association —

Florrie Binford Kichler

Florrie Binford Kichler

Shoe-repair workers have holes in their shoes.

CPAs don’t balance their checkbooks.

Publishers don’t read.

In other words, what we spend our professional lives doing doesn’t necessarily carry over to our personal lives. Now, I realize sweeping generalizations are dangerous. Certainly some people who repair shoes for a living have pristine footwear, and some accountants track personal expenditures to the penny. And of course publishers read—after all, isn’t that why we got into this business, for the love of books and reading?

I have a personal collection of more than 300 books on shelves and on e-readers, ranging from Little Women to The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and once upon a time it was a rare day that went by without me cracking open at least one of the three or four titles I was reading concurrently. A day without Baldacci or Grisham (I’m a thriller/mystery addict) was a dull day indeed.

Slowly, insidiously, the e-reader and the three or four titles I had started reading began gathering dust. Days turned into weeks, into months, and not a page was turned for pleasure. When anyone asked, “What are you reading now?” I would hem and haw and change the subject to the latest article in Publishers Weekly, that morning’s Shelf Awareness or Publishers Lunch. Or discuss one of the 57 blogs on my Google Reader feed with topics ranging from changing leadership to “Why writers need publishers (or do they?)”

As a publisher and a publishing trade association president, I read all day long (and sometimes into the night)—just like many of you. However, true to the myth cited in my opening lines, nearly 100 percent of that reading was, as Michael Corleone said in The Godfather, “not personal; it’s strictly business.”

Frankly, until a few months ago, after long hours each day perusing the 849 emails that arrive 24/7 as well as industry news in print and online, a rerun of Two and a Half Men usually trumped any sort of print-on-paper or pixels-on-e-reader when it came to spending my discretionary time.

But that was before I became a judge for a regional book awards program in my home state.

The 12.5-Books-a-Week Barrier

What if someone invited you to read 75 books in six weeks? And not just read, but judge them using criteria you hadn’t thought about since your English Lit days in college, and discuss them with other judges? Even worse, what if you agreed?

Well, someone made the request; I accepted. And so began one of the most satisfying and pleasurable experiences in recent memory.

But it didn’t start out that way.

Once the excitement of being asked to serve as a judge subsided, panic promptly ensued. Seventy-five books in six weeks works out to 12.5 books a week, and for someone who hadn’t completed an entire book in the last six months, that wasn’t just a hurdle, it was a barrier of monumental proportions.

Even more distressing, I had to read and intelligently critique genres I hadn’t even thought about since college—poetry, short stories, and young adult. What possessed me to think for an instant that I could contribute to a discussion about writing skill and style, authenticity, and originality for a book of modern verse when the last poem I had read all the way through was Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” circa 1916?

But a funny thing happened to me on the way to the book award judging panel—I fell back in love with reading.

I began looking forward to the boxes of books that arrived daily on my doorstep and the e-books that appeared in my inbox the way a BlackBerry addict awaits the next email. The poetry and short stories I approached with such trepidation were the most fun—and challenging—of all, and the more I read, the more I appreciated and—dare I say it, enjoyed—the differences between genres and the skill displayed by the various writers.

No More No-Read Zone

I quickly became a hermit, spending weekends and evenings obsessively devouring words on the page and screen (neglecting friends and family). What began as a daunting chore gradually morphed into delight as I left my no-read zone behind, discovered gifted local and regional writers, and, best of all, had the opportunity to discuss their work with my talented and insightful co-judges.

In a perfect world, I would conclude by saying that serving as a book award judge caused an epiphany that changed my reading life into one of perfect balance between professional and personal and inspired me to read all the Pulitzer and Benjamin Franklin award-winning titles.

Alas, the world we live in is far from perfect. What I can tell you is that my judging experience served as a personal affirmation and reminder of my love of books (no matter what the format). Of those three or four books on my reading table, one is now a novel, and none is dust-covered. More important, I vowed never again to be a publisher who doesn’t read.

What about you? Read any good books lately?

Follow Florrie and IBPA on Twitter at twitter.com/ibpa, and on IBPA’s blog at ibpablog.wordpress.com. Join Independent Book Publishers Association–IBPA group on LinkedIn (linkedin.com).

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