I tried a new exercise with my Novel IV students a few weeks ago.
I brought a dozen books to class, pretty randomly selected from the titles that arrive every month. I did limit the selection to novels, and tried to weed out any obviously awful candidates, but for the most part these were books I knew little or nothing about. I recognized some authors, had dipped a few pages into some of them, but I did try to be as random as possible.
I put the books out on my desk and I invited my students to come up and quickly grab a book. I told them not to try to match their taste, not to look for authors they knew - in fact, to avoid looking at the book altogether if possible. Just grab one.
They took them back to their desks and I asked them all to read the title they'd drawn for our next class. The request was not greeted with universal enthusiasm, until I began to explain the idea behind the experiment.
I told them that we all - myself included - can easily become victims of our readerly prejudices. (I wonder how many great books I've missed, insisting that I don't care for historical fiction. Wolf Hall?) I also said in the age of Amazon, which thinks it's a good idea to pair every book you buy with other books just like it, we increasingly risk falling into a narrow little echo chamber. It's great that everyone is reading A Visit from the Goon Squad, but how many lesser known titles get lost every year in that rush toward the One Big Thing.
I reminded them that Paula Fox enjoyed a remarkable renaissance simply because Jonathan Franzen had randomly plucked her book from the shelves at Yaddo. And I told them that every serious writer I knew was open and experimental and willing to take a chance on any number of books - not just the things we know we like.
Surprise, surprise. More than one student came back admitting they'd loved a book they'd otherwise never read. And one student didn't like a book she fully expected to love, but she had immersed herself in solving the problem of why the book did not work for her, and closed in on what she took to be the inauthenticity of the voice. In order words, she was thinking like a writer.