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a program of The Indianapolis Public Library Foundation

Rediscovering Reading: The Secret Life of a Book Awards Judge

Florrie Binford Cooper is the current Chair of Board of Directors for The Indianapolis Public Library Foundation. She founded and recently retired from Patria Press, Inc., which publishes the award-winning Young Patriots Series for children. A 25-year veteran of the publishing industry, Florrie has presented programs at more than 30 conferences and book festivals. Florrie was named by Book Business Magazine as one of the Top 50 Women in Book Publishing, and is the past Executive Director of IBPA, the Independent Book Publishers Association. She served on the Eugene & Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Award panel from 2012 - 2014 and rediscovered her love of reading in the process.

I’m a reader.

No, I’m a voracious reader.

At least that’s what I thought.

I have a personal collection of more than 300 books on shelves and on e-readers ranging from Little Women to Ulysses (believe it or not, I have actually read Ulysses) and it was a rare day that went by without me cracking open at least one of the 3-4 titles I was usually reading concurrently.  A day without Baldacci or Grisham (I’m a thriller/mystery addict) was a dull day indeed.

Slowly, insidiously, those 3-4 titles and the e-reader 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 one of my business trade journals, the IBJ or Indianapolis Star. Or discuss one of the book reviews (not the book, which I, of course, had not read) on the many community book review sites that can delude you into thinking you had read the book once you had read 100 or so reviews.  

As a business owner, I would read all day long (and sometimes into the night). However, nearly 100% of that reading was, as Michael Corleone said in the movie, The Godfather, “not personal, strictly business.” Frankly, after long hours perusing the 849 emails that arrive 24/7 as well as industry news in print and online, a rerun of Big Bang Theory 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 book awards judge.

What if someone invited you to read 75-100 books in 6 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 an Indiana Authors Award 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—short stories, fantasy, history 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 young adult fantasy book when the last fantasy I had read all the way through was Charlotte’s Web? (I assume talking spiders qualify as fantasy?)

But a funny thing happened to me on the way to the Indiana Authors 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 like a smartphone addict awaits the next text. The fantasies 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. I quickly became a hermit— spending weekends and evenings obsessively devouring  words on the page and screen (to the detriment of 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 an Indiana Authors 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 award-winning books I could devour.

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, and of those 3-4 books on my reading table, one is now a young adult fantasy (no talking spiders) and none are dust-covered. In addition, my stint as an Indiana Author Awards judge taught me that one need look no further than our home state for a diverse community of outstanding writers.