Category Archives: reading

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Looking at the past

This election year has not been forgiving and in between debates, reading the daily headlines and articles splashed across newspapers, magazines, and various websites, I’ve turned to books for some comfort. I’m currently on a string of historical nonfiction; recently finished DGLM’s own WORST. PRESIDENT. EVER. by Robert Strauss about James Buchanan (and hoping that November does not present a strong contestant for that title) and am  slowly working my way through John Strausbaugh’s dense and thoroughly fascinating CITY OF SEDITION, about New York City’s history and role in the Civil War.

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Surprisingly, I’ve found that reading about other contested elections, prophecies that the United States was doomed to failure if this president or that president tookoffice, and the intense political atmosphere of other decades has been comforting, in its own strange way. These historical non-fiction titles about our country in its growing pains (literally, during westward expansion) have helped to give me a deeper understanding of our nation’s history, for better or for worse. The critical gaze these authors (and others) level at history—indeed, at helping rewrite some of the history I learned in elementary and middle school—is refreshing; at the same time, I know there is much work still to be done. However, these texts have helped me to see the events taking place today in a different kind of light, which I’ve appreciated.

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And, since we’re approaching a long weekend, thanks to another (in)famous figure in our history textbooks, I’m of course on the hunt for some more books to peruse. What historical nonfiction texts have you enjoyed and learned from and why? Why do you think historical nonfiction is important in our world today?

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Keeping it short

September is a brutal month in publishing. In theory things wind down a bit in August, then rev back up after Labor Day, though in practice that August wind down appears to be a thing of the past, so the September rev up is just adding new pressure on top of old. (RIP End of Summer Blank Slate. I will miss you.) And if you’re both a literary agent AND a rights director, the go-go-go nature of September peaks in both sides of your job at once, as publishing resumes its post-vacations speed and international publishing preps for the Frankfurt Book Fair.

So September is the month each year that I find myself incapable of squeezing in pleasure reading, something I work hard to make room for every other month of the year but now need to trade for sleep. That means that when I’m formatting highlight lists and triaging my overflowing inbox, I find myself daydreaming lists of short books I could read if I just, you know, pull an all-nighter, or convince the rest of publishing to call out sick for a day. I find my mind wandering to the slim volumes on my living room bookshelves, my eye wandering to the narrowest book in the to-take-home office stack. This would not be a great time to finally start reading that copy of Infinite Jest I bought freshman year of college, but maybe I could take a quick mental break with some middle grade or a breezy essay collection, right?

Wrong, realistically, but once I’ve powered through to the other side of the never-ending to-do list, I’m going to need a reset. And I’m going to want to speed through some not-DGLM books in October to make up for September’s big zero. So help me out: what are the best books you’ve read that are under 200 pages, or just feel like they are?

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Books Aren’t and Shouldn’t Be Like Real Life

I remember the first time I attended a lecture on writing memoirs. I was expecting this lecture to tell me all the obvious things, like how to write about sad or unbelievable events and make them seem as realistic as the moment they happened. Except that wasn’t at all what I learned. Regardless of what the lecturer was actually teaching us, it all centered around the same idea—books are not real life. Who wants to read about real life? Who wants fiction mirroring exactly what they do on daily basis that they hate so much because it has no significance except to get them from point A to point B? It’s the things that are important, and the little things that snowball into the important things, that we care about.

For instance, if I told you that I woke up this morning and walked my dog, got ready for work, and then I was in horrendous car accident (I wasn’t, I’m fine), you might wonder why I even started with walking the dog. You actually don’t care about the rest of my life. That’s fine, neither do I, except maybe when my dog does something cute that I can Instagram, but otherwise, this is all just run of the mill stuff. It’s exactly what people are trying to escape when they’re reading books. Now, if I told you I went on a walk with my dog and saw a man in a red mustang staring at me, the very car that eventually comes to hit me after the memory of those creepy eyes haunted me the entire time I got ready for work, THEN the dog and the shower and the color of T-shirt I picked out can take on a whole new meaning.

A lot of you probably think this is so self-explanatory, but let’s apply it to larger things, say your male character. He falls in love with someone, gets his heart broken, and doesn’t learn anything from it. This is the same thing as me not learning anything from walking my dog (I rarely look to see if weird men are following me…though that might change now…). Why would we want to read about your male character? Most of us have had those relationships, get in, get out, some weird stuff happens, but you’re basically the same at the end, except you’re wearing sweat pants more—or less depending on your level of self-worth.

So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that when you’re looking at your story, your plot, your characters, your side characters, you should be asking, is this something that people are going to want to read in order to procrastinate on doing the dishes or cleaning up dog poop? Or am I just writing about a person doing something with no real significance?

I guess I can take out that scene where my character dreams about muffins in the middle of trying to kill his uncle. No, that was really a scene in one of my unfinished novels… Actually, I think it’d be funny if anyone can give me a more insignificant scene they wrote before realizing. Impress me.

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Required Reading

In high school, I usually finished out the school year by going home with a list of required reading for my English classes the following school year. Most were typical reading assignments—Catcher in the Rye, Ethan Frome (still my least favorite book to this day), Lord of the Flies —but my junior year, my English teacher surprised me with a mix of contemporary and classics for our summer reading list. I remember reading Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer and The History of Love by Nicole Krauss that summer, as well as Heart of Darkness  by Joseph Conrad.
 
Eight years later (yes, I’m a baby), some of my teacher friends are puzzling over their assigned reading lists and wondering how they can introduce diverse and more contemporary books into their required reading. Given our discussions, this is a conversation I’ve been hearing a lot about and mulling over myself. Some other friends have said that required reading in high school and college turned them off to reading in general. I understand—to a degree—the importance of reading classics, but I do have to wonder about our staunch adherence to the Western canon—which tends to be primarily full of white male authors. Our society is rapidly diversifying and I wonder what it might do for teenagers and young adults and reading culture in general to also see literature taught in schools that reflects their experience or culture.
 
Nicholson Baker’s article in the New York Times Magazine was an interesting read that ties into this conversation. He writes that, “All teaching takes a toll on what’s taught, but high school is wondrously efficient at making interesting things dull.” I slogged throughEthan Fromeas a sophomore in high school, but loved the more contemporary Foer that I was assigned junior year—I had never encountered writing quite like that before. There are so many things available that could spark a love of reading past the classroom, which can help raise reading assessment scores, among other things.
 
One of my friends who works for Teach for America shared that his high school kids were reading at a way lower level than they should be, with no school library, and only the curriculum reading to really foster their reading habits. He gave one girl the first Harry Potter book and she fell in love. Since then, he’s been giving her books from his personal stash at home, and she’s been devouring them. She told him she never knew reading could be fun.
 
What benefits do you think introducing more contemporary or diverse literature into classrooms could have? What is something you wish you’d read in high school? What books are, in your opinion, integral to the high school reading list?
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The Oprah Effect

August 2 turned out to be a big day for Colson Whitehead. Not only was it the launch date of his new novel The Underground Railroad, which had already received rapturous advance reviews. It was also the day that Oprah Winfrey announced that The Underground Railroad would be the latest selection of her Book Club.  As we well know, there is no better friend to a book than Oprah. Her book club has harnessed the power of social media to form a reading community that builds exponentially. She and Whitehead are now promoting The Underground Railroad on just about every platform that exists. What more could any author dream of?  (Well, perhaps any author except Jonathan Franzen, who famously snubbed Oprah’s choice of his The Corrections in 2001 and turned himself into quite the pariah for a while. Not that this hurt his book sales any—in fact, The Corrections enjoyed a good spike after the brouhaha.)

My question is this:  Oprah, what took you so long? This was Oprah’s first new Book Club selection in eighteen months. She claimed that she hadn’t read any book during that time that she loved enough to want to choose. Fair enough, but I’ll bet most of us could have offered her a few suggestions. All the Light We Cannot See? Beautiful Ruins? Maybe even a great YA like Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda?

In the past, Oprah felt free to choose books that had been out for a while, or established classics by writers like Faulkner, Steinbeck, and Tolstoy.  She kept the country reading, at a time when literacy was and remains a matter of real concern.  World leaked out late last week that she may now have another book pick lined up for September. If so, it’s a gratifying sign for readers, writers, and the entire publishing industry. Let’s hope Oprah doesn’t plan to take another eighteen-month hiatus anytime soon.

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Storytelling

As I look with something akin to terror at the icon telling me there are 24 manuscripts in my Urgent to read folder, I’m thinking, as I have been so much lately (this week, this month, this year, this last few years), about what it means to be an agent. When I moved back to New York after grad school, I only applied to two kinds of jobs: non-profits and publishing. You all know where I ended up (insert joke about profitability of publishing here), but I like to think that I’ve built a career where I can achieve the goals both those types of jobs represented: trying to do some good in the world and working with the written word. Beyond the ways in which books do, as a whole, make the world a better place, I also work hard to tailor my list to something that Alternate Universe Lauren who runs a non-profit would be proud of, whether I’m looking at serious non-fiction or commercial fiction and everything in between.

And in working on that project–on trying to make sure that my client list and the books I represent do good in the world in addition to telling compelling, enriching stories–I find myself coming back repeatedly to this Ted Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on the danger of a single story. It’s from 2009 and many people have seen it, but if you haven’t, I urge you to watch. It’s an important facet not just of publishing and reading, but of existing in a world that is in so many ways, from politics to news media to social media to advertising to memory to relationships, constructed on stories. As a person who commodifies stories for a living, I try to do justice to them, and the complex people behind them, and the complex people reading them. And I’m grateful to Adichie for telling this story in such a way that it’s crystallized in my brain to guide me.

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Get Out and Read

As a huge fan of maps and finding unique things to do in my city on the weekend, I found this article detailing artist Jason Polan’s map of the best places to read in Los Angeles a wonderful treat. Even if you don’t live in LA, you have to appreciate how amazing this map is. Reading can be a very insular experience, keeping you locked indoors with your favorite blanket, or it can give you a reason to go out and just sit somewhere while becoming a part of the setting—a park, the beach, or perhaps under a tree in the amazing bookstore, Book Soup, of Los Feliz. I tend to prefer the blanket and couch scenario, but every time I do get out of my house, I find I have a far greater appreciation for reading. It could be the vitamin D, or that weird association with happiness and sun, or perhaps just that I feel more a part of society or nature. Whatever it is, there’s undeniably something special about reading outdoors.

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(The back of Jason Polan’s map.)

I plan on picking up one of those maps, but what really interests me, is the thought of making my own map of the best places to read in LA. So far I have one place that is nearly unbeatable.

The café at Griffith Observatory.

I took my dog on a walk through Griffith Park late one Saturday afternoon, planning to sit under a tree and tuck into some summer reading. As I started walking, I realized I could walk all the way up to the Griffith Observatory, which seemed like a challenge me and my pup were up to. I was currently reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed, which was partly the reason I tortured myself walking the two mile, six hundred feet climb to the observatory. When we got there, the café was our first stop for some water, and I was so blown away with the beautiful scenery, I ended up staying for hours. My pup slept under my feet, and I got through nearly half of Wild. I took breaks from the book to look over the city, enamored that a place so beautiful existed, AND allowed dogs, AND allowed me to sit there for hours nursing some free water. When the sun went down, I was faced with a far more beautiful sight: stars as bright as the city lights below them. It truly is a magical spot, and it made the book I was reading—particularly because the book also deals with getting out in the world—even more special and memorable for me. Plus, it’s called the Café at the End of the Universe, how could it be better?

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(My dog, Nyx, looking very cultured.)

Cafe at the End of the Universe at Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles, CA

Cafe at the End of the Universe at Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles, CA

(The café at night.)

I’m looking forward to finding more spots in LA where I can cozy up to a nice book while also enjoying the great city I have the privilege to live in. Perhaps I’ll have a few updates in the future!

Where are the best places to read in your city?

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What Book Made You Feel Proud to be a Woman?

In response to this question on BuzzFeed, my answer would be The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pisan, for the simple reason that Christine was a feminist in a time when the term was unheard of.  Her writing, which praises women and their talents, and argues for their status as equal members of society, paved a way for female writers some six hundred years later.

Widowed by age 25 in 1390 France, Christine found herself responsible for the welfare of her mother, niece, and two young children. Pisan took it upon herself to earn a living and chose writing as the best course. It was not a very popular route for a woman at the time, obviously, but she persevered and proved to be very good at it. Her most famous work, The Book of the City of Ladies, came in response to Jean de Meun’s (another famous writer of the time) criticism of women for their lack of contribution to society. In her book, Pisan built an allegorical city, where every aspect of the foundation was reflective of a famous woman in history who had contributed to the development of society, thus proving Meun wrong.

I studied Pisan my junior year in college and I remember I wasn’t exactly fascinated with all the authors we studied in my Medieval Lit class, but Pisan remained ingrained in my mind. Her spirit and character were inspiring and for the first time, a book made me proud to be a woman. Since then, I have come to really appreciate the significance of women penning the most amazing pieces of literature in the world, from Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, to the stunning story telling of J.K. Rowling in Harry Potter, and the humor and brilliance of Caitlin Moran in How to be a Woman.

What about you? What book made you feel proud to be a woman?

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Animals & Reading

My heart was recently broken this week by this HuffPost article that announced that Browser, the resident library cat of White Settlement Public Library in Texas was being evicted by the city council. He’s lived in the library for over five years (first brought in to help with a mouse problem). Although Browser doesn’t serve an educational purpose, he’s clearly become a fixture in the community—a petition had over 600 signatures to keep Browser in the library—and it got me thinking about the ways that animals can be involved in our reading experiences. Whether it’s your cat obstinately sitting across your book or a dog draped across your feet as you read, many of us have had the company of our pets as we peruse a book. I was pleasantly surprised to find that animals are involved with reading all over the place, with positive benefits for all parties involved.

LOOK AT THAT FACE. And his BOWTIE.

Take, for instance, the Reading with Rover program, sponsored by Animal Friends in Pittsburgh. Shy or struggling readers in grades one through three practice their reading skills by reading out loud to dogs. ARF! is another program sponsored by All for Animals, with a similar idea, for kids grades K-6. On the flip side, one Humane Society in Missouri has started the Shelter Buddies Reading Program, where kids 6-15 can sign up to read to shy or fearful dogs in the shelter and undergo a 10 hour training program. The program director says it helps give the dogs social interaction (which can help them get adopted faster), without pushing physical interaction upon them; young readers simply sit outside their kennel and read aloud. The New Hampshire SPCA also has a similar program.

If there had been something like this in my neighborhood as a kid, I totally would have volunteered. I think it’s a lovely measure that has advantages for everyone involved and one that’s hopefully instilling pleasant and positive memories in young readers who participate! I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter!

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True romance

It’s the Wednesday before July 4th weekend and I was sitting at my desk thinking about what I should write about that’s not too heavy—you know you’re all just thinking burgers, beers, and lounging by a pool right now—when I came across this delightfully obvious article in the HuffPost.  Well, I mean, obvious to me….

I’ve been married for roughly 100 years and was more of a serial monogamist than dater back in the day so I’m not an authority on the subject, but I never had a romantic connection with anyone who didn’t read, didn’t love discussing books and plays, and wasn’t able to tell me in loving detail about the titles that had had the most impact on him.  That, of course, applies to most (all?) of my good friends as well, when I think about it.

Personally, I think the way to anyone’s heart is not through their stomach but through their book collection.  Do you have any stories of meeting cute through books you’d like to share?

Sense and Sensibility