Month: August 2014

“You are what you read,” said somebody somewhere once.

I don’t know what I did or who I was before I started using Goodreads. When stumbling around a book store, I whip out my phone, click on the Goodreads app, choose the ‘scan’ function, and begin assaulting every bar code on any book that looks remotely worthwhile for the thrill of an instant rating aggregated from hundreds or thousands of readers around the world. Why put my phone on silent, you might ask. Well, when you use the scan feature, it makes an inordinately loud sound that penetrates the ears most unpleasantly. And some book stores ban scanning with a phone.

You see, the Amazon app has a similar scan feature, and book store owners assume you are looking that book up on Amazon so that you can order it at a cheaper price and avoid supporting that book store instead. Little do these people know that I spend more money on books than I do anything else except perhaps my rent and manicures. I’m an easy mark and guaranteed customer.

People often tease me and insinuate I am a slave to others’ opinions by putting so much stock in a Goodreads rating. Or rather, I no longer have a mind of my own and can’t decide for myself what I should choose to read. To them I want to say many things, but instead I comfort myself with the knowledge that I know no one who reads in the volumes that I do, and it pays to be discerning in what I will spend my time on.

I will read anything that comes with 1) a sincere recommendation from someone I like (often, “I read it in one sitting,” “I couldn’t put it down,” or “I still think about it today”) and 2) a rating above a 4.0 on Goodreads. My book twin friend mentioned that to me once as a make-or-break factor in book shopping, and it’s something I subscribe to today.

I have spent more time than I care to admit clicking down the rabbit hole on Goodreads. If a book is on a shelf, and you loved that book, the shelf it is on will often contain things you’ll also enjoy. Plus there is a “Readers also enjoyed” section that is uncannily accurate with its suggestions. 

I love reading books of all kinds – romance, mystery, non-fiction, young adult, children’s, philosophy, poetry, science fiction, historical fiction… well, you get it. And Goodreads has inspired me to Try New Things (one of my commandments of reading – another post, for another time) much more than I ever have before in my life.

Another function I enjoy is that if I’m interested in a book, I can see what others who I am friends with thought about it. I can see their star rating and any review they wrote. This has been hugely important due to the fact that I have some pretty smart friends who are much different from me and some who are very similar to me. Some of them have even more exposure to new books and suggestions than I do, and it informs my decision-making a great deal.

Lastly, I am able to set a yearly reading goal and track it. People who are acquainted with me are 100% sick of hearing me update them about this and/or priding myself on my progress. It has much less to do with achieving a number and is much more about reflecting on what a year brought me and how I can divide up my reading by time in life, what else it inspired me to pick up, and the sheer joy of exploring different worlds, people, and stories in a given time period. I’m going to read that much anyway, to be completely and utterly honest, and I might as well track it.

I will continue my campaign to spread Goodreads to anyone who will listen. I will continue to track – and reach – the goals I set for myself. And I will continue to surreptitiously scan like a ninja in the book stores I wander into in pursuit of the Next Great Read.


The Non-Fiction Test

“There were so many other amazing things in this world.

They opened up inside of me like a river. Like I didn’t know I could take a breath and then I breathed. I laughed with the joy of it, and the next moment I was crying my first tears on the PCT. I cried and I cried and I cried. I wasn’t crying because I was happy. I wasn’t crying because I was sad. I wasn’t crying because of my mother or my father or Paul. I was crying because I was full. Of those fifty-some hard days on the trail and of the 9,760 days that had come before them too.

I was entering. I was leaving. California streamed behind me like a long silk veil. I didn’t feel like a big fat idiot anymore. And I didn’t feel like a hard-ass motherfucking Amazonian queen. I felt fierce and humble and gathered up inside, like I was safe in this world too.” – Wild by Cheryl Strayed


I feel very fortunate to have fallen in love with non-fiction-for-pleasure reading. It wasn’t until after college when I joined a book club that alternated monthly between fiction and non-fiction that I (mostly) voluntarily read non-fiction that didn’t count for anything school-related. I feel that when I meet people, they are exclusive to one or the other, and I always found myself envious of people who were so adamant about non-fiction being their go-to choice. What’s the fun in that, I thought. Where’s the magic? So, when I was forced by a group of people I liked and respected, I began my journey with this book, and what a journey it began.

I have so far learned a few lessons on my journey:

1) Memoirs are kind of like cheating on this notion of presenting fact. They have all the drama of fiction with very little research that so often accompanies non-fiction, and they allow the author the chance to be, well, creative. Just ask this guy or this guy. It takes the idea of the unreliable narrator to a whole new place – except this time, we’re supposed to mostly accept it as fact.

2) I don’t necessarily learn much more from reading non-fiction than fiction. Fiction can relay similar enduring understandings about our past, present, future – about our hearts, minds, and trends in society. This was a comforting realization, but I realize that it only underscores my bias toward fiction… so I don’t allow myself to use this to talk myself out of picking up a non-fiction book.

3) When reflecting on whether or not I like a non-fiction book, I’ve developed The Non-Fiction Test. It’s quite simple: is an entire book necessary, or could this have just made a really good article? Books that have failed this test: Moonwalking with EinsteinThe Happiness Project, and The Big Short. These are all books that contain incredible research, not cringe-worthy writing, and food for thought I still consider often today. But, I sincerely believe I could have gotten the gist with a long article. I still think Malcolm Gladwell is in this category, and in no way does this diminish his effect/influence as a writer and thinker. His books are mostly stories – couldn’t we just hear one, his thesis, and be done with it?

Books that have passed this with flying colors: Bringing up Bebe, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (my first experience reading Sedaris is a story for another time), Unbroken, and The Cuckoo’s Egg. These are books I’d even go back and re-read one day, if not for the stories then for the research and/or life lessons I still remember and draw upon very regularly.

I realize this Test is biased toward memoirs – it’s impossible to capture a life story and/or satisfying, life-changing experience in an article… but so what? This Test has helped me to reflect on my non-fiction reading in a way that makes sense to me.

All this is said to describe why I loved and would recommend with great enthusiasm the memoir by Cheryl Strayed Wild: from Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. I was hesitant to pick it up with the fear that it’d be another Eat, Pray, Love saga that would annoy me but secretly interest me and make me hate myself for it. Instead, I discovered some truly beautiful prose, heart-breaking sorrow, and great triumph unlike what any fiction writer could fabricate. Sure, she’s egotistical, kind of stupid at times, and so pretentious as to change her last name to reflect her mostly ridiculous life decisions. But, hot damn, she is good with words. I was sucked into her brain and not willing to leave it. I have other thoughts on what it means to write a memoir and how this affects people in the memoir, but that can be left for another time. I’ll leave on this note: Reese Witherspoon plays her in the film to be released in December, and count me in for opening weekend.

Paris, Je T’aime

This is a book about a young woman who gets reluctantly sent to school in Paris to finish off her high school years. She meets and falls in love with a boy named Etienne St. Claire; however, he is already in a relationship. The love triangle is the main focus here, but the images and sites of Paris consumed me in a way a book about Some Other Place hasn’t in a long, long time. I immediately picked up its sequels: Lola and the Boy Next Door and Isla and the Happily Ever After. It wasn’t until Isla that I realized how desperately I was in love – not with the writing, the characters, or the romance stories (indeed, the love triangle was re-hashed in Lola, and who really needs that melodrama) – but the setting in Paris. There were such explicit descriptions of so many landmarks, food, music, and people. The inclusion of it being in a school setting most likely enhanced my love for it. I love learning, and I love being around learning.

I had an experience in college where I heard this song drifting through my windows, and it was a moment I haven’t forgotten, even seven or eight years later. There’s something about beautiful music you haven’t purposefully chosen surrounding you that is incredibly magical. So, Isla hears this song while sitting in her dorm in much the same fashion:


While finding this song on Spotify and playing it – loudly – I became overwhelmed with a longing I didn’t understand. I’ve been to Paris. Twice. Which is two more times than the average person I’ve met. Don’t get me wrong; both trips were tremendous, and my trip after 8th grade is most certainly why I deeply appreciate art today. However, I never felt this kind of longing before for it. I’ve felt it for Italy, Madison, the Bay Area, and Chicago – all when I lived somewhere else.

It launched a very earnest search for French songs to listen to, more books to read set in Paris, and even inspired me to finally watch this DVD from Netflix I’d had since March.

Who knows what inspires us – what, why, and when – but I plan to play this mini obsession out for a bit longer.