“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.

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, “How do you hear about all those books?” Here’s what I’ve figured out:

  1. Watch for award stickers and/or starred reviews. I want to read the very best books, and I picked up many of my favorites above simply because of a gold or silver sticker on the cover or a starred review such as Publisher’s WeeklyKirkus, or School Library Journal.
  2. Ask booksellers and authors and other bibliophiles.  Every time I go to The King’s English in Salt Lake City I ask for recommendations. The booksellers there ask me what I like so that their suggestions are tailored to my tastes. Can it get any better? I pull those off the shelves, read the first few pages, and buy whichever ones suck me in. Book review blogs are also great sources for bibliophile recommendations.
  3. Join goodreads. I got to the point that I couldn’t keep up with listing what I read anymore, but this is still an awesome resource. 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. You can also get updates of what your friends are reading, and if any of the books sounds interesting, you can add it to your to-read list.
  4. Use your library’s website. Another great way to keep that TBR pile well stocked is to put books on hold at the library. It’s awesome. It’s free. And depending on how long each hold list is, 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.)

What are my favorite books?

There are too many to name them all, but here are plenty to get you started:

  • The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, and The King of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner
  • I Am the Messenger by Marcus Zusak
  • All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater
  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
  • All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
  • Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor
  • Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
  • Life of Pi by Yann Martel
  • All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  • Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • Atonement by Ian McEwan
  • The Martian by Andy Weir
  • Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
  • The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale
  • Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
  • Graceling by Kristin Cashore
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier
  • The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
  • Goddess of Yesterday by Caroline B. Cooney
  • Enchantment by Orson Scott Card
  • Elantris by Brandon Sanderson
  • The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer
  • Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare

I really could go on and on. The colorful spines on my bookshelves are calling out, “Hey! You forgot me! And me!” I love every book I own.

Who are my favorite authors? 

Megan Whalen Turner, Charlie Jane Anders, M. T. Anderson, Marcus Zusak, Laini Taylor, Susanna Clarke, Shannon Hale, Maggie Stiefvater, Leigh Bardugo.

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.

What am I reading right now?

This is generally how my reading stack looks:

  • one or two young adult novels that I’ve recently picked up
  • 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
  • books for research into whatever I’m writing about

I like to have all these going at once so every night I can pick up whichever I’m in the mood for.

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 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 what it means to be human, because all stories are about the human experience.

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 are 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.)

4 thoughts on “Reading

  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


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