The Conflict of Trying Out New Things

I think most people have a fear of new things. Look at a plate of food you’ve never tried before and you wouldn’t be inclined to taste it. If you had a choice between working with strangers or friends, you would most likely choose friends. But these aren’t really problems. We would never run out of supply of familiar food, just as how the number of friends we have won’t deplete after we’ve worked with them (provided the project doesn’t flop terribly). But when it comes to things like books or movies, it’s a different picture.

I’ve seen many times somebody writing on Facebook, “Just finished so-and-so book, is there anything you can recommend just like it?” or “I really like Book XXX! I’m trying out some of the author’s other works now.” Books, unlike food and friends, are limited. After you’ve finished reading a book, you can’t live out the rest of your life re-reading the same book over and over. Even for stuff like music, it’s still quite possible to live each day listening to nothing but Bach’s symphony or the Can-Can song. At least you can listen to those songs over and over again for some time. But when it comes to books, it’s got to be fantastic if it makes you want to read it a second or third time. Sometimes the act of re-reading the novel loses the initial feeling you got from it. And so we’re constantly forced to seek out new books, and yet I believe all of us have read at least one bad book in our lives, a book that left a bad taste in our mouths and which we couldn’t read all the way to the end. There is a fear in us that the new book is going to turn out like that. We’ve a belief that only 5% of the books in the world are good reads, and the other 95% simply don’t suit our tastes. We like to think that our favourite authors had a distinctive style that few can emulate, and therefore once we’ve read something of that quality, we can’t stoop to a lower standard anymore.

The truth is, no 2 books will ever be alike, and hence it’s fruitless to hunt for a book just like the one you read and liked. Because how much is “just like”? You obviously don’t want something precisely the same, or else you’re better off reading the same book again. If the book is even slightly different, you’ll most likely end up comparing the 2 and concluding that the first book was better, because you did declare to have liked it after all. It’d be so indecisive of you to like every new book you read better than the previous one.

So what I recommend is not to hanker after books of the same genre, unless you really love that genre and just can’t get past it (which does happen sometimes; people who love mystery novels simply can’t get themselves interested in romance or historical fiction). Try to read books that are as incommensurable as possible — for example, a fantasy novel with a collection of non-fiction anecdotes like Chicken Soup. You won’t feel dissonance if you love them both, because they happen in such different contexts. You can conditionally like them both in different situations — fantasy for when you’re feeling escapist and Chicken Soup to recommend to anybody feeling down. It’s not wrong to have a favourite book, but it’s even better to have a top 10 list, because you’ll have 10 books that you like then, rather than 1.

The best books I ever read were stumbled upon accidentally in the library. Try sourcing books from the library too. You’ll be more courageous to try new books when they’re free of charge. Just empty your mind of expectations and walk around the shelves. If a cover catches your eye, pick it up and plunge into the first chapter. You’ll find that there’re many hidden gems in the literary world that may not have had as much marketing as the bestsellers out there, but are perhaps even more precious to you because they speak to you in a voice that only you can hear and understand.

Kinda like this blog.

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