Top Ten Books I’m Thankful For

This month has been a whirlwind of travel and work for me so I am looking forward to a quiet few days with my family, eating delicious food, and playing with my sister’s new puppies. As a small way to give thanks, I’m taking part in Broke and Bookish’s Top Ten Tuesday feature today–the theme this week is Top Ten Books I’m Thankful For.

  1. Home Cooking: This book made me realize what my mom has been trying to teach me for years, cooking good food simply is a great way to show people you love them.
  2. The Fountainhead: It’s a terribly written book with a bullshit political philosophy but reading this at 18 made me realize books can change the world.
  3. You Are Here: I got through some rough times with the help of this book. It taught me how to be nice to myself and to always remember that bad shit ends.
  4. Everyday Matters: Danny Gregory’s creative diary inspired me to keep a sketchbook and to develop a regular creative outlet for myself regardless of my day job.
  5. Love is the Killer App: When I worked in a ruthless environment this book reminded me that doing good business with integrity and love is possible.
  6. Do More Great Work: This workbook inspired me to work towards a job and a career that worked for me and let me get to that great work.
  7. Into the Wild: This story of Chris McCandless helped me remember how important the woods and wilderness were to me, and inspired me to find my way back to it.
  8. East of the Mountains: This book inspired me to move to the Pacific Northwest 18 years ago. I just happened to settle on the other side of those mountains.
  9. A Little Life: Yes, this book is one tragedy after another. But it is also about friendship and love, and the value in showing up.
  10. How to Talk to Practically Anybody About Practically Anything: It was outdated even when I first read it in 2009 but some advice lasts forever. This is especially wonderful for introverts like me.

What books are you thankful for?

Out of Fashion

I’ve never been one for fashion, not in any sense of the word. I don’t wear trendy clothes; I tend more toward jeans and plain shirts and Doc Martens. I like pop music, but today’s stuff makes me chafe—give me the boy bands and one-hit wonders of the ’80s and ’90s, please. And though I believe I can honestly call myself an avid reader, I don’t often jump on books as soon as they’re released. In fact, I usually have little idea what’s coming up and coming out. I just don’t follow those lists like I should—or like I feel like I should if I want to call myself well-read.

But really, what does well-read mean, anyway? Does it mean keeping up with the times, or at least with the New York Times best-seller lists? Does it mean reading only what’s considered “real” literature, as opposed to the poppy works of Stephen King and the sci-fi, fantasy, and YA novels I enjoy? Does it mean having a deep knowledge of the “classics”? Because I happen to have a seething, lifelong aversion to them, which means I’m not up on my Austen and Dickens, and The Catcher in the Rye gives me hives; I tried last year to read Jane Eyre but gave up before she even met Mr. Rochester because I was dying of boredom (though Thandie Newton’s narration of the audiobook is phenomenal).

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Same cover as the one I had to read in a high school English class.

There have been some classics I have read and enjoyed. Fahrenheit 451. The Great Gatsby. Frankenstein. To Kill a Mockingbird. Pretty much the entirety of the Shakespeare canon. But it’s a decidedly short list. Does this make me any less of a reader? Some would say so, and I’ll admit it does make me feel that way sometimes too. As a professional book editor, former ghostwriter, and current blogger about books, I feel like I should have that foundation; I should be well-read in the classics and have a working knowledge of their storylines, themes, and historical contexts so I can compare other works to them. Because the classics are the gold standard, right? The bar by which the worth of all other literature must be set?

Well, not so in my world. And to be honest, I think I get along fine without them. Because I have my own classics. Those titles I’ll go back to again and again and reread in part or in whole whenever I need some literary comfort food or inspiration. The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton. The Secret History by Donna Tartt. The Vampire Lestat by Anne Rice (yes, really—it was my bible when I was fifteen/sixteen). Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. Titles that bring me back to the times and places when and where I read them, that still speak to me in some way after so many years.

 

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My actual dog-eared, marked-up hardcover from when I was a teenager. I still have it!

 

And isn’t that what makes a classic book a classic anyway? Its ability to tell us something about ourselves whether we’re reading it at the time it’s published or a hundred years later? The old white folks who wrote the officially sanctioned classics don’t have a corner on that market, you know. There are—do I even need to say this?—plenty of other diverse voices out there whose words are just as meaningful, just as timeless and important.

To reflect this, I adhere to a different definition of the term well-read. Instead of meaning that you read all the correct things, the fashionable things as far as the literary institutions are concerned, I believe it simply means that you read a lot. Because I do, and I read a wide variety of titles because I believe, as is true in all aspects of life, variety is what matters. It’s what makes the world interesting. If we were all the same—if we all listened to the same music and watched the same movies and read the same books and wore the same clothes and ate the same food—how boring would that be? We need that diversity, that broad range of stories and authors, in order to experience the world in full. Even the dictionary backs me up on this one—Merriam-Webster defines well-read as “well-informed or deeply versed through reading.” That is exactly what I’m talking about.

Besides, I will forever be a thirteen-year-old girl trapped in a middle-aged woman’s body, and you can have my YA novels when you pry them from my cold, dead, glitter-painted fingernails.

PS—I would love to hear about other people’s personal classics. Leave a comment with your list!

Library Plug-in

Whoa. I just came across this amazing Chrome browser extension — once you install it, every book on Amazon or Goodreads (plus a long list of other book-related sites) comes up with the availability of that book at your local library, in all formats. I just installed it earlier today and have already put a half dozen new books on hold because of it. So convenient! Check it out here.

 

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On Just Being a Reader

I am drowning in good books these days.

I just got back from a long work trip, where I read Stephen and Owen King’s Sleeping Beauties. It wasn’t fantastic, but I love Stephen King and the way you just get sucked into his insane plots. This was perfect to read on the long plane rides and in the middle of the night as I struggled with jet lag. Then I got home to a backlog of holds at the library. I breezed through Daniel Handler’s All the Dirty Parts. Are teenage boys really that obsessed with sex? I realize that sounds like a stupid question–of course they are–but I was sort of freaked out by just how much the protagonist thought about sex. Like more than seemed possible.

From there I blew right through Fangirl, which was funny and sweet (and fast), and then I started Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps that Explain Everything About the World, which is really fascinating. It’s probably something I should have learned in school, but as you probably remember, I spent an awful lot of time at school doing shots and skipping class. Before I could get very far on that one, though, I cheated and started John Green’s newest, Turtles All the Way Down. That John Green, he’s amazing. I stayed home an extra half hour this morning just because I couldn’t tear myself away from it.

My TBR pile is promising, too. We’re reading Lincoln in the Bardo for book club, and I bought the new Philip Pullman, The Book of Dust. I have a memoir by Michel Faber called Undying that will probably make me weep, but I still can’t wait to read it.

It’s luxurious to have so much good stuff to read.

For a long time I was really worried that my career-change meant I wouldn’t get to enjoy this kind of heavenly excess. I worked in books for almost 20 years, in a ton of different roles, from bookseller to publisher. There were SO MANY good things about being in the books business. Tons of free books. TONS. I was surrounded by people who loved and lived books. I got to talk about my favorite subject at work all of the time. I always knew the latest scoop on new books, on authors, and on controversies. Authors were my rock stars, and I got to meet so many of the very best of them.

I worried for years over leaving that world, so afraid of losing all the benefits.

But in the end I was just burnt out. The pace was insane. Media coverage of the work I was a part of was relentlessly negative (and often wrong). And those periods of not being able to finish a book–those black holes where nothing at all is connecting with you?–I kept having more of them, and they seemed longer and more precipitous every time.

I finally left books in early 2013, at least five years after I’d begun to think it might be time. In hindsight, I wish I’d left earlier.

The change was good for me in a lot of ways, right away, but I also felt like I’d lost the right to have an opinion on anything books- or publishing-related. I was an outsider. It took me a few years to get myself settled into my new life and career and to settle my brain, and of course I’ve realized that I am still entitled to my opinions. And I’ve found that I actually love and enjoy reading MORE now than ever before.

So what’s different?

Reading isn’t work any more. Even with all of the great things that came with working in books, at the end of the day, opening up a book to read was, at some level, working. It was an excellent type of work, no doubt. But it was work. And in many ways what I chose to read felt like a political decision. Maybe the book was self-published, or published by someone we had difficult business dealings with. That meant something. Was the editing a little loose or the cover not quite right? I would think about the person I knew who was responsible for those mistakes and fret about whether I had something to do in order to fix it. Now I just peruse covers, read reviews, and decide whether a book is something that floats my boat at the moment. No politics, no work.

I decide which books are important. There’s no pressure to read all of the big new important books. There was never a set rule that I had to read a specific list of books, of course, but it was expected that you were current on everything that was important. One of the things that made me realize it was time to leave books was when I was at a dinner in New York with two publishing people, catching up on what we’d each been reading. I mentioned a memoir I’d picked up about a woman who spent a year in Japan. I really liked it. One of my dinner mates, a lovely woman, said, “Hmmm, I don’t know that book.” And the other one said “Don’t worry, it’s not an important book.” Ugh. So gross. That elitism was my least favorite thing about publishing. Anyway, now that I’m not in the books business I can go on benders and read nothing but YA or memoirs or books about hiking the Camino de Santiago for months on end. I don’t have to feel guilty about it. I can even go back and read–or reread–backlist titles, something I couldn’t imagine doing when books were my job.

My opinions are finally my own. There’s no need for me to be diplomatic or to champion titles purely for business reasons. I am proud to say I never lied about liking books that I sold or published, but there were certainly a lot of things I chose to remain silent about. I never even made negative comments about books published by other houses–who knew who might end up being inadvertently offended? No longer! I am free to say, for example, that I hated Alec Baldwin’s memoir, Nevertheless, with the burning intensity of the sun. What a narcissistic fucker that guy is.  Also, e-books are too freaking expensive! Publishers ripped off American readers but somehow won the PR war against Amazon on the subject. I still refuse to buy any e-book that’s more than $10. Instead, I go to the library. Speaking of which,

I’ve rediscovered the library. I’ve had a library card my entire life, but I didn’t really use it when I was working in books. Now my local library is an important part of my everyday life. I was there this morning and will probably be back again before the week is over. I love how busy it always is–full of kids and all kinds of adults and people learning English and old men sitting in the carrels in the back watching romcoms on their laptops (at least that’s what I hope they’re watching). It’s a little microcosm of our entire city. I feel good in there. And going there regularly makes me feel like I’m really part of my community.

I guess all of this is to say that I thought I was the luckiest person in the world because I got to work in books every day. It certainly was a wonderful experience. But there is an awful lot to be said for being a reader, just a reader.

NaNoWriMo? No, Thanks.

National Novel Writing Month—NaNoWriMo for short—is upon us. In case you don’t know what that is, it’s a contest of sorts in which writers are challenged to produce a 50,000 wcrest-05e1a637392425b4d5225780797e5a76ord book entirely in the month of November, from start to finish. As someone who used to ghostwrite books of that length for a living, I can tell you this is no small feat. It used to take me months to get that much done (though most likely, NaNoWriMo participants will not have stubborn clients to contend with while writing, as I did; that slows down the process considerably). 

So it sounds like fun, right? And what a sense of accomplishment these writers must have at the end of the month, when they have an entire novel completed. Granted, it’s only a first draft, and hopefully—speaking now as a practicing book editor—there will be many rounds of edits before it’s suitable for publication. Still, I can only imagine the thrill of knowing the biggest hurdle, the writing, is in the past, that you’ve finally gotten all those words inside your head out and into some sort of logical order, that you’ve created something pleasing that others might want to read. 

Still, I will not be participating. Why? Because I have a life. Too much life, to be exact, to have time for it. I don’t mean this in the insulting or condescending way it sounds, as if those who do NaNoWriMo have no life and are therefore free to pursue their writing dreams. Because really, who’s got the short stick here? I have two jobs and a six-year-old son to spend time with when I’m not working, and between those two things, that’s pretty much all of my time. Sometimes I’m able to sneak in an hour and a half of writing once a week while waiting for my kid to get out of a class he takes on Saturday mornings (as I’m doing right now), but even that is often trumped by other more necessary errands. To tell the truth, I envy those who can participate in NaNoWriMo, not just because they have the time (or make the time; I’m sure there are some participants who are just as busy as I am who still manage to fit it in) but because they have the inspiration. Because they haven’t lost whatever it is that drives them to write. 

Creativity is like a muscle, I believe, and if you don’t regularly flex and stretch it, it can atrophy. I’ve seen it happen in myself, during periods—like now—when I don’t have as much expendable time and energy to put toward creative pursuits. This doesn’t have to be writing; it can be drawing, painting, knitting, sewing, cooking, gardening, redecorating your home—anything that makes you use your imagination and produces some sort of artifact that can be enjoyed by yourself and/or others. If you are regularly able to be creative, then good for you—I envy you too. I hope you flex that muscle as often and as strongly as you are capable of. And I hope that you don’t take that ability for granted, as I did back during the days when I was prolific. Back in my twenties, say, when I had almost zero responsibilities and much fewer worries clogging up my head. 

Whenever I think about myself as a writer, my mind always goes to that time in my life, to an apartment I had in Jersey City, New Jersey, a third-floor attic that had an extra room I set up as a writing space. I had a desk that wrapped around two walls, a cork MV5BMzc1YmU2ZjEtYWIwMC00ZjM3LWI0NTctMDVlNGQ3YmYwMzE5XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTQxNzMzNDI@._V1_SY999_CR0,0,704,999_AL_board with photos and postcards for inspiration, passages from books I liked typed out and taped up on the walls behind my desk, and a giant subway-advertisement-size poster from the movie Fight Club. I spent so much time huddled in there, smoking American Spirits and listening to my three favorite CDs at the time, Depeche Mode’s Ultra, Duran Duran’s Medazzaland, and David Bowie’s Earthling, on heavy rotation while I wrote and wrote and wrote, never finishing anything more than a flash fiction piece here and there but just enjoying the process, just loving the feeling of translating the images in my brain into words on the screen of my Mac laptop. I would agonize over every syllable until they were all perfect, until they all gave me that hum I felt inside my mind when I knew I was writing something good. Something with meaning; something with heart. Something that spoke to the themes I was always trying to relate in my writing: love and trust, loyalty and betrayal, and getting down to the deeply buried heart of what it means to be human in this world, to the moment where all is laid bare and the truth, in all its beauty and all its difficulty, is confronted and revealed. Though isn’t that, after all, what we are all writing about? Isn’t that what any good writing is able to achieve? 

I still write about these themes today, I think, when I do get the chance to write, albeit in different ways. Instead of fictional characters, I write about myself, about the life I’ve had and the moments that have defined me—the love I have felt, the trust I have lost, the betrayals that have pushed me to become the person I am today, for better and for worse. The older I get, the realer my writing becomes to the point that I rarely work on anything that could be classified as fiction anymore. And it’s harder to find that hum, to look at the words I type and feel like they are magic, to feel the sparks fly from my fingertips as they meet the keyboard. Instead it feels like work, like something I have to work at rather than something that just comes to me. 

I tell myself it’s all a first draft, that if I don’t get it perfect, it’s okay, I can always go back and edit. The important thing is to get it out. Writing as therapy, I guess you would call it. That’s what I have time for these days. And in a lot of ways, that’s good. It’s what works for me at this point in my life. But I’d be lying if I said I don’t sometimes sorely miss those days in my Jersey City garret. If I could somehow harness that creative energy again and pair it with my older and questionably wiser work ethic—minus the time constraints–who knows what kind of NaNoWriMo masterpiece I might be able to complete?