Why We Read

I love these Goodreads annual reports:

year in books

Last January 1, I logged onto Goodreads and set myself an arbitrary reading goal: 50 books, around one a week. I thought I could manage that. And I had a lot of reading I needed to do. I was 70K words into a manuscript that demanded deep research and input that would inform the work: books on Cambodian history and culture, culinary memoirs and narratives by refugees, books about the publishing industry, thoughtful how-tos on the craft of writing.

list 2

becker, gilbert, bui

And then, as I got further into the year and the MSS draft, I sprinkled in a few novels, books that landed on the Best Of lists and had garnered lots of love. With the prospect of pitching a manuscript in my near future, I figured I should get to know the books people were buying.

I had almost forgotten how much I loved great novels. I hadn’t allowed myself the “indulgence” of fiction for the past few years, assuming I needed to devote all my reading energies to what I was calling “research.”

list 3

list 4

As I dove into wonderful literary novels like LINCOLN IN THE BARDO, LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE, LESS, and CIRCE, I realized, This IS research. I could feel the beautiful words filtering into my brain and altering my synapses, organizing themselves into shelves and files for when I needed them, ready to flow back out onto the pages I was composing.

list 5

list 6

With summer came an enforced reading hiatus. Chantha and Clara (see backstory here) arrived in early May for Clara’s graduation, and the next ten weeks were full and busy, with no time to spare. Chantha and Clara read the draft for fact- and feelings-checking, and we made our revisions.

And then we started cooking.

By late May, the Slow Noodles Tour of Nashville—a series of Khmer cooking classes taught by Chantha—was in full swing, with Chantha and Clara producing a feast (and on some days, two) every couple of days. (I chopped things and washed dishes.) Some we hosted at Halcyon House; others we took on the road, doing dinner parties at people’s homes and spring-rolling lessons at a writing camp for teen girls. Somehow, in the cracks, we shot cooking videos with Clara and Chantha and traveled around the country to sell the silk scarves her nonprofit weaving center produces.

Can I use that as an excuse for not making my book quota last year?

I aimed for 50 books but only managed 37. Initially, I was disappointed in myself. But as I look back now on a year of reading adventures, I can’t find failure anywhere. I read some stunning work: popular literary novels with lots of buzz and acclaim (EXIT WEST & AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE) gripping nonfiction that read like novels (EDUCATED & KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON), and beautifully told refugee memoirs (THE BEST WE COULD DO & THE GIRL WHO SMILED BEADS) that reminded me of how universal Chantha’s story is.

list 7

list 8

And I suspected that our book deserved to be in the company of the likes of these.

# # #

A Strong Finish

In December, I bought a stack of books by friends to give away at Christmas. This, I figured, would allow me to support my friends’ work, while keeping me in compliance with the in-laws’ Gift Truce. (No “stuff!” Consumables only!) Books are consumable, right? But of course, I made sure to consume a few of them myself before Dec. 25—a strong finish to a great year in books.

Please bear with me while I brag a little bit on the wonderful authors I am lucky to know:

screen shot 2019-01-11 at 8.48.29 amSALT TO THE SEA, by Ruta Sepetys — I met Ruta when I was assigned to interview her after her first novel, BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY, came out. It has been so rewarding to see her build a splendid career of researching little-known histories and bringing them to life for teens.

JESUS, CRAWDAD, DEATH, by Betsy Phillips — I tore through this hilarious literary romp in one sitting, while toasting my feet by a firepit one chilly Sunday. Betsy is an institution in this town, thanks to her tenure at the Scene as a prolific and wry political commentator, a good deed that often did not go unpunished. When her book on an unsolved civil rights-era bombing comes out, I’ll be first in line to buy it.

NASHVILLE: SCENES FROM THE NEW AMERICAN SOUTH, photos by Heidi Ross — I’ve loved and admired Heidi for longer than I can remember. I predict that I’ll be buying many, many copies of this book to give away. But the one she gave to me is MINE.

GRITS, by Erin Byers Murray — I’m still reading this one, learning SO much about grits, and smiling at so much that is familiar. I’m a Southerner too, and I hear echoes of my own complicated feelings about Southern history, culture, and cuisine in Erin’s writing. Also, I plan to eat more grits now that she’s taught me how to do it right.

NASHVILLE EATS, by Jennifer Justus — If there’s somebody who knows the local food scene any better than JJ, I don’t know who it is. This isn’t a book to read; this is a book to devour. It pained me to give this book away, so I’ll need to buy another one right away.

MR. NICE GUY, by Jennifer Miller and Jason Feifer — What a fun read this was. I met Jen and Jason when I invited Jen to add Nashville to her “novelade” book tour for THE YEAR OF THE GADFLY. This is their first collaborative novel, a book that captures the often thrilling, sometimes world-weary milieu of New York Medialand with wit and insider knowledge. I’m glad to know these two and cannot wait to see what they conquer next.

THE FIGHT FOR MARRIAGE, by Philip F. Cramer and William L. Harbison — I don’t actually know these authors well, but I was thrilled to be asked to moderate a discussion with them about their book and their advocacy for marriage equality. I’d profiled Bill Harbison for the Scene a few years ago for his role in the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court case. I had to study hard to do a good job as moderator (public speaking = scary), and it was a highly rewarding experience.

There are many more where these came from, but I haven’t had a chance to read them all yet. Put them on the list for 2019. (HELLFIRE BOYS, PEOPLE ONLY DIE OF LOVE IN MOVIES) Not to mention the friends whose books are slated for release this year. (I’m looking at you, Mary Laura Philpott, Claire Gibson, and Margaret Renkl.)

The Takeaway

This Year in Words has cured me of a few misconceptions: First of all, you can’t fail at reading, as long as you’re doing it. And how stupid was the idea that reading fiction—or anything I deemed unrelated to our SLOW NOODLES WIP—was an indulgence?

I had the notion that I had to Only Read Directly Related Memoirs and Histories, that anything else was a distraction. But everything I read this year fed the project in some way, either by arming my mind with words and ideas, or by teaching me something about writing and publishing that I’d need one day soon. Or by expanding my sphere of writer-colleagues who, in ways large and small, may end up as part of the team Chantha and I will need as we move from writing and revising to publishing and promoting.

More on this topic soon, but in summary, my writer friends have been everything over the past few years, as I’ve learned how to make a book and send it into the world. They’ve shared tips on book-proposal writing, introduced me to publishing industry gatekeepers, done chapter and MSS critiques, and offered wisdom and encouragement all along the way.  Buying and reading their books is the very least I can do in return. It’s one small way I can be part of their Book Team. We need each other; the teams overlap. We all face the same goal line, because books don’t come into the world without A Village, as they say.

And because I choose brilliant friends whose books are universally fantastic, it’s a win-win that I get to read their work and call it a good deed.

Xmas books.jpg

In case you’re wondering, NO, I don’t know Jon Meacham. I hope that changes one day.

6 thoughts on “Why We Read

  1. Love the post. I taught Salt to the Sea in a high school in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic while living there. Wish I had known we had an in to the author and used your interview. 🙂 Happy 2019.

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