“Books have no other responsibility than not to make the reader hate reading.”

~Mary Pearson, “What YA Lit Is and Isn’t”

Reading can be addicting. There’s a high that comes from learning or experiencing something profound in a book, whether fiction or nonfiction. And it always makes me a little sad to encounter people who have never discovered that — or worse, who hate reading. I created this page to answer questions that people ask me when they find out I’m a reader, but also to answer the questions that I wish they’d ask.


What do I read?

Well, fiction is the primary answer.  Give me a great story with great writing, and I’m sold!

But I also have an addiction to nonfiction, if the topic and treatment are just right. After all, I still want story: I want them to treat the subject like a mystery the author is slowly unfolding, keeping me on the edge of my seat, wanting to know more. If nonfiction is full of “dry, yeastless factuality” — a line I love from Life of Pi — then it’s not for me.

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Where do I hear about great stories with great writing?

My “to-read” pile is always sky high, so I get asked this question a lot, usually in the form, Hydrangeas“How do you hear about all those books?”  I’ve actually trained myself to hear about them, like a bloodhound on the scent.  (Do you train a bloodhound? Maybe that’s a poor metaphor.)  So here’s what I’ve figured out:

  1. Watch for award stickers and/or starred reviews (from Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, and Kirkus, mainly).  The stickers are only awarded to books that have good writing.  Whether or not the stories are right for me is hit and miss, but still the awards and starred reviews are a great starting point.
  2. Ask booksellers and authors and other bibliophiles what they recommend.  Every time I go to The King’s English in Salt Lake City I make sure to find someone in the young adult section to tell me what’s new that I “have to read.”  The booksellers there are smart, and they ask me first what I like, and that way their recommendations are tailored to my tastes. Can it get any better? I pull all of these off the shelves, read the first few pages, write the titles and authors in a notebook, and buy whichever ones have already sucked me in. After that, I am lucky enough to be friends with one of my favorite authors, Shannon Hale, so she passes along must-reads to me as well.  Book review blogs are also great sources for bibliophile recommendations.
  3. Join goodreads. This is honestly the best site there ever was. People who love books list every book they read and rate it and review it, so you can click on books you’ve heard about through 1 and 2 above and see what hundreds or even thousands of ordinary readers think about it. Also, you get emails showing what your friends are reading, and if it sounds interesting, you can add it to your to-read list.
  4. Use your library’s website. If I hear about a book that’s super fantastic, I go straight to the library’s site and put a copy on hold, then they email me when it’s ready and they put it on a shelf and actually put my name on the book.  It’s awesome.  And it’s free.  And it makes it so that I’ve always got plenty to read, because depending on how long the hold lists are, the books arrive at different times, staggering my reading list. (Of course, if a book is so fantastic that the hold list is miles long, I go and buy myself a copy.)

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What are my favorite books?

The most complete list is on my goodreads favorites shelf, and of those, here are some fiction titles I consider essential:

  • Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
  • Life of Pi by Yann Martel
  • The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, and The King of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner
  • Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
  • The Goose Girl and/or Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
  • The Book Thief and also I Am the Messenger by Marcus Zusak
  • Goddess of Yesterday by Caroline B. Cooney
  • Enchantment by Orson Scott Card
  • Elantris and The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
  • The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
  • The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

I’ve listed the complete inventory of the header down below.

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Who are my favorite authors? 

Megan Whalen Turner, M. T. Anderson, Marcus Zusak, Laini Taylor, Susanna Clarke, Shannon Hale, Maggie Stiefvater, Brandon Sanderson.

Each of them is so brilliant that I know even if one of their books doesn’t become a favorite the read will still be amazing and worthwhile. For me, that’s the criteria of a favorite author: that I want to read everything they write because I can trust that they’ve crafted it well.

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What am I reading right now?

This is generally how my currently reading stack goes: a young adult novel that I’ve recently heard about, an adult novel that is taking me longer to read so I’m getting through it in between YA novels (which are shorter and quicker), a nonfiction book or two about whatever subject has fascinated me recently, and books for research into whatever I’m writing about. I like to have five going at once so every night I can pick up whichever I’m in the mood for.

As of this update (April 2016), that stack looks like this: Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert,  Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan, Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson, Eve and the Choice Made in Eden by Beverly Campbell, The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, and Light in the Wilderness: Explorations in the Spiritual Life by M. Catherine Thomas.

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Why do I think reading fiction is so essential?

Okay, so you probably weren’t asking yourself that, but it’s a question I feel strongly about.  Stories play a fundamental role in our lives, but most people aren’t aware of it.  In fact, I run into too many people who feel like reading fiction is actually a waste of time or simply a diversion or an escape from reality.  Ack!  I have to refrain from shaking people.

Stories teach us humanity, plain and simple.  They teach us to appreciate and understand the Other, or in other words people who are different from us.  We learn sympathy and empathy and compassion toward other people by hearing their stories, and fiction provides a way to actually be in someone else’s head through an entire saga in their life.  It doesn’t matter that the character isn’t real because fiction writers work very hard to make their characters true to life, which is the important thing.  It’s like a simulation.  You can’t ever actually be in someone’s head, but the author is giving you a glimpse of what that might be like. Every book gives you new ways to see the world, and I think that’s essential.

Now, as for fantasy stories, where the circumstances aren’t even possible, let alone probable, here’s the second part of my answer about essentialness: Stories provide metaphors that teach us stronger, more enduring lessons than any lecture could ever instruct us in.  We learn about the loneliness of being a hero and fighting for what’s good and that sort of thing in a much more concrete way than we can in real life.  More concrete?  Yes.  Because in real life, the outcomes of our actions might take years to unfold, so it’s harder to see the whole picture.  Stories provide the models.  I’m not saying I’m in favor of didactic fiction, that sets out to teach a particular principle.  What I’m saying instead is that stories naturally teach us about what it means to be human, because all stories are about the human experience.

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How important is reading to writing?

Can I answer this strongly enough?  Reading is the KEY.  How can you know how to write well unless you’ve read pieces that have been written well?  How can you know what makes a good story unless you’ve read lots and lots of good stories?  How can you even know where to put punctuation marks unless you’ve read enough to be accustomed to where they go?

I once attended a graduate-level poetry class where the professor asked us to name our favorite poets, and most of the class couldn’t think of any!  It was nuts.  You have to read the sorts of things you’re trying to write.  When I teach, if I had to choose between giving the students a textbook with instructions and giving them a reader full of samples, I’d choose the reader hands down.  We learn by observation.  Reading is essential!

(By the way, if you’re looking for some great, accessible poetry, try Billy Collins.  His Sailing Alone Around the Room is the only poetry collection that I’ve read straight through, cover to cover.)

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What are all those books on your old header?

These are just a few of the books I own and love, though some of my favorites aren’t in the picture for various reasons (out on loan, etc). I know it’s hard to read the titles, so here’s the complete list, which appears in alphabetical order by author’s last name, even in the photo, because I’m neurotic about things like that sometimes:

  • Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
  • Octavian Nothing Vol.I&II by M. T. Anderson
  • The Underneath by Kathy Appelt
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  • Expecting Adam by Martha Beck
  • Psyche in a Dress by Francesca Lia Block
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • Graceling by Kristin Cashore
  • Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
  • Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • Goddess of Yesterday by Caroline B. Cooney
  • A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly
  • Alphabet of Dreams by Susan Fletcher
  • The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler
  • The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
  • Paper Towns by John Green
  • Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
  • Austenland, The Goose Girl and Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale
  • Iliad by Homer
  • Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
  • Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman
  • Goose Chase by Patrice Kindl
  • Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
  • Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier
  • Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • Life of Pi by Yann Martel
  • Atonement by Ian McEwan
  • Carnival Evening by Linda Pastan
  • East by Edith Pattou
  • Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
  • The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
  • The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
  • The Way He Lived by Emily Wing Smith
  • Fairies of Dreamdark by Laini Taylor
  • The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, and The King of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner
  • The Diaries of Adam and Eve by Mark Twain
  • Flipped by Wendelin Van Draanen
  • Impossible by Nancy Werlin
  • The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski
  • I Am the Messenger and The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

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What books would I recommend to nonreaders looking to become readers?

I argue that the fastest way to recover a love of reading (say, after high school has killed it) is to pick up some awesome young adult novels. Almost all the novels I’ve listed below are YA, and I’d be willing to bet there’s something for everybody here, whether teen or adult, guy or girl.

Once you’ve reawakened that thirst for books, you can go anywhere with it and discover which genres you prefer.

Also, if you’ve got any kind of commute, one brilliant way to recover a love of reading is to check out audio books from the library and listen to them while you drive. I’ll list a few of my favorite audio “reads” at the bottom, both YA and adult level.

*One quick warning: my taste in books is fairly liberal as far as content. I’ll use an asterisk code for any potentially objectionable material I remember: *harsh swear words, **sex scenes, ***both.

That stuff bothers me when it’s used gratuitously (in other words, when it’s not necessary for the story), but I can say that it didn’t bother me in these ones. None of the sex scenes are explicit, either, just there. I’m using the asterisks for readers who might be more sensitive about those things than I am.


For Guys or Girls

My latest favorite that I think would appeal to everyone is Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy. So far (as of October 2010) only the first two are out: Leviathan and Behemoth. They take place in the ubercool alternate reality of “steam punk,” a cross between past and future, set in 1918 but with some fantastic technology that isn’t even possible in our day. The stories follow Prince Aleksander of Austria and English girl-disguised-as-boy Deryn Sharp as they get swept into World War I aboard the enormous Darwinist airship Leviathan.

If you haven’t tried Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy yet, you should. They’re about teens being forced to fight to the death on reality TV in a future where the government is evil, and though the premise is gruesome, the story is incredible. And if you like those, then James Dashner’s The Maze Runner is another apocolyptic YA novel to hit next, which is also a planned triology.

If those start to whet your appetite for reading, then you might be able to move into some of my other favorites, like Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, and The King of Attolia, which are all about Eugenides, a thief who might just become your favorite character of all time. These aren’t as fast-paced, but I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t love them by the end of the first book. She’s the master of the plot twist, and these twists will blow you away.

Similarly, I highly recommend Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game as a mystery with awesome twists.


Guy-oriented Picks

That’s not to say girls won’t love them (because I do), but I’m trying to think of awesome books that guys (teens or adults) could get into.

These ones are teen-centered but with plenty of cross-over appeal for adults: John Green is great fun and award-winning, and I liked his Paper Towns* the best, about the most sought-after girl in school suddenly disappearing; M. T. Anderson is one of my favorites, and I’d say that his book Feed* — a satiric view of the future of America — would be the most accessible for nonreaders, while his two-volume Octavian Nothing will appeal to readers who’d eat up revolutionary era historical fiction and don’t mind big words (Feed* and Octavian Nothing are opposites in many ways); Marcus Zusak is also amazing, and while The Book Thief is by far his most popular/memorable, narrated by Death in WWII Germany, it can be a little hard to get into, so you might start with I Am the Messenger***, which is about a 19-year-old Australian cab driver turned hero. 

For an awesome monster read, full of plenty of suspense, gore, and natural philosophy, get Rick Yancey’s The Monstrumologist.

If your taste runs more toward sci-fi/fantasy, I loved Shannon Hale’s Dangerous, Orson Scott Card’s Enchantment** (about a guy studying Russian folklore who stumbles into the reality of Baba Yaga’s terror, and by the time I got 50 pages in I couldn’t put it down for the next 300), and Brandon Sanderson’s books Elantris and The Emperor’s Soul.

dangerouselantrisemperor's soul

By the way, I’ve listened to the audio versions of Octavian Nothing and The Book Thief and both are awesome.


Girly Picks

This is definitely the easiest section for me, since I am a girl. For realistic fiction, I’d recommend If I Stay by Gayle Forman, Sweethearts or How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr, and the futuristic Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary Pearson.

how to save a life

For suspenseful and slightly paranormal romance, if you’ve read Twilight and need to know where to go next, I’d say Shiver** by Maggie Stiefvater is what you should pick up. I’d tell you what it’s about, but that might spoil it. I’ll just say this is one book you can judge by its cover, because the feel of the book definitely matches the look of it. I also loved Nancy Werlin’s Impossible**, about a modern teen girl who must solve a riddle to break free of an ancient fairy curse. And Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl’s Beautiful Creatures is awesome, too — told from a guy’s point of view as he gets to know a strange new girl in town.

Fairy tale retellings can be a nice compromise between real and fantastic, and I’d recommend Shannon Hale’s Goose Girl and Juliet Marillier’s Wildwood Dancing and Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted (not at all like the movie)

ella enchanted

Then, if you’re willing to try a little higher level of fantasy, read Kristin Cashore’s Graceling trilogy about people with extraordinary gifts (Graces).


If you can jump to fairies after that, I highly recommend Laini Taylor’s two-book Faeries of Dreamdark series, her three-tale collection Lips Touch Three Times**, and her Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy**.



Audio Books My Husband and I Both Loved 

  • Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (our all-time favorite audio book)
  • The Book Thief* by Marcus Zusak (mild swearing: asterisk for if kids are listening)
  • Octavian Nothing by M. T. Anderson
  • Life of Pi by Yann Martel
  • The Lovely Bones** by Alice Sebold
  • 1776 by David McCullough

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3 responses »

  1. Hi,
    So remember how I haven’t read a novel (of my choosing) in over a decade? I took some advice from your site (well, I really just lucked out that my wife was reading it) and am reading “The Hunger Games”. I didn’t think I could ever enjoy reading as a past time and get into “a book” like this.
    If nothing else came out of your first semester of 2010, you at least instilled in me something that I have not enjoyed for over 10 years. I am anxious to finish this book before the semester starts next week and then start the second.
    Thanks so much!
    Jason McIlrath


  2. Pingback: Depth « All About the Words

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