“To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life.” ―W. Somerset Maugham
Last December, I realized I had inadvertently spent the previous two years letting my book reading habit slip, the (I think) good habit I’ve steadfastly held since, well, I guess elementary school. I’ve read too many articles and blog posts on the internet to count, but I noticed I hadn’t been reading many physical books, and that I missed it. Even Bill Gates, he of the former paperless manifesto, agrees: nothing can replace the experience and sensation of holding a physical book in your hands. I needed that back in my life. So I made a concerted effort to bury my head in my books again in 2019. I read for about fifteen minutes over morning coffee every day, I try to get in at least a few minutes of reading in before dinner or bed, and though it varies weekend to weekend, I dedicate as much reading time as possible on Saturdays and Sundays. I think it’s working! I’ve finished sixteen books since January 1st. Okay, fine, two of them were less than one-hundred-fifty pages, but still! Not only has it been an unadulterated pleasure to rediscover this long-held pastime of mine, I’m finding it serving as a small, happy anchor in the structure of my busy, occasionally frustrating, twenty-first century days. So in that vein, I’m dedicating a post to the joy of finding books again, to offer advice and inspiration if you too have somehow lost your reading mojo and would like it back, and sharing some of my all-time favorite books.
My best advice, first off, is to be very intentional about it. The morning coffee routine works well for me. Morning reading might not work as well for you, but find a space of fifteen minutes every day you can consistently dedicate and then do it. Secondly, read books you want to read. Don’t get hung up on bestsellers or trends, and don’t question yourself for liking and disliking the various genres you like and dislike. My third piece of advice is perhaps counterintuitive, but don’t force yourself to finish a book you aren’t enjoying. It’s (usually) not productive, and you’ll start resenting what is supposed to be gratifying and restorative. So just toss that book aside, don’t worry about it, and pick up another one.
And here are some of my favorites!
Memoirs. I love a good memoir. What can I say, I’m a sucker for those human interest stories. I most enjoy the self-examining, sincere kind, the ones critics call “gripping” or “unflinching” or “provocative” – basically, the memoirs that dig deep and take the exercise seriously. That being said, I firmly believe there lies a place in this world for the scandalous, slightly trashy, celebrity tell-alls that NAME NAMES, usually a Mexican beach accompanied by a kitschy, umbrella-bedecked beverage. The best of *those* memoirs I’ve read are High on Arrival by Mackenzie Phillips (Oh. SHIT.) and Storms by Carol Ann Harris (Ms. Harris dated/lived with Lindsey Buckingham AFTER he broke up with Stevie Nicks but still DURING Fleetwood Mac’s heyday, and I assume that’s a sufficiently tempting synopsis and it’s now in your Amazon cart, yes?). My all-time favorite memoir, though, is Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon. It’s introspective, raw, and takes you on a fascinating but beautiful journey through 1980’s/90’s New York City, immersing you in the punk band/burgeoning alternative rock music scene. Other memoir recommendations: Sex Object by Jessica Valenti; Love, Loss, and What We Ate by Padma Lakshmi; and Bossypants by Tina Fey.
Fiction. I don’t read much of it anymore, but novels were the vast bulk of my non-academic literary consumption during my youth. My teenage years were filled with Stephen King, John Grisham, Mary Higgins Clark, Dean Koontz, and Michael Crichton. I first read Jurassic Park in early high school, and I think I’ve read it roughly once a year since then. I’ve always enthusiastically claimed it as my favorite work of fiction. It’s riveting, it’s subversive, it’s a little preachy; it just never gets old! But… earlier this year I devoured The Power by Naomi Alderman, and Jurassic Park has gotten some stiff competition for top billing. That book was amazing. It was enthralling. It was cathartic. It was delicious. I can’t wait to reread it. Other novels I loved include The Martian by Andy Weir and The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.
Essays. I adore a good book of essays. It’s like finishing a mini book each time you complete a chapter, replete with a jolt of dopamine and a sense of smug satisfaction. It is with a somewhat heavy heart that I tell you my favorite book of essays is Medium Raw by Anthony Bourdain. What a terrific, delightful read. Honorable mentions go to The View From Flyover Country by Sarah Kendzior, and both of Heather Havrilesky’s essay compilations: How To Be A Person In The World and What If This Were Enough? (I’m just a fan of hers in general).
Beyond memoirs, fiction, and essays, much of what I gravitate towards is various nonfiction: biographies, history, behavioral economics, and I devour books by investigative journalists. The book that has probably had the most significant impact on my day-to-day life is Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss. Moss is an investigative journalist who laid bare the dirty secrets of giant processed food companies. This page-turner details firstly the deleterious health effects of too much salt, or sugar, or fat; and secondly how processed food companies intentionally, with carefully studied scientific precision and zero regard for the public health, stock their convenient products with absurd amounts of all three specifically to keep us buying them. I literally changed my eating habits after reading this book. To say it’s eye-opening is the understatement of the century.
Speaking of the century, I thought long and hard about this question: if you were to only read one book in the twenty-first century, which is the most important book to read? My answer is Dark Money by Jane Mayer. If you want to know why American democracy now hangs in the balance, if you want to understand just what in the hell happened to the Republican Party since the 1980’s, then you must read this book. Mayer toiled for countless hours tracing and documenting the labyrinthine, intentionally confusing money trail of how the Koch brothers and their billionaire ilk invaded and nefariously captured our political system to subvert the public will for their own greedy aims and ideology, and how they did so mostly legally. Think tanks, non-profits, “academic centers” at public universities and law schools, and much more. Mayer is the reason Koch is now a household name.
In an exception to my rule of Don’t Finish A Book You’re Not Enjoying, I think the most challenging book I’ve ever read – and which I considered not finishing – was Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry. Bugliosi was the California prosecutor who put Charles Manson away for good, who tried him and members of his Family for the killing spree that most famously included Sharon Tate. His book details the entire process: the formulation of the Manson Family, the heinous crimes, the police investigation, the trial, and the sentencing. It’s gut-wrenching, gruesome, and very difficult to read. (I don’t recommend starting it on vacation in otherwise idyllic Key West, as you will single-handedly make Key West about sixty-five percent less idyllic if you do.) This was a tough read I forced myself to finish. Why? Basically because I felt like finishing the book was the least I could do. We owe the late Bugliosi and his team an immense debt for their public service. In hindsight, the case against Manson always seems obvious, a black-and-white open-and-shut criminal investigation. But that notion is far from the truth. Bugliosi worked hundreds of hours of overtime for which he was never paid, he missed a Christmas with his kids, and the case almost cost him his marriage. It was a tricky, difficult case to establish beyond reasonable doubt, and Bugliosi endured great sacrifice to do so successfully. We were all safer thanks to him, and I felt like finishing the damn book was a small way to express gratitude.
I like to think of reading and writing as a form of art, even if that art is sometimes dry and academic. Some art is meant to uplift and comfort us, some art is a luxurious indulgence or even an outright escape. Other art is meant to challenge us, to inform and educate and broaden, and some to specifically make us uncomfortable and rethink our assumptions. I try to balance my reading habits between pleasant indulgence, learning new information, and deliberately challenging myself. But even when what you read is deeply uncomfortable, I find there is beauty and pleasure in reading for its own sake. It’s a time, however brief, when we can get lost in someone else’s world. It forces us to slow down and absorb something, if just for a minute. Drop me a comment! I’d love to know your favorite books and the ones that impacted you the most.
Peel and Eat Shrimp with Rosemary-Worcestershire Butter
- 1 lb. large shrimp, peel on but deveined if desired
- 2 sticks unsalted butter
- Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
- 1 tbs Worcestershire sauce
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 3-inch rosemary sprig
- ½ tsp black pepper
- ¼ tsp cayenne
- Baguette chunks, for dipping
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil, then add shrimp and cook until bright pink and firm. This could take anywhere from 1 to 7 minutes depending on the size of your shrimp. Don’t walk away! When the shrimp are done, remove with a spider or large slotted spoon and transfer to a bowl or plate for serving.
- While the water is coming up to a boil, place a small saucepan over low heat. Add the butter, lemon zest and juice, Worcestershire, garlic, rosemary, black pepper, and cayenne. Heat just long enough to melt the butter and marry the flavors, a couple minutes. Remove from the heat and transfer the butter to individual ramekins. Remove the rosemary sprig.
- To serve, peel the shrimp and dunk liberally in the butter. Serve the chunks of baguette on the side, also for dunking liberally into the butter.