Category Archives: reading

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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.

MapBack

(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

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Book Art

3c9a7c3c1011b71c029716359300f8f8One of my favorite  things to do is to go into a book store and judge book covers. “Gasp! No! This is something you should never do,” you may be thinking. But I think there’s actually merit in appreciating and critiquing the artworks that decorate books. That doesn’t mean I’m judging the writing, though.

The cover of a book is a work of art. There are artists involved in this process, and a lot of time and effort from many different people goes into making them just right. So if you’re not appreciating them or looking at them critically, you’re basically saying that all that effort is a waste of time. In my opinion, going into a bookstore is like going into a museum full of paintings. You may not love or understand every work of art, but you should appreciate its existence.

Here’s a blog that I love. It takes the covers of books and shows how absolutely beautiful they can be.

Bookbento

A photo posted by Book Bento Box (@bookbento) on


And here’s an article that shows some truly gorgeous book covers like this one:

8aaf07f0118381246684b291abef4c23http://drinkmicro.com/25-beautiful-book-covers/

These covers can enrich your home as much as they can your mind. Covers are just one more wonderful thing to love about books!

What are your favorite book covers?

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Getting lost in a book

My preferred activity as a kid was sitting somewhere (I always hoped for inside and air-conditioned during the summer) with my library bag stuffed with ten to fifteen new library books, and reading the day away. I would zip from one universe to another, skip centuries back in time, advance a few thousand light years in the future, face down a dragon or learn new magic words, be embroiled in the Civil War or Elizabethan England…the possibilities were endless. Changing worlds was as effortless as changing from wakefulness to dreams.

Given this, it’s unsurprising that this article from The New York Times piqued my interest. Two writers (Francine Prose and Benjamin Moser) ask whether or not it’s harder for readers to be transported by a book as they get older. Prose argues that children’s bigger imaginations and willingness to suspend disbelief allow them to become more wholly immersed in a book. Adults are more likely to analyze, cross-reference, and compare people and events in a book to things they’ve experienced. Moser says he discovered that he wanted to read the same books again and again, since, “the deeper you go into your own writing, the harder it becomes to enter someone else’s.”

Now of course, neither Prose or Moser’s points are true for everyone. Prose admits that some books still have the ability to totally immerse her in their reading experience and plenty of writers find new inspiration and motivation from reading other people’s work. Reflecting on my own reading trends, I realize that maybe I’m choosing a different kind of immersion as I’ve gotten older. I used to devour everything fantasy & sci-fi as a kid—I loved escaping to other (more exciting) worlds that had the possibility of magic glimmering at every turn. Now, I’m more interested in commercial fiction, “women’s” fiction, and more contemporary fiction, perhaps as a reflection of my own life. I’m turning to these genres for answers, other experiences and perspectives, and identification in my own life. It’s a different kind of immersion. (And I still love sitting down on a weekend and turning my attention to the stack of two or three library books I’ve checked out.)

What do you think? Can you mark a noticeable difference in your reading experience as a child and an adult? Do you think writing helps or hurts your reading?

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Dream Job

A few days ago, I signed a new client—a scientist and researcher who studies dreams, who is writing a smart, heady novel that draws upon the neuroscience of dreaming and pushes it just beyond the threshold of the possible. Think David Mitchell, the film Inception, with a dash of DaVinci Code.  The novel is built like a mystery and set against a dreamscape backdrop that beggars Freud.  The author interleaves both the science and the mythology of dreaming in a tale that is inventive, original and utterly spellbinding.    All this is by way of introduction to the idea that I love my job.   It’s like grad school, but this time without papers, politics or adjunct teaching. Agenting offers exposure to big ideas and the folks who think them, and the opportunity to keep learning pretty much all of the time across a dizzying range of subjects.

Since part of my job is to act as a stand in for a curious, bright-but-not expert reader, I get to ask innumerable questions, request clarifications, and read like mad–sometimes even an actual, published, bound-in-paper book. Other parts of my job are just as satisfying, but in different ways—matchmaking, negotiating, advocating, advising… and the gerunds continue.  Of course, there are plenty of downsides to this business, too; rejection is a constant, there are disappointing sales, difficult people and the always fragile ecosystem of publishers, but I’ll save the grim bits  for another post. On balance, I love the work I do.

And what does that work look like on a day to day basis? My lived version is not especially glamorous.  I was a rank disappointment to a client visiting New York for the first time, who imagined me kitted out in Louboutins and Armani, climbing in red-soled stilettos over the bodies of tourists.  Happily, she forgave me for my lack of resemblance to Anna Wintour or even Annie Hall.  As I’m writing this on Thursday, I’m dashing in sensible flats between meetings with editors from three different imprints, all in midtown. This evening I have two author events, novelist Beth Hahn, author of THE SINGING BONE, doing a reading at the terrific Spine Out series and Mychal Denzel Smith, author of INVISIBLE MAN, GOT THE WHOLE WORLD WATCHING in conversation with Melissa Harris Perry at B&N. Assuming the subways and my legs are functioning, I’ll attend both; the first on the lower east side, the second on the upper west.

Wednesday was a staff meeting in which all the agents in our office go over the projects presently on or near submission.  With more than a dozen agents in attendance, it’s lengthy but informative. This is always followed by an ideas meeting where we pitch potential book concepts. In the interstices, I edited a proposal, responded to countless e-mails, set up author meetings/phone calls for a project on submission, and conducted gently harassing follow-ups on behalf of other projects out in the world. Earlier in the week I learned a great deal about ground scanning radar technology on a conference call with an archeologist client, conferred with a film co-agent shopping the adaptation of a forthcoming work of narrative history, had a long editorial conversation with client/co-authors about a novel in progress,  and requested several projects from queries.  I also tried to glance at social media, the newspaper and the weather.  I managed two thirds of these, hence was umbrella-less on Wednesday when the skies opened up.

The downpour was actually useful. Trapped until the rain slackened with a rapidly draining iPhone battery and no computer, I did something I rarely do in the space of a work day;  I cracked open a book and read—which to me, is living the dream.

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Baby Library Must -Haves

This weekend I attended my cousin’s baby shower and while every other person brought adorable gifts and essentials for the new mom-to-be, I came bearing books. Why? Well, why not? But really, it’s mostly because I have taken it upon myself to help build my little cousin’s first library.

Seeing as I don’t have any knowledge of what goes in a baby’s library past my personal favorites, OH, THE PLACES YOU’LL GO and HORTON HEARS A WHO by Dr. Seuss, I thought I’d enlist your help in completing this little project of mine. 

So what are the must -have books that should be included in every child’s first library? To start off, I took a poll around the office and this is what everyone had to say:

Jane suggested BROWN BEAR, BROWN BEAR, WHAT DO YOU SEE?­­­ by Bill Martin and Eric Carle, and Jessica seconded that and added GOODNIGHT GORILLA by Peggy Rathmann.

Miriam and Michael both went with Dr. Seuss and Miriam suggested a couple more titles: THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR by Eric Carle and GUESS HOW MUCH I LOVE YOU by Sam McBratney.

Stacey’s daughters have loved TAP THE MAGIC TREE and TOUCH THE BRIGHTEST STAR by our very own Christie Matheson.

Jim’s go-to baby gift is Lane Smith’s IT’S A BOOK and IT’S A LITTLE BOOK.

Lauren suggested the hilarious classic ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY, and Lisa Brown’s amazing mommy gifts BABY MIX ME A DRINK, BABY MAKE ME BREAKFAST, BABY DO MY BAKING, and other entertaining titles in the Baby Be of Use series. 

As well as the classics- Sendak, Carle, McCloskey, Rosemary Wells, etc., John also enjoys ALL THE WORLD by Liz Scanlon, which is enjoyable for both parent and child. He also made a good suggestion about getting board books, so babies can play and chew on them!

 Eric added MADELINE by Ludwig Bemelmans to the list, and Mike  and Sharon love THE LITTLE ENGINE THAT COULD, GO DOG GO, and the Llama, Llama series.

Amy went with GOODNIGHT MOON by Margaret Wise Brown and Erin suggested the amazing classic, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE by Maurice Sendak.

Thanks to my wonderful DGLMians , I am off to pretty good start!  Are there any other titles you would like to add?