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The Best Question

What are you reading? It’s my favorite question, to ask and to be asked.

The question contributes to creating a reading culture because it assumes the person is reading in the first place. And if the person is not, if the answer is a noncommittal shrug, well, I typically take that as a challenge to find a book the person will love, taking the conversation through a game of "like-this-read-that." I am an unabashed reading evangelist, and book talk is much more interesting than the weather. 

But the best reason to ask the question is for the reaction of readers, something I see every time I take advantage of Cincinnati’s literary scene to ask a visiting author what book has their attention. Their faces brighten. They lean back, pleasantly surprised by the question, or lean forward, eager to answer it, or a little bit of both. You can see them thinking about the last book they read and what they want to say about it. They talk with their hands.

The answers have been as interesting as their reactions are charming. Josh Ritter, a singer-songwriter who took a turn as a novelist with Bright’s Passage, one of the weirdest, most haunting books I’ve ever read, was working his way through The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Marukami, a novel described as hallucinatory by the New York TimesTracy Chevalier, author of The Girl With The Pearl Earring, confessed she was researching a new book by reading Vera Brittain’s memoir of World War I, Testament of YouthThe Mothersauthor Brit Bennett, revisiting Another Country by James Baldwin, said the novel felt more meaningful the second time around, “whatever that says about where I am in my life now.”

The answers of regular folks are no less intriguing. Are they reading for pleasure and escape or work and study? Do they love the same authors I adore, or will they offer me someone new to discover? What makes them laugh? What issues concern them? Like the authors, people usually are flattered to be asked; you’re implying that you respect their taste and think they have interesting things to offer, and they usually do. Whether you share their reading style or not, the books people read offer insight into their interests and pursuits. On Facebook, I asked the 100th subscriber to this newsletter, Margot Susca, what she was reading, and it launched a thread that drifted from her recent read — Hillbilly Elegy, the politically tinged memoir by J.D. Vance — to the best books to read aloud with kids. (Everyone agreed on Roald Dahl.)

With four words, you can help make America read again and spark an interesting conversation. And so, I want to know: what are you reading?