2016 was the year I fell in love with reading again. Sometime during college, when close reading put every sentence under a fluorescent light, I started analyzing language instead of getting lost in it. I thought I would return to reading after I graduated, but then I became a copyeditor, where my job was to find every grammatical blemish and factual imperfection. It’s hard to enjoy a book when you profoundly disagree with how a writer uses punctuation (I’m looking at you, Hanya Yanagihara). The very thing that had gotten me into my major and career was now a chore. Yet I wanted to be a reader, so I compulsively bought books that would topple off my nightstand, a reminder I was getting through more Netflix than novels. I didn’t know what I needed to read, but my friends did, and their passionate recommendations for things I would normally never read reminded me why I sometimes find more solace or excitement in a book than anything.
My friend Jen is not just an A Little Life fan, though she has read it four times; she is an evangelist. So I wasn’t surprised when it showed up on my doorstep as a Christmas gift last year. Getting through a 720-page book wasn’t an enjoyable experience for a slow reader like me, especially when nothing seemed to happen except trauma. When the ultimate trauma transpired, I was so angry that I rage-cried and would’ve thrown the hardcover across the room if it weren’t two pounds. I told Jen I hated it — at least I thought I did. But after I finished, I couldn’t stop discussing it or reading Hanya Yanagihara interviews. I even had a dinner date with my friend Susan, another great reader, to discuss why I hated it, but midway through she asked me, “Is it possible you actually loved it?” She was right; I had mistaken my intense passion for hatred when it was really love. Yes, nothing happened, Yanagihara doesn’t understand pronouns, and the ending was infuriating, but I couldn’t remember the last time a book had completely consumed me like that.
When my YA book club picked The Royal We for February, I internally groaned. I had always found the royal family ridiculous, so why would I want to read a fictionalized account of Kate Middleton and Prince William’s courtship if Kate were American? But the book ended up being one of the most damned delightful things I’d read all year, the literary equivalent of the frappucino you told yourself you were too sophisticated for but still secretly loved. Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan deliver on all the royal intrigue and scandal, from frosty Queen Elizabeth II to sexy bad boy Prince Harry, but really it’s the romance that makes all the royal drama worth it, like Richard Curtis meets Buckingham Palace. The novel made me miss the U.K. and the British friends I made while a University of Edinburgh student so much that I planned a solo trip to London that summer. I even visited an extremely obscure museum that I read about in the book, the Sir John Soane’s Museum; I recommend it for oddity alone.
I also have my book club to thank for one of the craziest reading experiences I had this year — getting through the entire four-book Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater in a weekend. I have a reputation for never actually finishing the book, so when we decided to read a series in preparation for the release of The Raven King, I knew I was screwed. I expected I’d hate this bizarre mashup of Welsh myth, psychics, and prep school, but I was so enthralled by the world building, strong relationships, and ultimate metaphor for growing up that I stayed up until 3 a.m. two nights in a row. The books are also so creepy, with the protagonists wandering through catacombs and whatnot, that I had to keep every light on in my apartment. I told Stiefvater this in person when my book club attended a YA book festival in Charleston, YALL Fest, and she was so excited that she highfived me with a Sharpie in hand.
These books have nothing in common with each other, other than how I found myself fully engrossed while reading them. But they remind me that sometimes the best reading experiences are the ones we least expect. So I plan to read boldly and bravely because I’ll need some good escapism these next four years.
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