10 Lighthearted Reads for Times of Chaos

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This is my question for 2020:

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Like many people around the world right now, I’m spending a lot of time at home, trying my best to avoid endless scrolling on my phone, where I see nonstop articles about impending doom. I think books are fantastic all the time, but they’re especially enjoyable when I need a distraction. I think most of us could use a distraction right about now, so today I want to share a list of lighthearted reads that will entertain you and, hopefully, make you smile.

Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin

I’ve been a Steve Martin fan since I was a little kid who was obsessed with Father of the Bride. As I’ve seen more of his work, there’s something about Martin’s quirky comedy that always surprises me and makes me laugh. Born Standing Up is an excellent memoir about Martin’s rise to fame and why he decided to walk away at the height of it.

Bossypants by Tina Fey

I don’t think it’s possible for me to love Tina Fey more than I already do. I recently rewatched 30 Rock and was reminded just how brilliant she is as a writer and performer. Bossypants is as funny as you hope it’ll be, especially the audiobook, which Fey reads herself. If you’re interested in comedy as an art form, don’t miss this gem of a book.

Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise
by Ruth Reichl

Even though I have the palate of an eight-year-old child, I love food and cooking. I kept seeing Ruth Reichl’s name pop up as a can’t-miss food writer, so I decided to pick up Garlic and Sapphires. I read it in a couple of days because it’s such a fun book chronicling Reichl’s time as a food critic. Even if your favorite meal is chicken nuggets, Reichl’s passion for food will inspire you to get in the kitchen and distract yourself with something delicious.

Here For It: Or, How to Save Your Soul in America by R. Eric Thomas

You might already know R. Eric Thomas from his Elle column or his hilarious Twitter feed. If you don’t know him, change that immediately and start with his new book. Here For It is a funny, thoughtful, and of-the-moment collection of essays about making it as a writer, racism, going viral, politics, religion, sexuality, and so much more. These essays made me laugh out loud, but also included stories that touched me deeply. I love this book and know I’ll be recommending it often.

I’ll Be There for You: The One about Friends by Kelsey Miller

When I’m stressed, one of my favorite things to do is put on my comfiest pajamas, curl up in front of the TV, and watch a show I’ve seen countless times. For many people, that show is Friends. If you’re a fan, I’ll Be There for You will be a fun look behind the scenes of the show that took America by storm.

Look Alive Out There by Sloane Crosley

Sloane Crosley is one of my favorite essayists. She’s consistently funny, which makes her books perfect companions for times of stress. Her latest collection is Look Alive Out There, which is worth reading just for the story of her guest role on Gossip Girl. Crosley’s growth as a writer shines in these essays.

The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

It’s 1988, and Frank owns a music store full of records. Because he refuses to sell CDs, he’s struggling to keep the store open. One day a customer walks in and wants to know more about music. She’s a mysterious woman who ends up opening some old wounds, but Frank can’t get her out of his head. The Music Shop is a sweet, hope-filled story about second chances, forgiveness, and belonging that inspires without being saccharine. Plus, that cover is major eye candy.

One Day in December by Josie Silver

Looking out from a bus window, Laurie locks eyes with Jack. Something comes over her and convinces her this stranger is the one. And then the bus drives away. Laurie spends a year hoping to find this mystery man, and then he shows up at her flat to attend a party. The only problem is that he’s dating her best friend. One Day in December is the charming story of two people whose paths keep crossing, but never at the right time. You’ll be rooting for Laurie and Jack until the final sentence.

One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories by B. J. Novak

If your favorite TV show to rewatch is The Office, don’t miss this collection of stories by B. J. Novak, a.k.a. Ryan the Temp. Some stories are just quick blurbs, and others are several pages. No matter the length, Novak’s writing is always witty and matches the tone of the show where he got his start.

Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002 by David Sedaris

Any David Sedaris book is a good choice when you want something fun to read, but Theft by Finding is the one that’ll keep you entertained the longest thanks to its page count. It’s a lengthy collection of diary entries that prove Sedaris is still hilarious even when he’s not trying.


What are your go-to books in chaotic times? What authors can you always trust to distract you?

The Best Books I’ve Read in the Last Decade

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With a new decade soon upon us, many lists have appeared ranking the best whatever of the last ten years, like this one from Lit Hub, which ranks novels. Their list inspired me to start thinking about one of my own. I’ve tracked each book I’ve read since 2010, so I looked over all of those titles and tried to narrow it down to a top ten. This project did not go well at first. After several drafts and deep breaths, though, I’ve finally put together a list that feels right. To avoid a nervous breakdown, I focused only on fiction (sorry, poetry and nonfiction). I might change my mind tomorrow, but as of now, here are the novels I’ve loved most during the past ten years. 

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Stoner by John Williams
Published in 1965 | Read in 2010

When Stoner appeared in 1965, it didn’t make much impact. It received praise but wasn’t popular. When New York Review Books published the book again in the 2000s, it became a cult hit. A former coworker recommended the book to me, raving about how good it was. I knew he was right within a few pages. I’ve seen Stoner referred to as a perfect novel, and I tend to agree. It’s a quiet, unassuming story about the life of William Stoner, a midwestern man who pursues his love of literature, gets married, has a daughter, and must face his share of regrets and disappointments. This novel is for readers who love character development and appreciate stories about the ordinariness of life. I’m grateful Stoner finally got the attention it deserves. 

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The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Published in 1992 | Read in 2012

I wish I could remember what led me to Donna Tartt, but I don’t. What I do remember, though, is finishing the last page of The Secret History and wishing I could start all over again, never having read it before. I wanted to experience the book again for the first time because the story and eccentric characters enthralled me. The novel takes place at a college in New Hampshire, where a small group of classics students becomes devoted to a mysterious professor. In the book’s first few pages, readers know that one of those students has died. What we don’t know is what led to his death and how the others were involved. Tartt’s prose is gorgeous, and her ability to build suspense even after revealing a major plot point at the very beginning is unmatched. The Secret History is fiction at its finest. 

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Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Published in 2004 | Read in 2015

You might not think a novel written in the form of a father’s letter to his son would make for fascinating reading, but you’d be wrong. Gilead is a stunning meditation on faith, family, and what makes us human. I rarely write in my fiction books, yet it seems as if every other sentence of this novel is underlined. If you appreciate thoughtful, reflective literature, don’t miss this gem. 

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In the Woods by Tana French
Published in 2007 | Read in 2018

One of my biggest reading regrets is waiting so long to read Tana French. As far as I’m concerned, she’s the reigning queen of the police procedural. In the Woods is everything I want in a suspense or mystery novel: it’s well-written, has a moody setting, is full of well-rounded characters, and contains just enough creepiness to keep me on the edge of my seat. French starts her Dublin Murder Squad series with Rob, a detective with a lot of baggage. He started life as Adam, the boy who was left behind when two of his friends vanished in the woods one day. They were never found and Adam couldn’t remember what happened, so he changed his name and everything else about his life. When a young girl is found dead in the same woods where his friends disappeared, Rob must face everything he’s been running from, whether he’s ready or not. (If you’re a fan of this book, check out the new Dublin Murders series on STARZ. It’s fantastic.)

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Night Film by Marisha Pessl
Published in 2013 | Read in 2013

Saying that Night Film is a suspense novel feels like saying the Beatles were a rock band. It’s true, but there’s so much more that needs to be said. Pessl’s second novel tells the story of a young woman’s apparent suicide. Her father is an iconic and reclusive horror filmmaker. When a journalist gets suspicious and starts investigating the death, he sets out on a journey that will keep you turning the pages all night long. Night Film makes the reader feel as if she’s in one of the horror films the book references. This novel is creepy, engaging, well-written, and utterly brilliant. I love it. 

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Published in 2015 | Read in 2016

No other novel has wrecked me the way A Little Life did. I was an emotional mess for several days after finishing this 720-page masterpiece. The book is about a group of four male friends but focuses on Jude, a deeply-wounded man who is no stranger to trauma and heartache. A Little Life follows him, Willem, JB, and Malcolm throughout a few decades of their lives. Though this book contains some genuinely bleak content, it’s a love letter to friendship, the families we choose, and the families who choose us. 

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The Nix by Nathan Hill
Published in 2016 | Read in 2017

Two things surprise me about The Nix. The first is that it’s a debut novel, and the second is that it works. It’s over 500 pages, goes back and forth in time, is full of different characters, addresses topics like academia, war, relationships, politics, and old family myths, and somehow it not only works but exceeds any expectations I had for it. At the center of this sweeping story is Samuel, a bored college professor whose only joy in life is a video game. After being out of touch with his mother for years, they reunite, and their reunion sets off a series of events and remembrances. There were so many different threads throughout this novel, and I knew there was no way Hill was going to weave them all together in the end. I was wrong, and he did. The Nix is an outstanding novel, and I cannot wait to see what Hill does next. 

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Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Published in 2016 | Read in 2019

Homegoing isn’t a long novel, yet it encompasses over three hundred years. The story begins during the eighteenth century in Ghana, where we meet two sisters named Esi and Effia. Their lives diverge, and the rest of the novel follows their descendants to present-day America. Homegoing is not only an excellent piece of fiction, but it helped me understand how the shameful legacy of slavery affects generations. 

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Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Published in 2017 | Read in 2017

Jojo and his little sister Kayla live with their grandparents in Mississippi. Their black mother, Leonie, is a drug addict, and their white father is in prison. When he gets released, Leonie packs up the kids and her best friend and sets out on a road trip to pick him up. Sing, Unburied, Sing is set mostly during that trip. Jesmyn Ward tells a beautiful story about family, love, addiction, and the ghosts that haunt us. The relationship between Jojo and Kayla is precious, and the presence of their caring grandparents lends some joy to an otherwise sad novel. I read this book in one day because I couldn’t put it down. 

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The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
Published in 2018 | Read in 2018

This novel goes back and forth between two timeless. One focuses on Yale, an art gallery director living in Chicago during the mid-1980s. The other is about Fiona, the little sister of one of Yale’s friends, who heads to Paris in the early 2000s in search of her daughter. Yale is presented with an opportunity to acquire an incredible collection of art for his gallery. However, while he’s achieving personal success, his friends are all dying of AIDS, including Fiona’s brother. The Great Believers is a novel about friendship, art, and the devastation of the AIDS epidemic. The stories of Yale and Fiona intersect beautifully. If you read and loved A Little Life as much as I did, make sure you read this one, too, as it has a similar tone. It’s a novel that has haunted me ever since I finished it. 

Top 5 Friday: Books I Read in One Sitting

One of my favorite literary delights is finding a book I just can’t stop reading. Today I’m sharing five books that provided such pleasure. All of the books I’m talking about were ones I read in one sitting. They’re entirely different from each other, but the one thing they have in common is compulsive readability. Keep reading to see what I just couldn’t put down.

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The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

The wife of the title is Clare who’s married to Henry. They’re deeply in love, but their relationship is complicated because Henry moves in and out of time due to a newly-diagnosed medical disorder. We see Henry and Clare at different ages and stages of their lives. Henry can’t control when he time travels, and that adds gripping suspense to the story and raises the stakes immensely. Their struggle to have a typical family and marriage is what makes this book so captivating.

I’m not typically a fan of science fiction, fantasy, or romance, yet I devoured all 500 pages of this book which includes aspects of all three genres. I read this over ten years ago, and I can still remember the way it broke my heart and held my attention.

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Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling

I wasn’t afraid of flying, and then I experienced some turbulence flying through a storm. (I do not recommend flying through storms.) Since that awful flight, airplanes and I don’t get along. Sometimes I have to fly, though, and during one of those mandatory flights, I brought this book with me. I’m usually too antsy to read on a plane, but I ended up reading this straight through. Kaling’s wit had no trouble holding my attention. I truly enjoyed reading about the beginning of her career, her time on The Office, and her love of comedy.  This lighthearted yet honest book was perfect for that moment when I felt nervous and out of control.

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Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

A couple of summers ago, I was really sick with pneumonia. All I had the strength to do was sprawl on my couch. I knew I needed a fast-paced book to hold my attention, so I picked up Big Little Lies.  I had low expectations because I’d heard this book referred to as chick-lit. I’m not a fan of that term or the books that are often ushered under its umbrella. It turns out my doubts were gone by page three.

This book tells the story of Madeline, Celeste, and Jane, mothers whose children attend the same elementary school. Someone dies at the beginning of the story and as the novel progresses we get more and more clues about who it was and how it happened. Moriarty’s pacing is pure perfection and her ability to write fully fleshed out characters keeps me coming back to her work.

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Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murato

This book tells the story of Keiko Furukura who lives in Tokyo. Her parents always thought she was a bit different. In college, she begins working in a convenience store. Convenience stores in Japan are much bigger and nicer than they are in America, so her employment was especially exciting. When Keiko is in her mid-thirties, she’s still in the same job. She’s single and doesn’t socialize much. Her life is far from what society expects it to be. But for all her quirks, Keiko seems quite comfortable with that. I enjoyed this book and related to the desire for a simple life. This quirky story is one that’s stayed with me.

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I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness
by Austin Channing Brown

This book offers a powerful indictment against the evil that is white supremacy and explains how it must be renounced for genuine reconciliation to occur. Austin Channing Brown describes a college trip in which she and some fellow students take a bus tour to see various sites important in Black history, a journey that changes her life and influences her to become the activist she is today. Her stories about the discrimination she’s faced are heartbreaking yet beautifully told. Brown is a person of faith whose convictions are shaped by deep compassion and understanding. This is an important book, especially for those of us in the Church who sometimes struggle to see and address the racism that is all too pervasive in our ranks. This book is reasonably short, but Brown is able to fit so much in its pages. It was gripping like the best nonfiction always is. (From my Goodreads review)


Do you ever read books in one sitting? If so, what books are on your list?

 


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So You Want to Read More Diversely

I’m a white, middle-class woman. That comes with certain privileges not given to those who don’t look or live like me. As a way to learn from different viewpoints and broaden my view of the world, diversifying my reading has been one of my primary goals over the past few years.

One of the best things about reading is that it helps develop empathy, and empathy makes us better humans. If you too are hoping to read more diversely, the books below are a good start.

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Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

The title of Trevor Noah’s book comes from the fact that his entire early existence was indeed a crime. He has a black mother and a white father whose relationship was forbidden during apartheid. Noah tells the story of his struggle to find a place as a biracial kid growing up poor in South Africa. Though this book grapples with abuse, poverty, and systemic oppression, it’s also incredibly funny. One of my favorite parts of the book is when Noah talks about how humor in dark times isn’t just necessary, but that it helps tear down barriers between people on opposite sides of an argument. If you’re an audiobook fan, that’s definitely the best way to read this book. Noah narrates and does an excellent job telling his story.

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This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America by Morgan Jerkins

The best word I can use to describe the essays in this collection is “fierce.” I was blown away by the honesty and vulnerability in this book, the author’s first. Jerkins in only in her mid-twenties, so her insights are especially impressive. There were sections of her book that made me uncomfortable because I didn’t want them to be true. I don’t want it to be true that black women are often ignored in the discussion and practice of feminism. I don’t want it to be true that black women will not be forgiven for the same mistakes white women make all the time. That discomfort is exactly why reading diversely is important. This book expanded what I thought I already knew and reminded me how important it is to listen.

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One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul

This collection of humorous essays discusses Koul’s unique experiences growing up in an Indian family living in Canada. She wrestles with feeling out of place in her family’s traditions. I loved reading about her life, and especially like the essay in which she travels to India for a family wedding. Koul’s discussion about introducing her white boyfriend to her parents was another highlight for me. If you’re looking for a lighthearted, funny book, this is a great choice.

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The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

I’ve only read a handful of graphic novels because it’s just not a format I like that much. I thoroughly enjoyed this graphic memoir, though, and suggest it even to those of you who might not think the format is for you. Persepolis is about Satrapi’s coming of age in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution. She has to navigate all the difficulties of growing up alongside great political unrest in a culture in which females aren’t fully valued. This was an engrossing, eye-opening story that I’m glad I took a chance on.

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The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez

While all the other books on this list are true stories, I wanted to recommend this piece of fiction too. Henriquez tells the story of the Rivera family. They move to the United States seeking better medical care for their daughter, Mirabel, who has just suffered a terrible accident. Eventually, a romance develops between Mirabel and a boy who also lives in her family’s apartment complex, but this story is really about the struggles immigrants face as they chase after the elusive American Dream.


I realized while putting this post together that not only are all of these books worth reading, but they’re worth staring at too. How great are these covers? What books would you suggest to someone who wants to expand their literary horizons?

Favorite Horror Novels from Someone Who Thought She Didn’t Like Horror

As a person who hates being scared and is easily startled, I’ve never understood the appeal of horror novels. I love a good suspense story, but stories that are too violent or just plain scary aren’t for me.

I was going to do a post called “(Almost) Horror Novels” about books I found extra-creepy, but as I was looking up the books I wanted to discuss on NoveList, I realized I could strike the “almost” from the post’s title. Based on NoveList’s genre descriptions and reviewer commentary, these books could accurately be described as horror novels.

In an article for NoveList, librarian Sarah S. Davis defines the horror genre like this:

“The goal of horror is to inspire fear. Horror manipulates our deep-rooted anxieties and brings them vividly to life on the page. These fears could be material — clowns, wolves, vampires — or they could be intangible, like solitude, poverty, and failure. Escalating tension pits an everyman against his own mind in a clash that is often more psychological than physical.”

I’ve read many books that made me fearful, had escalating tension, and messed with my anxiety. Today I’m sharing four favorites.

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Final Girls by Riley Sager

Quincy is the only survivor of a horrifying massacre. As a sole survivor, she’s automatically added to a group of women the media calls Final Girls. Each girl was the only survivor of a brutal crime, and as the book progresses, we learn more about what those crimes were. Quincy can’t bear to think about the night of the massacre, but she’s forced to when another tragedy occurs, and one of the other Final Girls shows up at her door.

This novel is dark, twisted, and there were a few violent scenes which I had to skip. But even though this story made me squirm, I read it straight through. If you like this type of fiction, I bet you’ll read it that way too.

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Providence by Caroline Kepnes

Jon and Chloe were best friends in middle school. Chloe was beautiful and had the attention of the popular kids, but Jon was the target of their scorn. As he walked to school one day, Jon was kidnapped. Four years later, Jon wakes up alone and reads a note from his abductor saying he’s been in an induced coma. When Jon reenters his life, he realizes he has an unwanted power: he can give people heart attacks and kill them. Until he’s cured, he can’t be around his parents or Chloe, who he’s in love with.

Kepnes tells this story in alternating chapters between Jon, Chloe, and a detective nicknamed Eggs who wants to know why healthy people are dying of heart attacks. Providence is as much of a love story as it is a detective novel. It’s as much of a science fiction tale as it is a work of suspense. It reveals the horror of someone who would abduct and manipulate a teenage boy just as it shows the horror of loving someone you can’t have. So far, this is one of my top novels of 2018. Don’t let the offbeat plot keep you from giving this book a try.

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The Monk by Matthew Lewis

Speaking of offbeat plots, we’re going from 2018 back to 1796. This gothic novel is difficult to summarize. There’s a monk, of course, named Ambrosio. There’s a woman and/or demon who tempts him. Eventually, Ambrosio sells his soul to the Devil, which is never a good move, in my opinion. In the NoveList description of this book, they call it “an extravagant blend of sex, death, politics, Satanism, and poetry.”

Based on that description, I probably never would have selected this book on my own, but it was assigned to me in a college English course. My professor was giddy that the Catholic university I attended let him teach this, and perhaps some of his enthusiasm rubbed off on me because I ended up engrossed in this sordid tale. If you like your fiction a little weird and disturbing, give this classic a try.

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Night Film by Marisha Pessl

Ashley Cordova is the 24-year-old daughter of reclusive Stanislaus Cordova, a movie director known for his cult classic horror films. One night, Ashley turns up dead in an apparent suicide. Scott McGrath, a journalist, doesn’t believe Ashley killed herself. He knows the Cordova family has a lot of secrets and he recruits a couple of scrappy strangers in his quest to get answers.

Night Film is one of my favorite novels of all time. I’ve never read anything like it. The prose itself creates such a spooky atmosphere, but Pessl includes images in the book depicting things such as websites and photos pertinent to Scott’s investigation which add even more interest. This book got a bit of buzz when it was released in 2014, but I never felt it got enough praise for its originality.


What (somewhat mild) horror would you suggest I try next time I want some literary excitement? I’d love some more recommendations.

Top Five Friday: Books about Books

Some people like books and some people love books so much they want to read books about other books. I fall into the second camp. If you’re reading this blog post, I assume you do too. Today I’m sharing my top five favorite books about books.

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The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading
by Phyllis Rose

One day Phyllis Rose decides that she’s going to read through an entire shelf of books at her library. She chooses LEQ – LES because of the diversity of its stories and authors. I was unfamiliar with many of the books Rose discusses, but I think that’s part of what makes this book so enjoyable. Even if I didn’t have much interest in the book Rose was discussing, I was still captivated because her excitement for the project and passion for good books is contagious. Plus, any book that has the subtitle “adventures in extreme reading” is a book for me. This one doesn’t disappoint.

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Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books by Nick Hornby

Always interested in other people’s reading habits, I grabbed this book from the library shelf intending to skim a few pages just to indulge my curiosity about what Nick Hornby likes to read. My skimming quickly turned into actual reading which then led to that fun and frantic feeling of “I can’t put down this book.” What appeals to me so much about Hornby’s writing here is that he’s serious about books, but he doesn’t take books too seriously. He’s all for putting down a book that just isn’t working for him, even if it seems to be working for everyone else. He helped me feel better about my own propensity to buy more books than I can ever hope to read, and I’m always thankful when someone manages to affirm my literary choices. (“Literary choices” sounds better than “book hoarding.”)

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84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

This short book is an absolute delight. It’s a collection of letters between Helene Hanff, a writer living in New York City, and Frank Doel, a used-book dealer in London. Their friendship ends up spanning over 20 years, and even the staff at Frank’s store come to love Helene. The pair’s letters are funny, sweet, and overflowing with their mutual love for books. This is a must-read for book lovers.

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My Ideal Bookshelf by Thessaly La Force (editor) and Jane Mount (illustrator)

I’ve heard this book referred to as a coffee table book, and I suppose that’s true due to its size. (It’s not huge but is a bit bigger than an average hardcover.) But all the coffee table books I own are there for me to skim. I don’t pick up and read my coffee table books from cover to cover, but that’s precisely what I did with this book. It’s full of illustrations depicting the favorite books of people like Judd Apatow, Malcolm Gladwell, Dave Eggers, and many other creators. The most obvious thing about this book is that it’s beautiful; Jane Mount is a great illustrator. But besides the illustrations, it’s so fun to read about the books that have inspired others.

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My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues by Pamela Paul

This book was so good that it held my attention when I was in the waiting room at urgent care with a bout of pneumonia. If that’s not a great endorsement, I don’t know what is. The “Bob” of the title is Pamela Paul’s Book of Books. In it, Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review, has tracked every book she’s read since high school. Paul goes beyond just plot summaries and criticism, reflecting on her life as she talks about the literature that’s shaped it. I love how her life story is woven into what she has to say about the books she’s read.


What about you? What books about books are your favorites?