Because my own book was released in March, and because I’ve never done this before—the tour, the interviews, the reviews, my teaching jobs, all at once—my 2019 reading was terribly inconsistent, with jags and starts, some devoured-in-one-sitting-books and some long-plane-ride-crying-books and many books I had to abandon because they made me feel too sad or too jealous or too dark or they made my mushy brain work too hard. I let go of any book that lacked sincerity in 2019; I plan to maintain that rule. Still, I’ve never in my life felt more grateful to return to words at the beginning or end of my days, to sit still and awed at the marvelous work of others and remember the only point of my little life: that zing, that achey divine something that comes when you fully believe the world someone has created for you and then your own bedroom or hotel room or subway car feels a little more romantic and detailed and bright because of it. Here’s a very incomplete list of works that made my year immeasurably better.
Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance and Sarah McColl’s Joy Enough made me feel cared for the way some books do, books that answer the particular questions you’ve been gripping at, that seem to say I know, yup, I hear you. Jaquira Díaz and Kristen Arnett’s powerhouses, Ordinary Girls and Mostly Dead Things, respectively, reminded me of home, of the fire and weird wonder of where we’re from, the sweaty creeping queer-as-fuck Florida I most want to read about. Both of Sally Rooney’s books felt like goddamn candy after long days, and Jesus she is funny as shit and I feel like people miss that when talking about her.
Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias read like a tremendously generous guide on how to be a better person, a greater listener, and Starling Days by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan did the same. I listened to Danielle Lazarin’s Back Talk on audio and texted her whenever the actor mispronounced our Inwood street names, but jokes aside Danielle’s work reads like a hug (a really fucking smart hug? what does that mean?) and I’m so grateful to her and every writer writing High Goddamn Serious Literature about Girlhood. Fuck yes.
I reread the stories of James Salter and Jamaica Kincaid and Elizabeth Bishop and Kenzaburo Ōe because sometimes I forget how to write a sentence, and marveled at Amy Hempel’s new collection Sing to It, which, like all of Hempel’s work, changes its terms on you so quickly, sometimes between two little words, in ways that’ll knife-twist your dumbly blinking face. For my classes I read and reread Outline by Rachel Cusk, We the Animals by Justin Torres, I Love Dick by Chris Kraus, Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima, Mean by Myriam Gurba, Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick, and Syllabus by Lynda Barry (my queen, my hero, my everything).
I fell asleep most nights to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Once upon a time I fell in love with writing because of Jayne Anne Phillips’s collection Black Tickets, and this year Kimberly King Parsons’s Black Light made me feel that same pang of joy-shock when words are so charged they carry their own vibrations. Miriam Toews’s Women Talking made me feel like oh, that’s how a genius does this, and same for Chelsea Bieker’s forthcoming cult-novel (no, literally, it’s about a fucked-to-the-hills birthing cult) Godshot, which is the kind of novel that comes around every decade, maybe, the kind of book that made me feel it was meant for me (is there a greater feeling than that?).
Rick Moody’s memoir The Long Accomplishment was so graceful and so packed with heart and wisdom and sincerity, and Mathea Morais’s There You Are made my heart hurt in similar lit-up ways. I am stunned by the beauty of Chanel Miller’s writing in Know My Name (people will talk about the story, the headline; I want to talk about her prose), and, on that note, Carrie Goldberg’s Nobody’s Victim should be required reading for all. I was fortunate enough to read and perform the texts from As I Hear the Rain, PEN America’s 2019 American Prison Writing Anthology, which is a miraculous cross-genre collection of really great really urgent writing.
Cyrus Grace Dunham’s A Year Without a Name is another life-changing world-warping (really, I’m obsessed) book I’ve now read and reread several times this year, with writing and imagery so lush and so good it’ll leave you hot and choking on vines. It’s still November, and I’m making my way through my final books of the year, but I can tell you Brandon Taylor’s Real Life, Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness, C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills Is Gold, and Genevieve Hudson’s Boys of Alabama have me rotating through them so none will end too soon. Taylor’s writing the best prose out there; Greenwell’s got a sex scene in this one that left me WEEPING; Zhang’s golden epic will be an instant classic; Hudson is rewriting the fairy tale, rewriting the body, with sentences like spun dirt and knuckle and all things true.
Lastly, I must shout out the many, many yet-to-be-published book manuscripts of my students, books that have left me as breathless as I am hopeful for the landscape to come. How grateful I am.
In the spring of 2016, Dani Shapiro received one of the biggest shocks of her life when she learned, through an Ancestry.com DNA test, that she and her adored, deceased father were not biologically related. She had taken the test on a whim and wasn’t expecting to discover anything new. In fact, she thought she had pretty well excavated her family history in two of her previous memoirs: Slow Motion and Devotion. But the results of the test forced her to revisit mysteries she thought she had put to rest:
There had always been something more—something I could never quite fathom. An invisible live wire stretched between my parents and me. Touch it, and we might up in smoke. I knew this, too, thought I couldn’t have articulated it. I had turned away from fiction, toward memoir, as if a trail of words might lead me there.
Inheritance, her latest memoir, is the remarkable story of how, with just a few clues, Shapiro discovers both that she was donor-conceived, and the identity of her donor. With her mother also deceased, there are many unanswered questions, and Shapiro finds herself delving into the early history of sperm donation, and interviewing the remaining friends and acquaintances of her parents. But she’s most powerful when she writes about the strange memories that have never left her, memories imprinted with a mystery she couldn’t recover.
After reading Inheritance, I was very curious about how she went about writing this story, which is so different from her recent memoirs, but at the same time, speaks directly to them. I spoke to her over the phone last week, and as in her book about writing, Still Writing, she was very good at describing the different stages of her writing process. Our interview has been condensed slightly and edited for clarity.
The Millions: When did you know you would write about this experience?
Dani Shapiro: Very, very quickly. I’m a writer who has mined my own life and attempted to shape my experience into stories for my entire writing life. And then this massive wrecking ball of a story came into my life. I can’t even say it’s a story; it’s a revelation about what has always been true. It never occurred to me not to write about it. Somebody actually wrote to me on social media today—how do you think you would have written about this story if your parents were still alive? I wrote back, that’s a big question, and I’m not going to start responding to it on social media, but the fact that my parents were gone, and I was left with this massive mystery, and the only way I’ve come to understand anything about myself or about life is by writing about it, by following the line of words. And so I began jotting down notes very early on. Just fragments. Part of it was that I thought I wouldn’t remember the very early feelings and thoughts because I was in such shock. And the other reason was because I was aware that anything I might learn about the truth of my origins and the culture and the time and place that made me, those people who might know something about that, were very old if they were still living. I felt this urgency to put my reporter’s hat on and learn as much as I possibly could. I did not have the luxury of thinking, I’m going to write about this five years from now, after I’ve processed it. And, also, some books require distance, but this one felt like it required immediacy.
TM: It’s interesting that you realized right away that the clock was ticking in terms of the research you could do, and the interviews you could do.
DS: I think I would have felt that way whether I was writing the book or not. Writing a book sometimes gives you the excuse, the permission to pick up the phone and call people. I’ve always felt that way, whenever I’ve done a journalistic piece—a personal history piece—it’s always been spurred by what I really want to know but I don’t have permission ask. And if I have an assignment, then I have permission. So, there was something of that.
TM: When I was reading it, I thought it was so lucky that you are a writer—and also you had a journalist husband who could help you with your research. I just felt you had a good way of processing it, but I wondered if you felt that way, too?
DS: Initially I was just in it. I was in the fog of it; I was just doing anything I could, whatever I could. I felt that my emotional future well-being required that I at least try to turn over every stone that I could. I didn’t know what I would discover. But one of the things I figured out very quickly is that, if you have to find out that you’re donor-conceived, I had a miraculously good story. I had almost eerily so, just enough clues. My mother had once let slip, just in one brief conversation with her, certain vital clues: the word “Philadelphia,” the word “Institute.”
And then, let’s start with the fact that I did the DNA test at all. Because I easily could never had done that. It was a very random thing to decide to do, and it was only because my husband was doing it, and the prices have come down, so I thought, Sure, why not? It was so casual, and then the incredibly fast time that it took from the moment that I realized that my dad hadn’t been my biological father to finding my biological father. It was crazy, it was 36 hours, it was a domino effect, one thing leading to another, and a kind of hypothesis, and a couple of clues, and a couple of educated guesses, and the fact that my first cousin was on my page on Ancestry.com, and the fact that we could figure out who he was. It wasn’t hard. There was a certain amount of journalistic chops that were required; I think when my husband figured out that the name associated with my first cousin wasn’t first name-last name, but last name-first name, that’s the kind of thing that maybe somebody who is not an investigative journalist might not have gotten to as quickly, but it did happen in this way that, when I look back on it now, was miraculous.
I’ve heard a lot of stories now of dead ends, of donors who don’t want to be disturbed, or who don’t come around, and don’t respond. I just recently heard a story of a woman who is nearly 80 who just found out that her father had not been her biological father. What do you do with that when you’re 80 years old? I feel like the when in my life when I found out, was probably when I had the most stability, the most time and space, to actually be able to truly, deeply go on this journey. I wasn’t too young and I wasn’t too old. I write about this in the book, but when I was told about donor-conceived people who tattoo their donor numbers on their body, I get that. I had 36 hours, which is nothing, of feeling like I may never know who my biological father was. It felt like I was walking with a void underneath me. Like I had been uprooted—the roots that I thought that I had were no longer my roots. I might never know the facts of my identity.
TM: Did you know the structure of the book right away? And did the writing of this book feel different from writing previous memoirs?
DS: I started writing right away and I thought that I was writing the book. It’s funny, because I’ve taught writing for many years, and I’ve written a book about writing, and every once in a while I come up against something where I think, I know I would tell a student that this is impossible, but it’s not going to be impossible for me…
I learned something important to writers, regarding writing from experience. I have written directly from experience before. In my memoir Devotion, and in Hourglass, those are both books written like the present is a laboratory, and writing from the center of experience, but what was totally different about embarking on writing Inheritance was that those earlier books were not being written from a place of trauma. In initially trying to get what was happening to me down on the page, I was writing from the center of trauma. There’s that moment in my book when I quote from Bessel van der Kolk’s—I don’t have the quote exactly right, but it’s something like, “It’s the nature of trauma that doesn’t allow a story to be told.” It’s the reason why people who are in a traumatic state repeat themselves, and need to keep telling the same story over and over again. But that does not make for good literature—although I want to interject and say that I do think there is one literary form in which you can write directly out of trauma, and it’s poetry.
I wrote 200 pages of a draft. And I was already under contract and I was feeling actually pretty good about what I had on the page at that point. But then I had to go on tour for Hourglass. And I went on the road and I had to go on this mode of really not thinking about it, because I couldn’t think about it and be talking about Hourglass, which was a book that I felt so proud of, and wanted to be promoting. So I was on the road, and I think it must have been about two months that I didn’t touch the manuscript. And I sort of settled in, and I took myself to a local café where I like to read, and I started reread and my heart just completely sank. It had some passages that worked, but as a whole, it simply was not the book I wanted to write. And I was in despair. I went home and told my husband, I know that this is productive despair, I would tell any writer telling me this story that it is productive, and that this is going to end up being a good thing, but it didn’t feel that way. It felt like despair with a capital D.
And then I went back and I reread The Year of Magical Thinking. Because my editor and I had spoken about The Year of Magical Thinking before I had even started writing. She brought up that book as something that had within it a sense of immediacy. And yet at the same time, a powerful coolness to it because that’s what Didion does. In my memory of the book, she was writing from the center of her husband’s death. But when I started rereading it, I realized she actually found a place that is slightly removed from, that was outside the sphere of direct shock and trauma. She was writing from that spot, which allowed her to move back into the immediacy but also away from it in a way that allowed her to tell a story. And so I understood that I hadn’t known what that was. So I spent a couple of months exploring what that place was from which to tell the story, that was on the one hand still unfolding. But the actual breathless 36 hours of that story was very much in the rear view mirror for me when I sat down in earnest and was writing.
When I’ve written a couple of times about my son when he was little and he was sick, anyone, whether they’re a mother or a father, can put themselves in the shoes of this person telling the story. And I was aware that discovering in midlife that my father was not my biological father, I was going to have to a) help the reader understand what that feels like and b) write a book that took those experiences and took the strange, later-in-life journey that I found myself on, and really made meaning about what is this teaching me about human nature, about personhood, about identity, about family, about love, about what makes a family, about what makes a father, about nature and nurture, about all these huge ideas that I was suddenly grappling with on a deeper level than most people ever have to, and certainly than I had ever done before.
TM: The experience you describe of being able to see your biological father online, giving a video presentation, was just so stunning—I mean, the fact that we are even able to do that, first of all, but also the way you could recognize him. It just must have been so bizarre. You did a great job of describing it, I felt like I experienced it, and it made me think about how we look like our relatives, how my children look like my grandparents, or whomever, and I take it for granted, I don’t really think about it.
DS: Yes—or, if you know that you’re not biologically related to your parents, or one parent, then you know that and that also becomes part of your identity. And that’s a point that I find that I need to make, because it’s not an obvious one. People who are adopted or people who are donor-conceived, who have always known this, or parents who have donor-conceived kids, or adopted kids, who have always disclosed to their children their origins, that is a completely different story from mine, or from the many people these days who are discovering that a secret was kept from them. If you grow up knowing that you don’t know something, then that lack of knowledge becomes part of your identity. But if you grow up believing something that isn’t the case, and something about it just doesn’t make sense—that was the story of my life, and I think it’s actually the reason for all those memoirs.
TM: I actually had the same thought while I was reading. I found myself wondering if you would continue to write memoirs after this?
DS: I very much doubt that I will ever write a straightforward memoir ever again. Hopefully I’ll write fiction and I’ll write nonfiction. I was moving in a direction before I wrote Inheritance that was kind of a more fractured narrative, and away from traditional narrative, which is hilarious to me and ironic because then I had this story land on me, that was like a story with a capital S that could only be written in a straightforward, linear way. I hadn’t written in a linear fashion in a decade or more. So I have no idea what’s next for me, but I really do believe that my writing life has been formed by not knowing and always searching for what I did not know. There are clues all over all of my books. There are clues in my first novel, there are clues in my second novel, there are clues in Slow Motion, there are clues in Still Writing, and there are certainly clues in Devotion; there are clues in all my books except perhaps for Hourglass, which is really a book that is about marriage and time and memory and kind of steered clear of some of my other obsessions, but I was formed by what I didn’t know.
TM: I think Inheritance is also, in a way, a book about writing. Because you write about looking back on your old books—on what you’ve written before—and I also appreciated the amount of textual analysis you applied to the emails from people, and to what people say to you, and what you said to yourself.
DS: I love that, you’re the first person who has said that to me, and I was aware that I was parsing Ben’s emails—he used this word or he made this Freudian slip—and parsing the language that was used at the time of my conception. The word “treatment,” the word “boost.” And all the ways in which euphemism was used, to create a cloud of unknowing, that parents could find themselves wandering in a fog for the rest of their lives about what they had done—if they wanted to, they could do that. And also, I really do feel like everything I’ve written has led to this. My husband, early on, I think he felt bad that I had made this discovery, and it was his fault because he had asked me if I wanted to do the DNA test, but I have never had a moment—not even at my most destabilized—of feeling like I haven’t known. Because my life, in particular, as somebody who has been relentlessly exploring identity, my dad, my relationship with my dad.
It’s taught me a lot about stories and the narratives that we tell ourselves—all of us, not just writers. It’s how we all understand ourselves through storytelling. My narrative about both of my parents had to be reconsidered in light of this new information. I have a shelf of books that supply reasons for why they were the way they were and all of that is still true, but it’s not the whole truth. I was missing the biggest bone. The part that puts it all into complete dimensionality had eluded me until I made that discovery. And then it made everything make profound sense. Almost instantly. It didn’t make it less painful. It was very hard to digest. But I knew absolutely that I was looking at the truth and I had never seen the truth in my life.
TM: One last question—I was wondering if you have read Proust?
DS: I have read Proust, I have taught Proust—why do ask?
TM: I felt like the theories of memories you write about are similar to the ones in In Search of Lost Time, especially the idea that the memories that survive childhood, the deep ones, are the ones that have the truth in them and you have to kind of deep dive to find them.
DS: And to return to them. Why did that conversation with Mrs. Kushner stay with me my whole life? Because I don’t have a good memory of my childhood, but that—I can tell you what the leaves on the tree looked like, and the glasses of iced tea, and what Mrs. Kushner looked like. It was seared into my memory. And that was also true of the conversation I had at Sarah Lawrence with my mother, and on the car ride home. And what’s Proustian about all that is that we don’t know that those moments are becoming recorded in a way, but they are, because somewhere within us there is this very subtle recognition of their importance.
When I taught In Search of Lost Time it was in a graduate writing program at The New School, and I was teaching the literature of autobiography. I made my own syllabus, and I chose books that I wanted to reread. I think I taught that class for 10 years. And I would end every year with Proust. What was drawing me again and again to thinking, to the way he thought about memory? That’s part of what I mean by it all led to this. My friend Hannah Tinti, who is one of the people that I told pretty early on, she had one of the best reactions: She burst out laughing, first of all—laughing at the incredulity, and also like, of course. She wrote to me the next morning and said I had been in training for this my whole life. And I thought, what is it to be in training for something my whole life and have it happen? Or was I in training because of it? It haunts me that I could have possibly have never known this, because I would have missed my mark.
Longtime listener, first-time caller. I’m excited to be here talking about my Year in Reading. This was the first full year in almost a decade that I didn’t have a monthly column in Marie Claire magazine to write about forthcoming books. As a result, my reading had less structure than usual. I put down a lot of books that didn’t do it for me, and shuffled and reshuffled my to-be-read pile to my heart’s content. It’s been liberating. But, a new restraint has also entered the scene. My toddler has recently become a book connoisseur. He often hijacks the book I’m reading for himself or replaces it with something he’d prefer to have me read—which is more often than not Bao Phi and illustrator Thi Bui’s A Different Pond, author and illustrator Brian Floca’s Locomotive, or Jane Yolan and illustrator John Schoenherr’s Owl Moon. I’m grateful to the authors and illustrators for providing rich text and complex art that keeps us both rapt after multiple readings.
Before I get to the adult titles I read this year, I’ll start with a confession. When I read poet phenom Carrie Fountain’s young adult debut I’m Not Missing and novelist Marisha Pessl’s Neverworld Wake, I actually didn’t know either was YA. When I got to the end of both, I was like, Huh, I wonder if they had any conversations about billing this as YA? Seems like it could go either way—fans of Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles know what I’m talking about—with a teen protagonist going through some real adult shit. Which is to say, if you balk at the YA dubbing you’re missing out. I like to think of a YA designation as a kind of PG-13 designation; it doesn’t mean it’s only for teens, it just means that it’s not inappropriate for teens. As case in point, a transformative book I read earlier this year, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, is essential. Every high schooler in the country should be required to read it, and all adults retroactively should, too.
Now, onto the adult books. A book that made me emotional as hell: I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell. Maggie O’Farrell beautifully flays the moments in her own life that danced with true danger, and asks, What could happen? What did happen? Am I ok? Depending on if you’re a glass-half-full or a glass-half-empty person, my life has had a lot of unlucky brushes or I’m one of the luckiest people you’ve met. So this particular collection poked at a lot of my most sensitive thoughts. I’d recommend this book to everyone who loved Wild by Cheryl Strayed, as this, too, is a penned head nod at the real and invisible scars women carry.
I was lucky to travel a bit this year, and it’s important you know that I don’t believe in vacation reading as a separate genre. Whatever book I might choose to read at the beach, is a beach read. Some of my ““beach”” reading included some amazing LGBTQ titles like John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies, Chelsey Johnson’s Stray City, and, the exciting new king of the footnote (I can’t, in good conscious, celebrate David Foster Wallace anymore), Jordy Rosenberg with Confessions of the Fox. On one particular trip, my husband, our four closest friends, and I went on spring break. Without any of our children present, we relished in the unencumbered time to do whatever we wanted—floating in the ocean for hours, sleeping in, happy hours, or reading at a speed that didn’t suggest a child might cut short the reading time at any moment. The only book I ended up reading on this trip, slowly, engrossed by it the way it should be was There, There by Tommy Orange. This book is stunning and made me literally gasp at the end.
I’m an audiobook junkie. I drive a decent amount—commuting to and from work and daycare—so that makes up a significant part of my listening. But I’m not precious about how much time I have. I just get started, even if it’s only a 10-minute drive; it adds up, naysayers! When I’m hooked, I end up putting in headphones and listening while I cook, or while I do laundry. I’ll even uncharacteristically make up errands and chores to keep listening. Some particularly wonderful books that I enjoyed on audio this year are Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (one could argue audiobook is the preferred format for this book as the Scottish accents make all the difference), Rumaan Alam’s That Kind of Mother, Luis Alberto Urrea’s House of Broken Angels, My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh, Less by Andrew Sean Greer. Less is one of the more hyped books in the past few years (I guess a Pulitzer Prize under the belt does that?) but it’s well worth the praise, just stick with it! I’m the queen of ignoring hype for no good reason except for the sake of it. I’m working on it. Which is to say, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee took me a year to get to, a year that I could’ve been living with that book in my brain! I’m glad I rectified it. Circe, too, by Madeline Miller. The description didn’t grab me, and I can’t remember what ultimately made me read it, but that book literally has everything. For these lapses, my New Year’s Resolution is to consider widespread acclaim more carefully, so as not to delay reading some great books.
Perks of my job include being able to sweet talk my way into very early copies of some books. I was able to finagle Miriam Toews and Susan Choi’s forthcoming books, Women Talking and Trust Exercise. And Maryse Meijer’s Northwood (which is now available). All left me dizzy with their strength of voice and inventive forms, dying to find folks who had also had the early preview to hash them out with. JFC, these women can write. I was so deeply affected by all three that I have the chills just typing this out. Peter Geye’s latest novel, Northernmost, doesn’t come out till 2020, so, sorry, sorry, sorry to bring it up now but it’s sexy, thrilling, and Minnesotan—this Minnesotan never gets to say all those words in the same sentence so I’ll beg your pardon for that very early peek. I also recently finished Dani Shapiro’s latest memoir, out in January, Inheritance. Dani’s ability to write in the middle of a moment is unparalleled and this book is no exception; in it she has very recently learned her father is not her biological father. I’m actively wondering if Ancestry.com is going to start giving her a cut of the inevitable sales boost post publication.
Do you watch Midsomer Murders? My dad and I love to watch that show together. If you’re a fan, Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz seems like a good book to tell you to read. I struggle to explain the details because I hate to prep people for a plot twist, but this one is [chef’s kiss]. I hadn’t previously deliberately read many mysteries or thrillers, despite my penchant for them in movies and TV. So this year I dabbled, and I’ll give a shout out to Mira Grant whose book Into the Drowning Deep scared me so effectively and thoroughly I may never get into the ocean again.
Other books that made deep impressions on me this year: Karen Tei Yamishita’s Letters to Memory, Jamie Quatro’s Fire Sermon, Meaghan O’Connell’s And Now We Have Everything, Neal Thompson’s Kickflip Boys, Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know, and Kim Fu’s The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore (as a Fu megafan, I was thrilled and satiated to read her latest). In Curtis Sittenfeld’s You Think It, I’ll Say It, the title story is so realistic that I still feel sad for the protagonist and her deep misreading of an encounter.
While I’m wrapping up and wondering what book(s) I’m forgetting here, the book I spent the most time with this year and am better for is Ada Limón’s The Carrying. Ada’s work is a gift. I will fight anyone who says they don’t want to read it because they’re not a poetry person (and by “fight,” I mean direct you to your local indie or library to flip through the pages and convert you).
On deck? I’m chomping at the bit for early copies of Catherine Chung’s The Tenth Muse and Mira Jacob’s Good Talk, both out next year. I’m also reading all the titles of folks coming to Wordplay, May 11-12 in Minneapolis (we’ll be releasing the full line-up of authors on January 17). And, meanwhile, I’m considering becoming a person who buys lottery tickets so I can get a producer credit on Dan Sheenan’s Restless Souls, a book that is so gorgeously cinematic it boggles the mind that it has not yet been made into a movie.
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