You should read more books
|Kimberly Harrington||Jan 14, 2019|
The past few years I’ve reserved a few shelves on an out-of-the way bookshelf in our house and built my What I Read This Year list, book by book. It’s obscenely satisfying to stack another book on those shelves, even on the rare occasion when it’s a book I’ve given up on (life’s too damn short to read books you hate).
Maybe it’s because I spent such a huge chunk of my adult life not reading books. I loved to read (and write) when I was a kid. But once I understood boys existed in a certain way they had not existed to me previously, I immediately thought, “What books?” along with “Horses? Why?” and “Any other possible interests relevant to becoming a more well-rounded human being can go away now.”
Then I went to UCLA where my love of reading was beaten out of me—I thought for good—by assigned reading at a level my high school and the first college I attended couldn’t remotely touch. I returned to reading gradually in my twenties and early thirties when I remembered, oh right, I could read whatever the hell I pleased thankyouverymuch. Then kids, oh kids. Having babies and toddlers and small children meant another years-long detour away from books. And movies. And television other than Rock Star: Supernova. (Hellooooo there Gilby Clarke I still have a weird crush on you but would prefer to never see you in daylight!)
I just could not. I could not handle a single thing beyond working full time, showering, wearing grownup clothes, taking infants and toddlers to and fro, packing and unpacking every bag we owned, trying to sleep, trying to eat, trying to stay just a hair’s-width clear of the soul-grinding gears of modern life as a parent who’s trying to not suck. I dreaded being in brainstorming meetings or client meetings or just regular ol’ chit-chat and hearing the beginning of the question, “Hey, have you seen (or read or heard) Movie X, Amazing Book Y, Think Piece Z” because the response I would hold myself back from hissing was “NO MOTHERFUCKER I HAVEN’T SEEN, READ, WATCHED, NOR DONE ANYTHING CULTURALLY FUCKING RELEVANT SINCE 2004.”
I have been making up for lost time these past few years. I’m reading more books per year than I did as a kid with nothing on my plate. It genuinely makes me happy. I wish my only job was to read books and think about them.
Okay enough of the preamble. What is this, an artisanal recipe?
You don’t need to care about what I read or what I thought of it, but since 2018 was a year I actually had a book out I have a whole new appreciation for EVERY [hand clap emoji] SINGLE [hand clap emoji] VOICE [you know it] that elevates a book. I don’t think of myself as a super critical reader. I usually start by picking books I think I will like or based on reviews or word-of-mouth from people I trust, i.e. I don’t go looking for trouble. This year I read 55 books, everything you see in that first photo plus several that were cropped out plus a few more that are scattered amongst friends.
There was only one book I didn’t finish. And I tried. LAWD KNOWS I tried to finish this book. But sorry Strangers Drowning: Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Urge to Help by Larissa MacFarquhar, I just could not do it. A fascinating subject, but I just never felt like picking it up with the excitement or curiosity I need to keep a book going. I took it on business trips, I kept it next to my bed, I kept it in my bag, and it still took me months to get to the halfway point. Oh well. What a book to fail at reading. Hello, ultimate symbolism for 2018.
There were a few books I hated, not because the subject or premise weren’t fascinating but because they were executed poorly and/or needed a much firmer editor’s hand. I will not name them here because I’m not a total dick who lives to leave shitty reviews and tag the authors.
On the other end of the spectrum, here are my top 11 favorites in no particular order: Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow, Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong, Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, Calypso by David Sedaris, We Were Eight Years In Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates (I think about “The Case for Reparations” and “Fear of a Black President” all the time), Less by Andrew Sean Greer, Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, Life After God by Douglas Coupland (I was surprised and appreciative of what a different read it was, a lifetime after the first time I read it), Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh, Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy by Angela Garbes (I have so much to say about this book but will save it for a future newsletter), and Advice for Future Corpses (And Those Who Love Them): A Practical Perspective on Death and Dying by Sallie Tisdale.
This is the first year I started reading YA books and it’s been an unexpected pleasure to be reading some of the same books as my kids (or, in rare cases, being the one who brings them into the house first and attempts to score HEY I’M A COOL MOM points with “I know the author!” with Notes from My Captivity by Kathy Parks or “We have the same agent!” with Unclaimed Baggage by Jen Doll. My kids remain thoroughly unimpressed.)
This is the year I read (for the first time, in book form anyway), both David Sedaris and Joan Didion. And then I proceeded to read a whole lot of books by them. What a pair to commit to in 2018. Also: if you haven’t watched The Center Will Not Hold, you absolutely should.
This is also the first year I received galleys from other authors and that just straight blew my mind. To go from trying to throw my book at anyone with a face and a social media platform to having books arrive on my doorstep (for free! to read!) was so … strange. And exciting. But also a wee bit pressure-filled. It felt a little like being back in college, having to read something versus wanting to read something. I get it. I get the whole machine of it. It felt more than a little unfair to go from begging people to read my book and review it! Post it! Blurb it! Blog about it! Love it! Marry it! to then not lean into the pressure of doing the same for other authors. Maybe I am kind of a dick.
Related: I can’t stop thinking of this quote from this piece I’ve shared previously, “The book industry is partly kept afloat by a shadow economy in which the main currency is bullshit.” This past year I’ve left a couple glowing reviews for books in the name of you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours. I’ll likely delete those because I want people to trust I’m not feeding that shadow economy. Having said that, I typically rate books fairly high. I view most books like pizza, even medium good pizza is still pretty good pizza. And it’s better than no pizza at all. But a 5-star pizza? Best be some good motherfucking pizza.
On the practical side, I read both Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. and Naked at the Podium: The Writer’s Guide to Successful Readings by Peter V.T Kahle and Melanie Workhoven as part of my process of working through anxiety and getting ready to do readings. Not a small task for someone who, as of January 2018, hadn’t recovered from a public panic attack five years earlier and had only attended two readings in her life. 2018: A journey indeed.
Overall I read a more diverse range of authors than I have at any other point in my life. I didn’t make it a goal, those were just the books I was hearing about. I follow a lot of female writers and SHAZAM turns out I heard about more female / diverse authors, imagine that. I’m a book cover design whore and came to at least five books 100% because of their incredible covers. They did not disappoint. So definitely do judge a book by its cover, especially now. Thank you Instagram for inventing Book Cover Design Pressure®, it’s basically the only good thing you’ve ever done.
I can’t wait to read more books this year. Books are such fantastic things. And don’t be too shy to tweet or Insta-post or directly email an author to tell them you love their work. Everyone thinks authors are too busy or fancy to care but believe you me, no one is ever sad to hear something positive about their work. Maybe David Sedaris and Joan Didion get tired of it but somehow I doubt it. The world is a harsh place and not only is everyone a critic but these days everyone’s a critic with a massive megaphone and performing monkeys. Don’t be afraid to add a kind voice to the circus.
NEW FROM ME
I’ve been submitting and have acceptances but nothing pubbed yet. Mostly my New Year’s resolutions are ruling my life. I’m doing small things like sticking to only one fancy coffee out a week. I’m trying to buy nothing. I’m trying to get to Bikram every day … or thereabouts. I’m waking up a 1/2 hour early to do the NYT 30-day Well Challenge and/or stretch and do Headspace for 10 minutes. I’m watching more TV and movies (an actual real resolution that is bringing me ridic levels of joy.) I am spending weekends finally tackling a 14-year digital photo backlog (fuuuuuuuck meeeeeeee.) And soon I’ll be returning to my local Toastmasters meetings to dig back into public speaking.
I’m pulling back on my submissions of short humor, putting more effort into crafting the pieces I do write, avoiding the siren call of timely submissions, and holding back rejected pieces. I’m working on three major projects in parallel—a nonfiction book proposal (a follow-up to Amateur Hour. So to everyone who asked me at a Q&A, “When are you going to write another book like this one?” and I replied “Literally never” I guess what I meant was “Maybe in a year?”), a novel, and a TV pilot. And I am doing all of this while trying to maintain a freelance advertising career that supports my entire family. LOLLLLLLZZZZzzzzzz WTFfffff I fully expect to burst into flames by the end of January but I can say with 100% honesty that I feel happier, more in control, somehow calmer, and more productive than I have felt in a very long time.
THINGS FROM ELSEWHERE
• CONNECTION: I’ve been thinking a lot about social connection over the past year. Especially the perception of being connected versus the reality of what face-to-face, voice-to-voice human connection really is. How feeling theoretically connected all the time (through our phones, through social media) isn’t remotely the same as actually being connected all the time. How almost everyone I know who struggles with anxiety or panic attacks also happens to live alone, work from home or otherwise solo, and/or is physically isolated where they live. A bigger topic for another time, but this piece brought me a lot of joy and made me think that we all, at every age, and at every opportunity, truly need to make the effort to make connections in the real world: “This choir features singers with dementia” from The Washington Post.
• ADVERTISING: So much has changed in advertising since I began my career. I miss how print advertising, when done well, could truly be an art form. This incredible campaign brought that feeling back. Unbelievably powerful: “These Happy Holiday Ads Are Much Darker When Read Backwards” from The Muse.
• TRUTH: This is the most real piece in all of journalism. “Some women think they can escape the long, dark, puffy coat. But many have succumbed” from The Boston Globe.
• DEATH: You will not soon forget this one. “This world devours every person and moves on. It does not stop moving, even as we pass through the middle of life telling ourselves it is the front end. Before the children arrived, there was not much difference from one year to the next. In some ways, in the adult, professional sphere, there still is not much difference. In a chair, at a computer screen, 47 doesn’t feel that far from 37. A little trouble in the lumbar region, that’s all. Some wiry gray at the temples in the bathroom mirror. This is the illusion of adult timekeeping, and children make it unsustainable.” “Your Real Biological Clock Is You’re Going to Die” from Hmm Daily.
• WRITING: Wonderful, thoughtful advice. “How Do I Write About My Life Without Alienating Everyone in It?” by Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond in The New York Times.
•AMEN: “What [is] often missing, or glossed over, is the fact that MacKenzie helped her husband start his historic company, starting by agreeing to leave their life and move across the country from New York City to Seattle, where Amazon was founded. It’s also part of a wider pattern of how the stories of tech companies get told, which erases the many individuals who help to build them in favor of highlighting the ‘lone genius’ at the helm. Many of the people who fade to the background have been women.” “MacKenzie Bezos and the Myth of the Lone Genius Founder” from Wired.
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