Books make connections

I want to give you a small example of how books give us the ability to connect with each other.

The essays in They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us have stayed with me. I know I've already shared that recommendation with you, but truly, I can't stop thinking about the way Hanif Abdurraqib wove personal stories and cultural criticism around music. You know how you can hear a song and be transported to a specific time and place? Abdurraqib's essays do that even when I don't know the song. Reading his book is like time traveling through his memories. In my booklogged state, I've been going and listening to these songs — to Migos and Fall Out Boy and old school rap — and an unexpected and delightful thing has happened: My son thinks I'm cool.

OK. Maybe that's reaching a little. But for the first time in a long time, my oldest son and I found ourselves listening to the same music by choice — not just tolerating or passively listening to be kind to the other person, but really listening because we want to, because we like it, because we think the music has something to say. And thanks to Abdurraqib's essays and the rabbit hole of reading I fell into to find out more about the artists and music, I could give my kid context and background he wasn't finding on Apple Music. I provided value to my preteen, which I figure can't hurt our relationship as we head into the teen years. 

After reading White Houses, Amy Bloom's fictionalized account of Lorena Hickok's relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt, I picked up a nonfiction book called What She Ate solely because it included a section on Eleanor Roosevelt and reveled when The Millions put out a piece on Hickok's oral histories of the Great Depression. After picking up The House of Impossible Beauties, I paused my reading to research the House of Xtravaganza. (Without it, Madonna never would have shown us how to vogue.) After hearing Pachinko author Min Jin Lee sing the praises of 18th century literature the other night at the Mercantile, I find myself wanting to reread George Eliot. (Her favorite book is Middlemarch.) I often find myself chasing new ideas or interests thanks to books and authors, and I've never regretted the time spent. But this particular chase, the one that led to a shared experience with my son, was exceptionally satisfying.

Where are books taking you? What connections are they making?

Books spark protest

After the last horrific school shooting, as the teenagers in Parkland began to organize and advocate for gun control, I came across this tweet: 

I’m not sure why people are so surprised that the students are rising up—we’ve been feeding them a steady diet of dystopian literature showing teens leading the charge for years. We have told teen girls they are empowered. What, you thought it was fiction? It was preparation.

— Jennifer Ansbach (@JenAnsbach) February 19, 2018

Of course, these teens are motivated by their own terrifying and tragic experience, not too many readings of The Hunger Games. But the point here — that books have power, that they can inspire and galvanize — is valid. In my own town right now, I've organized a community-themed book club to inspire and encourage our efforts to revitalize our city and build connections among neighbors.

But books also reflect life back to us, and I'd say one of the reasons so many modern dystopian novels have teen protagonists is because young people — teens and young adults — have historically led the charge on social change. Look at the Civil Rights movement: one of the leading groups was the SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Many of the Freedom Riders were young adults, still in their teens or just barely out of them. Rep. John Lewis was just 19 when he was making "good trouble" with the Freedom Riders. If you haven't read Lewis's three-volume, award-winning graphic novel of the Civil Rights movement, March, you should, and here is a strong list of other books about the Civil Rights movement. Another book, Shadows of Youth, shows how teenagers who launched sit-ins became SNCC activists and Civil Rights veterans.

Young feminists have played vital roles in advocating for women's and workers rights as well, as evidenced on this list of books and this one, too. From the young women writers who led the Good Girls Revolt at Newsweek to 17-year-old Clara Lemlich, a Ukrainian immigrant who spoke out about unfair working conditions in shirtwaist factories, young women challenged the status quo. More recently, young people have been important to the Black Lives Matter movement, a fact recorded in Wesley Lowery's book, They Can't Kill Us All, and reflected in the young adult novel, The Hate U Give. (Both are worth a read, by the way.)

All of this is to say: while we live through an interesting time that surely will be mentioned in history books, it's probably worth reading some history to remember that young people can be powerful agents for change. Even the Founding Fathers might be younger than you think — Alexander Hamilton,now famously, was barely into his 20s when he served as Washington's aide. 

Go hear an author

Here's a way to make your reading life more interesting: Go see an author speak. 

Seeing an author speak, or read from their work, gives you insight — about the story they're telling, the stories they want (or wanted) to tell, the perspective they're coming from, and how the way they work shapes their books. I am not an author, but I am a reporter, and I can tell you, details always get left out when you build a story, and those are the things that you can discover at an author event. I often like or appreciate books more for having heard from an author. Sometimes, I still don't like their book, but I'm willing to give their next one a try. 

At events, I learned Lauren Groff, who lives in Florida, writes in her un-air-conditioned garage. I've always said the Sunshine State, where I lived for a decade, is a strange, beautiful and sinister place; Groff's feelings seem to mirror my own. Because I was in the audience when she read from Fates & Furies, I knew she was working on stories about Florida long before the collection was announced publicly. I asked her, at an event, what she was reading and discovered Elena Ferrantes' Neapolitan series.

When Zadie Smith told me and another couple hundred people last fall that she tends not to leave a page of text until she deems it perfect, the feelings of reserve and restraint I always get from her books made total sense. Hearing Michael Chabon read from Moonglow gave me the timing and tone of that book. Without it, I might not have had the patience for the book, a meandering oral history of sorts, and would missed the lovely, romantic pay-off. After Tracy Chevalier shared her travels down various historic rabbit holes, I remembered how much I like historic fiction and sped through several of her novels. Nathan Hill's witty, self-deprecating talk at The Mercantile made me wish I liked The Nix more and hopeful for his next book.

A Make America Read reader asked how I find all these events. It's simple: Check your local library and independent bookstore. 

And that's another reason to see an author. You're supporting institutions that Make America Read. I discovered the wonder of hearing an author tell her story at BookMania!, a small book festival in Stuart, Fla., and then the Miami Book Festival. In Cincinnati, I've found many more venues, and 2018 is going to be a helluva literary year. The public library is bringing in Neil Gaiman (I wasn't quick enough to get tickets, alas!), and The Mercantile has a stellar line-up, including Jennifer Egan, Colson Whitehead, and Margaret Atwood in conversation with Curtis Sittenfeld.   Joseph-Beth is bringing in dozens of authors, too, including Nikki Giovanni and Deborah Harkness.

These reading events often are free and almost always cheaper than a concert ticket. I paid $5 to see Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson — I thought for sure someone was playing a joke! — and it was one of my favorite evenings ever, full of all the hope and insight I find in her books.

I hope you get to see an author this year. If you do, and it's an event with questions, raise your hand and ask what the author is reading. In my experience, the recommendations are never bad.

Reading with strangers

One way to expand your reading this year: Join a reading club.

I'm not talking about that book club with your best friends where everyone sips drinks and chitchats about spouses, jobs and children. Those are fun and you should definitely do those, too, because I always will support centering your social life on books. But I'm talking about finding people who will not only read the selected book, but also want to talk — maybe even argue — about it. Join a collection of readers. 

The Mercantile Library made me understand how powerful a reading community can be. The Mercantile is a private library, founded in 1835, and Executive Director John Faherty likes to say its members are the people in your book club who actually read the book. It offers a variety of discussion groups, some specific, some not. There's the Walnut Street Poetry Society and The Canon Club, which has read all of Shakespeare. And on the first Wednesday of each month, a rotating collection of members lead conversations about a variety of books. The first time I went, I was a bit intimidated; I knew no one. But the discussion was interesting, and so I came back for another and another. A year later, I still don't know everyone at every First Wednesday because people jump in and out as their schedules and reading lives change. The variety of people and books and the focus on the single thing we have in common — we all love reading — is why I like it. 

So, how do you find reading clubs? Get to your local library and/or independent bookstore. Most public libraries have one or more book clubs. Find out the next selection and jump in. Check the nearest independent bookstore, too. Mine has book club selections on a dedicated shelf, but if you can't find that easily, ask a bookseller. 

Walking into a roomful of strangers to share your opinion about a book is a pretty big task. But really, all you have to do at first is walk in. Just walk in and listen. You'll find sharing your thoughts gets easier as you know the group dynamic better — or when they hit on the part of a book you really loved or hated. In the meantime, whether you're sitting there silently or even missing a meeting entirely, you're still reading new books. 

If you can't find a reading club, create one. 

If you follow me on social media, you might have seen that this week a dozen of my neighbors — some I knew, some I didn't — met me at our local coffee shop to talk about books. Following a summer of successful community clean-ups and events, a few friends and I wanted to find a way to keep our civic-minded momentum going over the winter. I, believing reading helps with all tasks, suggested a community-themed book club, and was pleasantly surprised when people agreed. We didn't all love our first book, This Is Where You Belong, but we had a lively discussion about why porches are the best and how frustrating it is when authors cherry-pick statistics. 

In addition to my community-themed readers group, I'm running a group discussion this spring at the Mercantile. The New American Lit group will discuss four modern books — Sing, Unburied, SingLilaRedeployment, and Crazy Rich Asians — in conjunction with the classics that inspired them. We'll read a short story from Faulkner with Ward's latest, for instance. I'll also lead a First Wednesday discussion on Little Fires Everywhereand participate in more. 

See if your library will help you start a book club. Mine has a special book club card that lets you check out collections. Building a book club around a theme can help keep the group on task and also bring in people beyond your usual social circle. Advertise on the library or bookstore bulletin board. Put up a Facebook event. Ask a friend, and then have the friend bring a friend. Be willing to read with strangers.

How to set reading goals and challenges

My aim with Make America Read is to encourage people to read more and more widely, and that's a reading resolution I take on myself every year. I read a great deal — but spend more time than I'd like thumbing through my phone. (Seriously. I downloaded a screen-time tracking app this month and whoa! My estimate of time on my phone was off by nearly two hours.) And because reading is comfort for me, I default to familiar, easy reading. (Ask me how many times I've reread L.M. Montgomery's novels.) Reading expands your perspective, builds compassion and critical thinking, and encourages civil discourse around hard questions — if you let it, if you read beyond your default. 

But I don't do well with vague resolutions. I need specifics. If you do, too, here's some help for getting more out of your reading life in 2018. 

First, set a reading goal. Consider how much you read this year and pick a number that's reachable. It's not a competition. It's accountability. If you don't know how much you read, a couple stats that might help: The average American reads 12 books a year. The median is four. My 2018 goal is 100 books, which is my annual average. 

Nowset up plans to reach that goal. I've shared before how I read about 100 books a year. (Key #1: Always carry a book with you. Key #2: Start and end your day with a book, not your phone. Also: Keep a list.) These tips shared recently on Book Riot echo my advice and offer a few other good suggestions. My 2018 plan includes daily screen-free time, set up with the help of that app, Moment, and daily screen limits. Maybe yours includes a weekly library trip, or finally using GoodReads consistently. Aim for three things to make it easier to have books at the ready and time in your day to enjoy them. 

Reading more is a good start to reading more widely. Once you're working with more quantity, you've more room to mix up content. Which brings me to my favorite tip from that Book Riot article — genre hop! — and the next step to achieving our goal of reading more widely: Set reading challenges. 

My rule of thumb: Reading challenges shouldn't eat up more than 25 to 50 percent of your annual reading goal. You want room for serendipitous library finds and recommendations from friends. I really like the Read Harder Challenge because it offers a wide variety, asking you to read everything from an Oprah Book Club selection to an assigned classic you never finished, and is a manageable size — for me. Twenty-four books might overwhelm your list, but that's OK. Just pick some of the tasks. Or find a list that suits youOr, better yet, create your own reading challenge with the help of this list. 

Some challenges to consider: 

  • Set aside 10 percent of your reading goal for books recommended by others. 
  • Pick an issue and read two books about it: one by someone whose views are similar to yours, one by someone whose views are not the same. 
  • Read a nonfiction book chain. Read a book about a subject that interests you, then use the references/bibliography to find a second book. Let the second lead you to a third.  
  • Have kids? Read one book together each quarter. 
  • Read a book set in every place you'll travel to this year. 
  • Think of five states or cities you've never visited. Read a book set in each of those states. 

I'll be taking on the Read Harder Challenge again this year, and would love to hear what challenges you tackle.

Best Books of 2017

Narrowing my favorite books of the year to a manageable list is, thankfully, a struggle. This is why I always default to a top 10, not a top 5 or, heaven forbid, a top 3. And like choosing favorites among your children, ranking the best books of the year is impossible. I'm able to determine my very favorite, most years, by determining which book I recommend to anyone and everyone, but beyond that, my top 10 is all equal. I like them all for different reasons!  

Before I get to my list, a few stats. 

I read 125 books. This is an above average year for me, I think because of this newsletter. (My yearly average over the last decade is 100 books.) Of those books: 

  • 70 percent were written by women. 
  • 29 percent were written by authors of color. 
  • 22 percent were nonfiction. 
  • 5 percent were graphic novels/series. 
  • 14 percent were children's or YA novels. 

Some notes on that breakdown: I don't try to read books by women, but year over year find that my list is heavily weighted toward female authors. I do seek out books by authors of color, and I was surprised to find they represent slightly less than a third of my list. Graphic novels are new to me; my boys love them and I'm starting to understand why. Finally, my list gets a little fuzzy around kids' books. I often forget to track the books I read aloud with the boys. 

The Animators, Kayla Rae Whitaker
When I finished this book, I sighed contentedly and stared at the cover for a few minutes. Whitaker’s writing is poignant and fresh, and I loved the story she told about creative life, friendship and family. I literally laughed and cried, and I still am thinking about who owns the stories of our lives. I keep recommending this novel to people and can't wait to see what Whitaker writes next. (Keeping my Muppet arms of exuberance in check when I met her at a book festival was a feat of self restraint.)       

Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng
In a year when women seemed to have had enough, this book arrived right on time. Ng considers motherhood and female ambition in a compelling novel about things left unsaid and unexamined in suburban America.

Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward
Ward is a brilliant writer. If you haven’t read her, you should, and this is a good place to start. Casual readers will find a well-told, emotional story about the impact of family and history. If you pay attention to things like story structure and pacing, Ward will blow you away.

Exit West, Mohsin Hamid
The Make America Read community had a great discussion about this book way back in the spring, I still am recommending it to people. A literary and timely look at immigration, it’s also a page-turning, intimate and deeply satisfying read.

Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders
This book is not for everyone. It takes a minute to get used to the structure. But Saunders weaves together a story about grief and humanity that manages to be both national and personal.

The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas
This is the kind of book you read in an afternoon, ignoring everyone around you. I particularly appreciated the way Thomas writes her teen protagonists: They're smart — smarter and more resilient than many adults realize — but also make stupid decisions in the way teens do. 

Founding Brothers, Joseph J. Ellis
Ellis shows us the flaws and motives of the Founding Fathers, making them men instead of myths. The structure of this book also makes it extremely accessible: Short chapters arranged around episodes during America’s formative years. If you’re looking to read more history, this is a great starting point.

A Darker Shade of Magic, V.E. Schwab
No matter how old I get, I'll still be the nerdy girl who loves getting lost in a good fantasy novel. But the older I get, the tougher it is to find really great fantasy series. I know the genre really well, and I have too many favorites. An author has to surprise me with characters  or build an exceptional, vivid world — Schwab did both with this trilogy. 

The Refugees, Viet Thanh Nguyen
You're probably going to be sad reading these short stories that explore longing and family, immigration and expectations. They're worth it.

Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann
In a previous newsletter, I said journalists write some of the best nonfiction, and here's a book that makes my point. Grann turns obscure history — people killing members of the Osage tribe who had become rich with oil money and the founding of the FBI — into a compelling, accessible story. 


As I said to introduce this list, I always struggle to narrow down my favorite books of the year. If you'd like to hear me blather on a bit about my top 5, check out the latest episode of Our Midwestern Life podcast. (Thanks, Abby for talking books with me!) Keep reading, too, for some honorable mentions shared with my favorite game: Like This, Read That.

And if you, like me, can't get enough of best-of lists, here are some of my favorites: Book RiotNew York TimesBuzzfeed and NPR's Book Concierge

I'd love to hear what books you loved best this year. Share your recommendations on social media with #MakeAmericaRead.

The books I haven't read


This is a stack of books, gathered in 30 seconds from various places around my house, that I have purchased or borrowed with the intent of reading this year.

This does not include the three books I'm currently reading, the half dozen books in my library basket or the other half dozen books on my library hold list. Also not included: the two books I've been reading aloud with my 7-year-old and the handful of books that keep popping into my head that I should reread. (I always return to comforts like Austen and Montgomery in the fall.) As Christmas nears, I'll be reading The Nutcracker (illustrated by Maurice Sendak) and A Christmas Carol with my boys, and rereading some of the short stories in Jeannette Winterson's Christmas Days collection on my own. OH! and I have two different book discussion groups that I need to do reading for before spring.

People often say, "Oh! I wish I had time to read more!," to which I say, "You have the time!" But I also hear readers bemoaning the state of their to-be-read list — it's too long, they'll never reach the end of it, they don't have time for new books, they aren't reading the right books, etc. I am guilty of this, and I've found it to be self-defeating. When I get too caught up in what I'm not reading — too distracted by awards lists or the books everyone is talking about — that's when I find myself not reading. 

I have accepted the fact that I will never reach the end of my to-be-read list. It just means I'll always have a book to pick up.

But finding the right book-life balance is constant work in progress, which is why I liked this collection tips from BookRiot. Sometimes all I have time for is short stories. Other times, I'm ready to take a deep dive into dense nonfiction. Sometimes I just say no to a book. Sometimes I read a critical favorite and find I hate it. Sometimes I want the familiarity of a reread; sometimes a debut novel makes me a fan for life. All of it is OK because the goal isn't to read the right books or the most books but MORE books by MORE people about MORE things.  

I'd love to see your to-be-read stacks. Share them on social media with the tag #MakeAmericaReadMore.

When reading isn't a comfort

When people rattle around to ban a book, I don't much mind. Banning a book is fairly effective way of making sure a sullen teenager reads it, in my experience. (Thanks to all the librarians and booksellers making those banned book displays!) Still, I was fairly shocked when I saw a Mississippi school district removing To Kill A Mockingbird from the curriculum because it made people uncomfortable.

I understand the discomfort. Characters in To Kill A Mockingbird use the n-word frequently. That word is ugly and represents the worst of America. The book is about race and class and is centered on a false accusation and an alleged rape. There's domestic violence, a mob scene and attempted revenge. It's not a comfortable book. But that's the point. 

To Kill A Mockingbird isn't a perfect book. Keeping American literature lists current is important. I could make the case for replacing To Kill A Mockingbird with a modern book about racism in America, one written by a person of color — The Hate U Give, for example. Or reading both books.

But I struggle with the idea of avoiding uncomfortable books altogether. Uncomfortable books make you think. They challenge the reader. They spark conversations — especially the difficult ones. When we say reading encourages compassion and critical thinking, empathy and civil discourse, uncomfortable books often are behind these benefits. 

The last uncomfortable book I read was Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere. Ng writes about nice Midwestern families and all the things they leave unsaid. Reading these books as a nice Midwestern woman feels sometimes like pressing on a bruise I didn't know I had. Ng's descriptions of Mrs. Richardson, a liberal journalist in suburbia, left me feeling laid open and scrutinized. That book made me consider my creative life and my biases. It did what uncomfortable books do: Ask me to examine the world I take for granted, to define my values, and to consider how those values line up with the culture in which we live.

Reading is one of my great comforts, and I certainly don't believe every book you read should make you squirm or leave you mentally exhausted. But there's a place for uncomfortable books. They're worth keeping around, worth seeking out. For some to consider, take a look at this thread of recommendations

What's the last uncomfortable book you've read? 

Why — and how — to read more nonfiction

About a quarter of the books I read in 2017 were nonfiction. I did a spot check of my yearly lists and found my nonfiction reading ranges from about 10 to 25 percent. Memoirs and narrative journalism are my sweet spot, though this year, I fell into deep rabbit holes of American history.

That probably explains why I've been getting more than the usual amount of anti-nonfiction chatter. "Oh, I just can't get into books like that." "Nonfiction puts me right to sleep." "It's great that you read books like that, but I find them so dry!" Whenever I'm carting around science or history books, this is what I get. But good nonfiction is not dry or boring. It gives blood and guts to people long ago reduced to dust and a single sentence in a text book. My favorite example: The Philosophical Breakfast Club, a book about four 19th century scientists who were friends, sounds and looks dry as dirt, but these scientists all went to college together, and Laura J. Snyder fleshes out their letters to each other and shares stories about them drinking like fish and carousing like frat boys in between major discoveries. I laughed all through that book and read half of it aloud to my (very patient) husband.

I love fiction, but learned in third grade, when my teacher shut me down for citing a Little House book when I answered a question about pioneers, that nonfiction provides facts. And facts are what you need when you want to know what you're talking about.

Here are my tips for reading nonfiction: 

  • Pick topics that interest you. This sounds stupidly simple, but nonfiction is not the place to read a book because everyone else is. 
  • Know who's writing. Total objectivity is bullshit. Everyone comes at topics with their life experiences and beliefs. Check the author's bio, maybe do a Google search and read an article or two. Get a handle on where she is coming from. 
  • Read journalists. I am biased, but some of the best nonfiction I've read comes from people who have worked in newsrooms (e.g. David Simon). They spend lots of time with people, learn to write tight, and are, generally, curious and in possession of a sense of humor.
  • Let one book lead you to another. Check the bibliography for your next read. Consider a biography about the most interesting person in the book. Don't really understand an idea? Pick up a book about it. 
  • Avoid books with footnotes. Your mileage may vary here, but I detest footnotes. They distract me and it feels like lazy editing. If it's that important, fit it into the main text. 

I also like these tips from Harvard Business Review, which basically amount to this: SKIM. I've done that with particularly dense books, or at the start of books I read in their entirety to get a sense of where they're going and how they're going to make their arguments/narrative. It helps to have a roadmap as you read. I'd add that book reviews are great for getting a basic handle on a book.

I'll leave you with this excellent list: 10 books to read if you think you don't like nonfiction

Never stop learning

Hermione's fervent belief in the power of books to solve all problems and answer every question might be my favorite part of the Harry Potter series. Oh, I know facts get dated and stories can't solve everything, and how we use and interpret information — and where we're getting information from in the first place — are just as important, if not more so, than the fact that we're reading. But! reading gives us tools. Books give us data and context and perspective and the ability to learn outside our own experience. And so, like Hermione, my first instinct, whenever I encounter something new or confusing or intriguing, is to go to the library. 

Sometimes, I don't even realize I've been reading around a topic until I look at my end-of-year reading log and see how one book led to another.  In Florida, I started reading Zora Neale Hurston because she had lived in my area, and looking for books like hers led me to Jesmyn Ward, James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates, who in turn led me to books like Stamped from The Beginning and The New Jim Crow. Since the election and even before Election Daylists of bookstrying to explain Trump's rise and win have popped up. Many of the books deal with class in America and the urban/rural divide, and looking at my yearly reading lists, you can see I've been interested in these topics a long time, reading Rick Bragg and Barbara Kingsolver, Barbara Ehrenreich and Dorothy Allison, Phil Klay and David Finkel.

Lately, given world politics, I've bookmarked these reading lists about North Korea and Venezuela. Given American politics, I find myself looking backward, reading about our country's beginnings. Since our cross-country road trip to the West, I've been picking up books about western migration, manifest destiny, and Native Americans, and I've had a craving to reread Willa Cather. And given the Google firing, I think our latest Make America Read book discussion is pretty damn timely.

I don't know that I'll ever officially go to school again. But as long as I have a library card, I'll be learning. What are you learning about these days? 

Why Make America Read, again?

My inspiration to Make America Read arrived a little more than a year ago with this Wall Street Journal article, shared on a friend's Facebook page, about how people's Facebook likes fall along party lines. We lamented living in bubbles, but what struck me most was the sad variety of the books liked on Facebook: Gatsby and Tolkien on the left, the Bible and the Farmers' Almanac on the right. Look, I've read all of those, but there are so many books! Let's look beyond utility and high school reading lists. I joked that what we really needed to do was #MakeAmericaReadAgain.

But, as I said in the very first Make America Read newsletter, the hashtag quickly lost its humor and became a mission. I believe reading develops compassion, critical thinking and civil discourse, things that make each of us and our communities better. Make America Read is about reading more — more books, more often, about more topics. I want you to read the books you love, whatever they are, but I also want us all to read the books we think aren't for us. I want us to read the books that challenge us, that ask us to think about people who live differently than we do, that make us consider ideas, that show us places we might never see. 

This Washington Post column has been making the rounds — its provocative headline says the death of reading is killing our souls — and lays out some interesting math: 

"... at an average reading speed of 400 words per minute, it would take 417 hours in a year to read 200 books—less than the 608 hours the average American spends on social media, or the 1,642 hours watching TV."

I have some quibbles with the column — mostly that it's the usual end-of-reading lament we see every few years, even as book sales rise and young adults keep reading — but I appreciated the central point: We all have time to read, if we only prioritize it. Further, we should prioritize reading because it's good for us. It entertains. It focuses our brains. It sparks creativity. It educates and inspires. 

With every edition of this newsletter, my goal is to get you to pick up another book or find a few extra minutes of reading time or read something you never thought you would. We encourage our children to read at least 15 minutes each day, knowing it will build their vocabulary and exercise their brains. We should give our own brains at least that much of a workout. 

Why I love my Little Free Library

The first time I saw a Little Free Library was in a park in Florida, and I was charmed by the take-one-leave-one book exchange. I watched, uncritically, as the concept launched and copyrighted in 2009 grew in popularity. A couple years ago for Mother's Day, my family surprised and delighted me with my own Little Free Library. We installed the Little Free Library at our neighborhood community garden. It's just a few blocks from our house, near an elementary school and gets much more foot traffic than our house. Seeing it full of books, watching titles come and go, when I take the kids to school makes me happy. 

I rolled my eyes when I read this cranky essay from a man who claimed his Little Free Library made him hate his neighbors. But I couldn't dismiss the more recent debate about whether Little Free Libraries are an equitable way to share books. Two Canadian librarians undertook research to see if their gut instincts — that Little Free Libraries were primarily in affluent areas, not necessarily "book deserts" — were right. They inventoried Little Free Libraries in Calgary and Toronto, and the data confirmed their suspicions. The Canadian librarians published their research and criticism in the Journal of Radical Librarianship. (Let's all pause to fully appreciate that the Journal of Radical Librarianship exists.) They make the case that Little Free Libraries not only fail to distribute books to people who need them most, but could damage actual libraries, which are, in fact, serving people at every socioeconomic level. 

Now, it's just two cities, but when I thought about the Little Free Libraries I knew of, well, many would fit that data. That first Little Free Library I noticed? It was in a park in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the county. Even my own Little Free Library is in a part of town where housing prices are on the rise and the public library is less than a mile away.

I'm glad those Canadian librarians are raising questions about where Little Free Libraries go, and if they are the best way to share books. We all should be asking questions about equity. We all should support our libraries. And we need to be honest with ourselves about why we're putting up a Little Free Library. Are we putting it some place that actually needs better access to books? Or are we putting it up as a way to trade books with neighbors? Are we building or nurturing a reading culture?

But I'm not ready to give up on Little Free Libraries — or at least book exchanges. In the case of my own Little Free Library, I think it's well-used and generally self-filling because it's near a school and in a public space. Also, the public library is less than a mile away but on the other side of a very busy thoroughfare, so the Little Free Library lets kids in the neighborhood browse books without braving traffic. I also like that if someone really loves a book, they can keep it. More generally, I've seen libraries — including my hometown library system — putting up Little Free Libraries as another way to reach people. From the earliest bookmobiles, libraries always have found ways to get books to people. 

Little Free Libraries are just a brand. You don't need a Little Free Library to share books. There's a restaurant here in my town that has a shelf of books at the back that works just the same. When we bought our house and switched the utilities to our name, the kind Water Department clerk made sure my boys each took a book from the shelf in the hall. I love passing books to friends and neighbors.

Getting more books in the hands of more people is something I'll always support. 

Green Day, Marilynne Robinson, and reading lists for interesting times

I was lucky enough last year to hear Marilynne Robinson speak at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center here in Cincinnati. She was as thoughtful and well-spoken as her books — Housekeeping, Gilead, Lila, etc. — would lead you to expect. This was before the presidential election and after Robinson's interview with then-President Barack Obama, so the questions turned to politics. We live in interesting times, Robinson said, an old saying that works out to be both a blessing and a curse. But, she added, these are not the first interesting times in our nation's history. I've thought of that often since November.

Green Day said something similar on its most recent album in a song called "Troubled Times." (Why yes, I was a teenager in the '90s. Why do you ask?) "Where's the truth in the written word if no one reads it? ... What part of history we've learned when it's repeated?" 

All of this is to say I've been thinking about adding more history into my reading list. I've been revisiting original source documents — did you know the Federalist papers are available online? — and looking for books that give me more information or new perspectives about events and people I haven't thought of since Mr. Ludwig's American History class in 1998, or maybe never studied. I don't know about you, but I had never heard of the Osage murders and the birth of the FBI until Killers of The Flower Mooncame out. 

If you're looking to expand your history education, too, here are some of the lists I'm perusing: 

I'm definitely adding this recommendation from the National Book Foundation Executive Director Lisa Lucas: The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. My father-in-law is a historical re-enactor focused on the Revolutionary era, so I also raid his shelves from time to time. What books would you recommend? 

Why libraries matter

Hello Readers!

I wanted to talk this week about libraries. Make America Read is centered on the idea that reading can encourage critical thinking, compassion and civil discourse. Libraries are the command center for that mission. Libraries are places of education and empathy. I can't take credit for that lovely, alliterative summation — it came from John Faherty, director of The Mercantile Library here in Cincinnati — but it's so true. 

Libraries haven't always been public resources. The Mercantile is a private library founded in 1835, before public libraries were cropping up across America, by a group of young men, merchants, who wanted to educate themselves. They pooled their books and resources, and nearly 200 years later the library they created still is lending books, hosting book discussions (I've led a few), and bringing in authors and speakers to educate members and nonmembers alike. And they often work with local booksellers and the public library system to do so. This week, I saw Wesley Lowery, author of They Can't Kill Us All, receive the Mercantile's Harriet Beecher Stowe Award for writing that can change the world, and speak about his work chronicling the Black Lives Matter movement. The whole night was about the power of words and stories to breakdown ignorance.

The Mercantile is a particularly beautiful library, and I'm fond of saying it's my church. But really, I could say that about any library. I'm not talking about worshipping books. What I mean is that libraries are places of community that do good for people. 

You can get everything from a tax form to the latest movie out on DVD at a library. You can learn a language or get a free lunch. My public library, which always is packed with people using computers, has started offering collections of kids' books with tags that say things like, "If you liked Wimpy Kid, you'll love these!" I really appreciate the effort to expand kids' reading horizons. Other libraries in my region, like those around the country, feed kids throughout the summer. Libraries host discussion groups and classes — tech courses for seniors were popular at my Florida library — and story times, which help build a culture of reading in our littlest citizens. Libraries aren't perfect. There are serious conversations to be had about equity and diversity, about how resources are allocated to communities and what stories and voices libraries are promoting. But libraries provide access to education and entertainment and resources. Because of they provide these free or nearly free resources in a public space, libraries also are great places to get to know your community. 

This statement from the American Library Association sums up why having — and using — my library card feels nearly as important as voting:  Democracies need libraries. An informed public constitutes the very foundation of a democracy; after all, democracies are about discourse—discourse among the people. If a free society is to survive, it must ensure the preservation of its records and provide free and open access to this information to all its citizens. It must ensure that citizens have the resources to develop the information literacy skills necessary to participate in the democratic process. It must allow unfettered dialogue and guarantee freedom of expression. All of this is done in our libraries, the cornerstone of democracy in our communities.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the story of young Abraham Lincoln reading borrowed books by the light of a fire always has inspired me. When my family went camping, I'd sit by the fire with a book — ignoring my mother's worries about ruined eyes — and imagine educating myself with whatever books I could scrounge up. No regular school. No county library. No tall rows of shelves to get lost in. Even as a kid, I was thankful to live in an America that had decided libraries were a necessary public resource. 

I realize there's a chance I'm preaching to the choir here, but I've been shocked over the years by how many grown adults I know don't have or don't use their library card. When you love books and have resources, it can be easy to just buy the books you want. If we want to Make America Read, we must make sure libraries remain a public resource. We need to use them. We need to support them and promote them. We need to give them feedback and help make sure they're serving our communities.

So, I have two requests: 

  • Go to your local library and ask someone you don't know for a book recommendation. 

  • Share why you love your library on social media and tag it with #MakeAmericaRead. 

— Hillary

Book Discussion: June 26

The next Make America Read Book Discussion will be 8 p.m. EST June 26. We'll be talking about No One Is Coming To Save Us on the Make America Read Slack. It's a retelling of sorts of The Great Gatsby

Email to join the conversation. 

Housekeeping note: I use Amazon affiliate links for books throughout this blog.
If you purchase books through these links, I will earn a small commission, which I probably will spend on books. 

Reading Links

Socially conscious page-turners from Book Riot. I can't vouch for these books, but I like the list concept. I'd add Homegoing and Underground Railroad

Jokes for bookworms. Sharing because the very first one, about The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobemade me laugh out loud. 

Prepping for the Make America Read book discussion about Exit West, I discovered Mohsin Hamid's Reading for Resistance list and was delighted to see he included Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox. Then, I fell down a rabbit hole of all of the Reading for Resistance interviews by Mother Jones. These are just as great as the New York Times' By The Book series. Of course I checked out the recs from my favorites, George Saunders and Jesmyn Ward. You should, too.

Speaking of Jesmyn Ward, a sneak peak of her new book, Sing, Unburied, Sing, is up on Oxford American. Go read it

The backstory on Behold The Dreamers, a 2016 novel about the immigrant experience and the financial crisis. I haven't read it yet, but it received solid reviews, and this LitHub articlemade me think I should add it to my TBR list. 


For more book recommendations and discussion, be sure to sign up for the Make America Read newsletter

Good books and bad books?

Two things lately had me thinking about the idea of "good" books and "bad" books — as in, good-for-you books and bad-for-you books.

First, my reading list had me feeling weighed down. I've read a great deal of heavy fiction and nonfiction this year, books dealing with systemic racism, immigration and complicated family relationships. Many have been compelling reads — more about socially conscious page-turners below! — but as people started asking for summer reads — "Something lighthearted and quick, please!" — I realized I wanted something that was just entertaining, not educating. I picked up A Darker Shade of Magic, a swashbuckling fantasy, and then The Rook, which is equal parts Thursday Next novel and Memento, and they were just what I needed. Fun and fast. Not better or worse than the serious-minded books I'd been reading, just different — and with their own thought-provoking bits. 

Then, on Twitter, several of us were discussing how to get our kiddos to read beyond their comfort level. My strategy to get the kids reading something other than Wimpy Kid books all summer is to require some mom-approved "school" reading in addition to whatever else they pick. "Are Wimpy Kid books bad?" another mom asked. NOT AT ALL. They're quick and fun books my kids relate to because the characters love the same gross humor and are living through the same experiences. And that's wonderful! It makes them love reading. But, just like I make sure our summer diet includes cherries and watermelon in with all the popsicles and ice cream, I try to vary our reading lists.

I don't believe there are "bad" books, though we all have ones we don't like. I read books that make me think, and I read books that make me laugh or cry. The best books are ones that do a little of everything. Literary fiction, YA, nonfiction, fantasy, light reads, heavy reads, old favorites and authors or genres I've never considered before — if you're reading, it's a good book. 

— Hillary

For more book recommendations and discussion, be sure to sign up for the Make America Read newsletter

Housekeeping note: I use Amazon affiliate links for books throughout this newsletter.
If you purchase books through these links, I will earn a small commission, which I probably will spend on books. 

Book recommendations for summer and beyond

Summer, for my family, means pool visits and baseball games, evenings in the backyard and travel. And, of course, lots of books. I read at the ballfield. I read on our back porch while the boys play whiffle ball. I read on the front porch swing with my morning coffee. I read in hotel rooms at the end of travel days while everyone else drifts to sleep. Now the boys are capable swimmers, I even read by the pool again. It's no wonder my reading log entries always get lengthier in June, July and August. 

So much reading time means I'm looking for book recommendations even more than usual. Here are my favorite sources, sharing summer reading picks.

Buzzfeed Books: This list of 22 books to pick up this summer is a great example of why I love Buzzfeed's book coverage. They almost always provide a diverse selection of authors and genres. 
Their List/My PickMy Life with Bob
It's about a memoir from a woman who has kept track of all the books she's read for 28 years. As Sara said, this book is made for me. 

Modern Mrs. Darcy: This book blogger is prolific in her picks and organizes them by type of read — thought-provoking, beachy, etc. — making it easy to find what you're looking for. 
Their List/My Pick: Almost Missed You
Author Jessica Strawser is a fellow Cincinnatian. (We're such a literary city. Really.) And this book sounds like a great mystery. 

New York Times: These are the reviews I read to determine if a Very Important Book is actually worth my time — or to get the Cliff's Notes version of a Very Important Book I've decided to bail on. Also, I love the By The Book interviews

BookRiot: There's always a list of something here, most recently the 100 must-read books that have been adapted. ("Because the book is always better.") 

LitHub: Its book news section keeps track of the books people are talking about. 

My Libraries: Both the public library and the private library I belong to offer staff recommendations. I just picked up Idado thanks to the Mercantile Libraryand the next Make America Read book discussion pick (more information below!) was a suggestion from a librarian at Cincinnati Public Library

My Reading Friends: Whether they're people I see around town or online (hello Ladies' Internet!), I have so many well-read friends. I love Andrea'sregular book stacks, and Jess, maker of that awesome Newberry PDF, always is reading something good. RA helped me develop a comprehensive list of book recommendations for the boys — and sent a giant box of books to them. Elizabeth has impeccable taste in YA books. Sarah and I have very similar taste in books. Jenna appreciates, like me, compelling melancholy. I could go on and on, but this is what I mean when I suggested you should develop a reading culture around you. You'll never be wondering what to read next. 

What will you be reading this summer? 

— Hillary

Housekeeping note: I'm using Amazon affiliate links for books throughout this blog. If you purchase books through these links, I will earn a small commission, which I probably will spend on books. 

Stop reading that book. Really

You know that book you just can't get into? The one everyone says you should read? The one you've heard great things about? The one that makes you fall asleep every time you pick it up? 

Stop reading it. Right now. Shut it up. Return it to the library. Donate it to get it off your shelves. 

I really believe in reading the book that's not for you. You absolutely should be seeking out books with main characters who don't look like you, books with authors who grew up in a different place or way, books that challenge the ideas you hold most securely. Make America Read began with the thought that books can and should be used to consider new ideas and lives and perspectives outside our own. 

But there are too many books waiting to be read to be bogged down by one that is not capturing your attention. LitHub illustrated this point with a handy of chart: How Many Books Will You Read Before You Die? 

An Average American Reader finishes 12 books a year. That means a 35-year-old woman, assuming average life expectancy, has just 612 books left in her life. Even if she's reading 100 books a year, that average 35-year-old woman can expect to finish just 5,000 more books, a relatively small number compared to the millions of books in the world. 

I'm never going to read all the books I want to read or all the books I "should" read. My to-be-read pile only seems to grow larger. And honestly, I wish I had back the time I've spent on some of those "should" reads. I probably could have read half a dozen books in the time it took me to slog through A Confederacy of Dunces

But I like this idea, from a Book Riot article: "Being well read means reading thoughtfully from a wide variety of genres (not limited to, but definitely including, the classics) and a multicultural array of authors in such a way that allows you to think and converse about the human experience intelligently." 

Reading thoughtfully.

Half of that directive is to read. Not just carry a book around hoping you'll suddenly begin caring about the characters or absorbing the information through osmosis, or let it sit on your nightstand so you can donate fines to your local library. 

The other half of the directive — thoughtfully — asks readers to be mindful of the books and authors they're picking. 

Give yourself permission to abandon a book, so you can find and read a book that will let you be thoughtful. 

Reading to understand your home

Not long after we moved to Cincinnati, I read The History of Us by Leah Stewart. It's a solid read, thoughtful and quick with funny bits. But I've wondered if I would have liked it as much had I read it before I lived here. Cincinnati is a city of neighborhoods, and it's entirely possible to live your life in one circle of neighborhoods and never run across people living in another circle, even if they're separated by just a mile. The book uses this insularity for a plot point I suspect I'd have deemed implausible — if I weren't in Cincinnati, in my own neighborhood bubble. 

I started thinking about this after several people shared with me this map of the most famous book set in each state. From The Insider, it's a pretty great list of American books. 

I'm an Ohio native and I've lived in Virginia and Florida. In each place I've lived as an adult, I've read books to try to understand my new home. In Virginia, my apartment was near a historic cabin George Washington used as a young surveyor, and I read biographies of our first president. In Florida, I read The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida and the Politics of Paradise to understand the environmental and community development issues I was writing about for my newspaper and discovered the stories of Zora Neale Hurston, who died on the Treasure Coast. I read Susanna Daniel's debut novel, Stiltsville, and saw the Florida I'd come to live in — of natives, not vacationers — and recognized a transplant's take on the Sunshine State in Lauren Groff's short story, "The Midnight Zone." Here in Cincinnati, I was charmed by Eligible, Curtis Sittenfeld's retelling of Pride and Prejudice, because it was set in the Queen City, and I could eat at the same Skyline Chili as Lizzie Bennett. 

Books with a strong sense of place let you travel without leaving your reading chair. Just in the last six months, The Angel of History took me to San Francisco; The Turner House brought me to Detroit's east side; and Commonwealth shuttled me between suburbs in California and Virginia. 

If an outsider asked to read a book about your home — your city, your state — what would you give her?