Don’t Tell Me What to Read

 

All my life, people have told me, “You need to read this.” I’m going to tell you a secret. On the one hand, I like book recommendations and I seek them out, as well as make them. On the other hand, the moment they’re too strong or the same few books get mentioned over and over, I bristle.

That’s because I believe there is no list of this year’s or this century’s “great books.”

I believe we often exist in a state of emotional or intellectual scurvy. We’re missing something. We don’t need a lot of it, we may have taken it for granted before, but at some point, our teeth are going to fall out, our skin gets weird, everything hurts. Those bleeding gums and aching joints tell us: all systems are failing.

Now, with scurvy, it’s always Vitamin C. In the Age of Sail, Wikipedia informs me, fifty percent of sailors would die on a given trip. Then a Scottish doctor realized a little citrus would solve the problem.

When I’m ailing from a lack of connection or insight or hope or wonder or pleasure, it feels like a kind of scurvy to me. I bruise more easily, emotionally. My heart hurts. Parts of me itch. Parts of me feel numb.

Now I know this scurvy metaphor has its limits, because in scurvy, the right vitamin cures everybody.
But back in the old days, when lemon juice wasn’t universally available, people had to go to different sources and even now, people often use what works best from their own environments. Guava or chili peppers here; seal or muktuk there.

The amazing thing about scurvy is that it kills so many. And yet, in two weeks of easy treatment, it clears right up.
That’s how I feel when I’m reading the right book, like I can feel it healing me—providing just what I need. Which isn’t what everyone else needs. The right story, at the right time, can save a life. I believe that.
Four years ago, I happened to be in New Orleans dealing with a family crisis and I felt depression pulling me into its vortex, hard. My systems lights were flickering. I made myself go on short daily walks, listening to Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel, Awakening.

A year ago, as quarantine was messing with my head and I couldn’t sustain concentration for more than a few minutes at a time, it was Angie Kim’s multicultural mystery/courtroom drama, Miracle Creek.
A few months ago, when I was starting to forget about the power of story—once again—it was a friend’s epic unpublished novel, set in post-war Italy, with a strong woman narrator whose witty voice and open heart I couldn’t get resist.

Those three books couldn’t be any more different. Not only do I have individualized needs when it comes to art, I have needs that vary week by week, situation by situation.

Which is why, if you try to push a book into my hands and say, “Read this now,” especially if it’s a buzzy book, I may say, “Thanks, I’ll add it to my piles, but I may not get to it right away.”

That’s a dangerous thing for an author to say, especially when she has a novel that she sort of wishes everyone would buy and read, right now.

When I do hear my novel was the perfect thing for the woman who is dealing with memories of sexual abuse, or for person who is reckoning with long-buried family secrets, or the stranger who loves Annie Oakley and would like to know about the real woman instead of the cardboard character, or the writer who loves complicated dual-timeline structures, then I’m happy. Gratefully, deliriously so.

But I’m also happy to know you are finding the right book for your emotional and intellectual needs. Even if someone else thinks it’s a fluffy book, or a ponderous academic one, or the one everyone else read ten years ago, meaning you’re not in the Cool Kid Book Club. I hope you’ll find that book and savor it, even if it was written by me or one of my clients or writer friends.

It’s the one you need. It may heal you quickly or at least make your week better. And that’s enough. Enjoy.

 

Andromeda Romano-Lax is a book coach and the author of Annie and the Wolves, recently chosen by Reader’s Digest as one of the Top 50 Fiction Books you should read now. She’ll be appearing in a Kenai Peninsula College Author’s Showcase Event on March 24 at 6 PM (register at www.kpc.alaska.edu), and teaching a one-day workshop on Psychological Suspense (with in-class time to write) on April 3 (visit kbc.noncredit.asapconnected.com and search “Writing”).

6 thoughts on “Don’t Tell Me What to Read”

  1. I appreciate the “permission” not to read what others tell me to read. I’m hungry for different things at different times and usually have a pantry full of books from which to choose, depending upon what I have a yen for at the moment. Of course, some of those books are there for the “nutritional value.” I know I need them and they’ll give me what I need to do the things I want. But balance is important…as is listening to ourselves (body, mind and spirit).

  2. Beautiful post, Andromeda. It reminds me of a well-known book by an Alaskan author that I bought but kept on the shelf for a long time. It wasn’t the right time for me to read it. When I finally did, I loved it. Sometimes books are like that, or people are like that–there’s the right time for reading a particular book.

    1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

      Thanks Lynn. And I have lots of unread books on my shelf for this reason, too, but when I do get to them, it’s usually the right time for that title, as you said.

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