I’ve had a complicated relationship with reading for the past year. Complicated is a word I’ve never used to describe reading before; I’ve loved to read since I first learned how, and there have only been a handful of days in my life when I haven’t read for at least a few minutes for pleasure. But in this year, my second year as a published author, first year as a full-time writer, when my third and fourth books came out, when I wrote my fourth and (most of my) fifth books, when I have either worked on a book or traveled for work almost every single calendar day of the year, it became hard to determine what reading was “for pleasure” and what reading was work. Fiction has always been my true love, but the more galleys I get sent, the more I get asked for blurbs, the more I get asked to recommend books in a professional context, the harder it is to read fiction for relaxation. I’m not complaining about any of this—every time I get home to one of those padded envelopes, I still rejoice like the book loving kid I’ve always been. I’m honored to blurb other authors and support them in the way so many have supported me. But I’ve had to figure out techniques for myself so I can read and write and keep joy in my heart for both.
For years now, my standard reading time has been at night, after I’ve finished all of my own work for the day, in the bathtub. That’s when I relax and unwind from the day, and signal to my brain that work time is over. But now that writing fiction is my job, it felt like work time was continuing, just in another space, so I’ve had to switch the kinds of books I read in the bathtub (almost) every night. I realized early this year that mystery novels were just what I needed. They’re different enough from what I write that reading them doesn’t interfere with my own writing, but they still fully immerse me in another life, which is what I ask for in my fiction. Also, in a year when the national news is full of people being evil and cruel on a daily basis and never enduring any consequences, it’s wonderful to read books where people do something bad and then are caught and punished for it. I read almost all 30 of the Patricia Wentworth Miss Silver books, which feel like wrapping yourself in a blanket knitted by someone who loves you. I also read plenty of Agatha Christie, and reread a bunch of Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax books, all of which are cozy and relaxing and satisfying all in this way.
I also read more nonfiction this year than I have in years. I’ve realized that there’s a point in the life of each book manuscript where I stop being able to read any fiction, and nonfiction has sustained me. During one of those periods as I was working on my fourth book, Royal Holiday, I read Esmé Weijun-Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias, which was extraordinary—thoughtful, fascinating, heartbreaking, and also wryly funny. Partly for research, and partly for fun, I read Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret, which anyone who enjoys The Crown should read immediately—you come out of it disliking Margaret (and indeed, the whole royal family), but it’s still very entertaining. I had a ton of fun with Robert K. Massie’s Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman—I was a history major in college and still love big, fat, deeply researched historical biographies, and this is a well written and juicy one; it kept me captivated on one of my many long plane flights this year. And I reread Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, Story Genius and Wired for Story by Lisa Cron, and Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, the latter of which I read for the first time last year, and have a feeling I’ll likely reread every year and get something more out of every time.
The most profound reading experience I had this year was with Sarah M. Broom’s The Yellow House. I started The Yellow House, Broom’s memoir about her family and about New Orleans, a few days after my grandmother, who was born in New Orleans, went into the hospital. I watched an interview with Broom on PBS with my grandmother in her hospital room. And I finished The Yellow House a few days after my grandmother died. Reading that book was like reading a history of my family, all of the people felt so familiar; this, even though my own family has had a very different history. In retrospect, it wasn’t a great idea to read the Hurricane Katrina section of this book the day after my grandmother died, because, oh wow, did I cry a whole lot—but it was also cathartic in many ways. This book is a triumph, and I’m so grateful it’s gotten the accolades it deserves.
The times this year I have been able to dive into my beloved fiction have not coincidentally been when I’ve gone on vacation. In April, after I turned in Royal Holiday, I went to Hawaii for a week, and brought a whole pile of galleys and published books with me and loved so many of them. The Bride Test by Helen Hoang, The Unhoneymooners by Christina Lauren, Pride, Prejudice and Other Flavors by Sonali Dev, Love Lettering by Kate Clayborn, Beach Read by Emily Henry, Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid, Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jallaludin, Playing House by Ruby Lang—it was my best reading week all year. (Note to self: go to Hawaii more often).
Six months later, I stole a weekend away for my birthday and went to Mexico; there I read The Right Swipe by Alisha Rai, Dear Haiti, Love Alaine by Maika and Maritza Moulite, and Faker by Sarah Smith. In other stolen weekends, or on some long plane flights where I gave myself a break from either trying to write or trying to do any other work, I read and loved The Key to Happily Ever After by Tif Marcelo, There’s Something about Sweetie by Sandhya Menon, Not the Girl You Marry by Andie J. Christopher, Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams, The Bewildered Bride by Vanessa Riley, Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore, Return to Me by Farrah Rochon, All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg, and Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson. Work and pleasure were all mixed up for almost all of these books—I blurbed quite a few of them, some I wrote about or talked about on TV later on, others I read to prepare for events with their authors. But it was good to learn that there are ways that I can still fall head over heels with a work of fiction, even though reading it is now (part of) my job.
I hope in 2020 I
manage to take more weekends off, get to read a whole lot more, and take more
trips to Hawaii with big stacks of books in my suitcase.
At the time of writing this, I’ve read 83 books this year. Of those 83 books, 60 were audiobooks, 12 were e-books, and 14 were physical books. I read 45 works of fiction, 27 works of non-fiction and/or memoirs, seven YA books, and five graphic novels. Twenty-three and a half books I read this year involved a love affair ruining someone’s life. (The .5 comes from Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, in which the main character thankfully comes to her senses at the very end.)
I know all of these stats because I keep a
detailed spreadsheet of my reading habits. At first, I only recorded titles and
authors. Then I branched out to include genre and book format. In 2017 I
noticed I was reading a fair amount of books in which people were having
illicit affairs and ruining their lives, so I added a column for this arbitrary
category. I enjoy this nerdy, slightly narcissistic hobby because each time I
add a book to the spreadsheet, I take a moment to think about the stories that
have kept me company over the past year.
A partial screencap of the Spreadsheet
The Spreadsheet, however, doesn’t tell the whole story of my year in reading. Last winter I moved to Paris, France, from New York City, and along with the shift in culture, a major shift in my reading habits occurred as well. I used to work for the Brooklyn Public Library, a job that meant I took home stacks upon stacks of physical books every week. Now, I am a full-time freelancer. As an illustrator, I find myself obsessively listening to audiobooks while I ink and sketch. I’ve passed days engrossed while listening to books like Know My Name by Chanel Miller, A Gesture Life by Chang-rae Lee, Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot, Gina Apostol’s Insurrecto, and Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams.
On weekday mornings, I am also (if I do say so myself) a sought-after dogwalker in the 6th arrondissement. Like illustrating, dog-walking is another ideal activity for audiobooks. I remember a particular memorable walk with Lola, the half-schnauzer, half-water dog, as we walked from the Tuileries to Gare de Lyon, listening to Lauren Wilkinson’s American Spy.
I’ve listened to so many audiobooks this year that certain streets and train lines bring to mind a specific book. I cried on the RER A while listening to Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. The 95 bus makes me think of all the what-the-fuckery in Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country. Walking up to Montmartre past Opera reminds me of the piercing stories in Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s Sabrina & Corina.
Next year I’ll probably add a column to keep track of the books I’ve been reading in French. This list is nonexistent so far, as I read French at a glacial pace. The three books I’m currently slogging through are Albert Camus’s The Stranger, Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and the first installment of the Hunger Games series.
My move to France also meant that I had to find a home for the sprawling library I had amassed over a decade in New York. I donated more than one thousand books, gave away hundreds, and stored a few dozen at my parents’ house in Houston. I moved to Paris with what I decided were my 10 favorite books (a stack that included Colette, Maxine Hong Kingston, Ann M. Martin, and Victor Hugo, among others.) But living in an apartment without books depresses me, and I’ve been trying to re-build my library here, despite the size constraints of a 30 square meter apartment.
I found myself regularly attending a bi-monthly book swap, where a group of women meet in a cafe to exchange books and talk about them. That was how I ended up acquiring and loving Nina Lacour’s We Are Okay and Zinzi Clemmons’s What We Lose. On occasional trips to the States, I’d come back with a suitcase full of books that included Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, Randy Ribay’s Patron Saints of Nothing, Mira Jacob’s Good Talk, Malaka Gharib’s I Was Their American Dream, and Bryan Washington’s Lot. These books, along with my “Original Ten,” formed the base of what I hope will someday become my sprawling library in France.
Despite no longer working at the Library, I borrow more books than ever before thanks to my Overdrive app and the online collections of the Brooklyn and Houston Public Libraries. I’ve always kept my e-reader on my bedside. In the hazy minutes before falling asleep, I read Juliet Escoria’s Juliet the Maniac, Rachel Khong’s Goodbye, Vitamin, Angie Cruz’s Dominicana, and Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Thick.
All of these books are dutifully recorded in the Spreadsheet, but I know the act of reading these books will most likely fade over time. I may always be able to recount the story of The Remains of the Day, but will I eventually forget that I read the novel on the hottest day in Paris history, when it got so scorching in my un-air-conditioned apartment that I had to check into a cheap hotel?
I’ll leave that question up to my own memory,
but there is one book in my 2019 spreadsheet that brings with it a reading
experience I never want to forget.
I took a quick trip to Amsterdam in September, my first time in the city. Rain drizzled, and my fingers were frozen. Earlier that day I had purchased a paperback copy of Anita Brookner’s Incidents on Rue Laugier in a used bookshop. To escape the cold, I went inside the American Book Center, a large, cozy bookstore in the middle of town. I found an armchair in the corner and proceeded to read the Anita Brookner from cover to cover in one sitting. When I finally looked up from the book, I was slightly disoriented, not completely remembering where I was. For the rest of the day, I thought about this all-encompassing experience, relieved that such a thing could still happen to me after decades of reading. That was the 61st book I read that year.
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