WSIRN Episode 224: Confronting the Bookshelf of Shame

WSIRN Episode 224: Confronting the Bookshelf of Shame

Readers you know what we do here. Each week I help a guest, and hopefully some of you choose your next read. Well I hope this week you’re planning on making your next read my new book Don’t Overthink It. Don’t Overthink It comes out March 3rd so right now you still have a chance to preorder yourself a copy and snag the bonuses we’ve put together for all those who preorder. 

Like many readers, today’s guest Lacey Yong is creative. But her writing hobby is beginning to clash with her book selections, so she came to me with the question “how do I pick books that inspire me to write, without being too influenced by authors who write in my genre?” It’s a tricky problem, but one we can work through.

Lacey is ready to steer her reading life toward more challenging waters, and also ready to tackle the titles on what her husband jokingly calls her “bookshelf of shame.” Longtime listeners, you know I have thoughts about that phrasing, and I can’t wait to talk all about it with Lacey—and with you—today. 

Let’s get to it! 

WSIRN Episode 224: Confronting the Bookshelf of Shame. Photo of guest Lacey Yong, a Chinese-American woman with black hair wearing an ornate red and black dress, smiling brightly at the camera. A text block next to the photo reads "I believe there's a time in your life when you're meant to read a certain book."

Connect with Lacey Yong on Instagram!

ANNE: Hang on, I have a stink bug on my microphone. [LACEY GASPS] Okay, hey, just a second. I’m going to walk away so I can shoo it outside. [LACEY LAUGHS]


ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 224.

Welcome to the show that’s dedicated to answering the question that plagues every reader: What should I read next?

We don’t get bossy on this show: What we WILL do here is give you the information you need to choose your next read. Every week we’ll talk all things books and reading, and do a little literary matchmaking with one guest.

Readers, you know what we do here. Each week I help a guest and hopefully some of you choose your next read. Well I hope this week you’re planning on making your next read–my next book Don’t Overthink It. Don’t Overthink It comes out March 3rd so right now you still have a chance to preorder yourself a copy and snag the bonuses we put together for all those who preorder.

So right now call your bookstore and ask them to order you a copy or click one of the links in the show notes on your podcast player. Then you can enter your receipt number and email address into our preorder form–also linked in the show notes. That’s at You’ll get instant access to the Don’t Overthink It video course, which is already helping readers. You also get an access code for a free ebook of my second book, an essay collection called I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life, and then after release you also get a code for a free audiobook version of Don’t Overthink It. Readers, this is your only opportunity to get the book in two formats for the price of one.

If you’re listening now and are inclined to buy the book, a preorder would help me so much. In today’s publishing landscape, preorders are so important. At this point in the process what preorders do is build buzz, nudge reviewers to give a book coverage, and determine marketing budgets—three things that are hugely important to a book’s success. Many of you have kindly asked what you can do to support me as a podcaster and as an author, and right now, your preorder would be such a help. And if you then wanted to tell your friends about the book, that would be amazing.

Preorder Don’t Overthink It wherever new books are sold, including at your favorite independent bookstore. Thanks in advance, and happy reading.

Like many readers, today’s guest Lacey Yong is creative. But her writing hobby is beginning to clash with her book selections, so she came to me with the question “how do I pick books that inspire me to write, without being too influenced by authors who write in my genre?” It’s a tricky problem, but it’s totally one we can work through. You’ll hear why these days Lacey is ready to steer her reading life toward more challenging waters, and also ready to tackle the titles on what her husband jokingly calls her “bookshelf of shame.” Longtime listeners, you know I have thoughts about that phrasing, and I can’t wait to talk all about it with Lacey—and with you—today. Let’s get to it.

Lacey, welcome to the show.


LACEY: Thank you so much, Anne. I have to say everybody in my family knows that I’m speaking with you today. [BOTH LAUGH]

ANNE: Do you come from a family of readers?

LACEY: You know, it’s funny. I don’t. Neither of my parents are particularly big readers. My brother’s a fan of thrillers, but my dad doesn’t read at all. But the one service they did for me or at least my mother did was make sure that I read a lot when I was growing up, so they always brought me to the library and it was just a sure thing from then on, really.


ANNE: Now I know you’re in Calgary now. Is that where you grew up?

LACEY: I actually grew up in a small northern town in Alberta, eight hours north of Calgary. You know, so when I was growing up, there wasn’t - there wasn’t a whole ton to do except really go to the library. You know, we have really long winters so I often found myself sorta cooped up with a book indoors because, you know, when it’s -20 outside you can’t really do much.

ANNE: Oh, that hurts.


ANNE: But it’s great reading weather.

LACEY: It is. it is. I think part of my journey towards being a reader was also encouraged by the fact that when I was growing up, I was - I was not always in the best of health, so I spent a lot of time indoors. You have to really amuse yourself when you’re inside and everybody else is outside. But I can’t regret any of it because it’s really such a huge part of my life now.

ANNE: What you said puts me in mind something that happened in my childhood. Our experiences I imagined are not the same, and yet at the same time I do vividly remember this time I was babysitting at my regular babysitting job I had with this little girl filling the gap between when her school ended and her mom got home. And I realized in the course of our afternoon, that she had chicken pox and I had never had chicken pox, and I am old enough that the vaccine was not routinely administered when you’re a child. There was no vaccine to my knowledge. This is something I got as a late teen or maybe early adult, but I thought it’s highly contagious. I’ve never had it. She has chicken pox. It’s like, I’m going to miss school for two weeks.

So in the course of, like, the two or three hours we spent together, I went from shock, anger, to just full on planning. Okay. I’m going to be stuck at home for two weeks. My parents have had it. That’s going to be fine. Can I get like the teach-yourself-German cassette tapes from the local bookstore? How many books do I have at home on my bookshelf? I was literally making a list of library books my mom could pick up for me ‘cause I wasn’t going to leave the house. And I was deep enough into this plan that by the time the mother got home and was like, oh, she hasn’t been contagious for a week; what are you talking about? I mean, honestly, I was deeply disappointed at that point.


LACEY: [LAUGHS] Illness can sometimes really be a gateway to the interior life you know, it’s never fun, but at the same time, you certainly are given the opportunity to read books that you probably don’t otherwise have time or interest in. So yeah, I understand that. [LAUGHS] I understand the disappointment really when you didn’t get a chance to do it.

ANNE: Gateway to the interior life. What beautiful phrasing.

LACEY: Oh, thank you.

ANNE: So, Lacey, it sounds like your love of reading starting young. What happened as you got older?

LACEY: I continued to read a lot. I think the breaking point sorta came for me when I was university, when I started reading for academic essays and things like that. And - oh, Anne, [LAUGHS] I undertook a course in English literature. That was my degree. And it took me years after that to learn how to enjoy reading a book again.

ANNE: Oh, no.


ANNE: You really just called your English literature studies the breaking point in your reading life.

LACEY: Oh, yes, I guess I did. Oh, that’s so embarrassing. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: Oh, no, it’s not embarrassing. People always assume I’m an English major and the reason I’m not is I don’t even remember who warned me about this, but I loved to read and write about reading in high school. [LAUGHS] Someone told me it won’t be fun anymore if you pursue that, and I was scared, and I believed them, and I know plenty of English majors who never reached the breaking point and who have the benefit of having studied all those classic works in school and contemporary works when they were a student, and I envy that. But, oh, I don’t envy your breaking point. Okay, so tell me more about that.

LACEY: Well it is true that you know, if you do a degree in English literature, you have the opportunity to read all these incredible works you know, for example, I would have never read Fortune of the Lady by myself. It was a total slog until I think the last 40 pages when it was absolutely transcendent. I think the problem became when I came time to my own recreational reading, all I could think of was the technical terms. All I could see was ooh, here’s theme. Here’s where the author did this, and did they do it well, or did they not do it well? I just couldn’t engage with the characters or the plot very easily anymore.

So immediately after my English lit degree, I went into a law degree and throughout law school, I read graphic novels pretty much exclusively 1) because, you know, the workload is pretty intense, but 2) I think I was still in a [LAUGHS] in a hangover from my English literature degree. But I think the nice thing about graphic novels is you know, there’s a lot of action, there’s a lot of sort of visual interest that pulls you into the story. So it just took me a little while to be able to take off my academic life and just, you know, enjoy a book again. But I’m happy to say that I’m over that phase in my life and now I’m facing another issue which I’m hoping to talk to you about today.


ANNE: Well tell me about it.

LACEY: So when my husband and I returned to Calgary. I’d been living for six years in London. One of the things that arose is of course, you’re transitioning between jobs and suddenly I’ve had a lot of time to explore my hobbies again and one of them is creative writing. Something that I loved to do when I was younger, but again, I think the academic experience kinda killed it for me. [BOTH LAUGH]

I’m exploring again. I’m loving it. I’m preparing pieces for submission you know, to various things, but the problem that I’m facing now is as I write my own stuff, I find it so difficult to concentrate on other people’s works. And it’s the most dismissing thing in the world because you know, if you want to get better as a writer, you have to read. But I’ve never, aside from, you know that blip in university, I’ve never had a problem with just sorta continuously reading and now I find myself sorta between books, flipping through books, reading a couple pages here and there and just never settling into one work. And it is so disconcerting.

ANNE: Do you have a theory for what you think is going on?

LACEY: I suspect that one of the issues is that when you're writing, you know, you’re trying to find your own voice, your own style. Maybe in the process of developing it, when you read somebody else’s work, you’re so sorta engrossed in what you’re trying to create, that suddenly switching focus and allowing yourself to sink into somebody else’s prose is a bit of shift too far. This is my theory. I don’t know if it’s actually true. But that’s what I’m finding. I still read. I still will read like a couple paragraphs of different novels or nonfiction just to get a sense of oh, how did they do this. Oh, how did they transition from a scene? How did they arrange their words? But you know, again, that’s sorta reading for a specific purpose as opposed to reading for enjoyment.


ANNE: Mmhmm. I read a book back in the fall. It was interesting. It was not entertaining. It was called What We Talk About When We Talk About Books: the History and Future of Reading. It was by Leah Price. I listened to the audio. Not my favorite format for that book perhaps, but it was five hours and you know, I could finish it in just a few sessions of long runs. But something that really stuck with me from reading that book because you know, sometimes you read a book and you may not have loved the book, there was one line or one idea that you are so glad is now part of you and you wouldn’t give it up for anything, and that’s how I feel about this. But she talked at length about what we do when we make reading a means to an end. That is whether we are reading a book because we have to write a paper about it or because we’re reading because we’ve been told that it will give us more empathy. You know like, how I believe in reading makes you actually a better person because it makes you kinder and more empathetic and those are wonderful things. But if you’re reading with the end being the only reason you’re doing it, I mean, where’s the fun in that?

LACEY: Exactly.

ANNE: It sounds like it’s easy for you right now to read as a means to an end. Not for the reasons you used to when you were reading because you enjoyed reading.

LACEY: Gosh, I never thought about that but you’re right. I have sorta unconsciously followed into that mode of reading, and oh, I would so love some help to get out of it. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: Lacey, do you have other writers that you talk to about - about your writing?

LACEY: I do. I recently started a writer’s group with another woman who is writing a memoir and I’ve just been attending some classes at the local writing center.

ANNE: Oh, that’s great.


LACEY: Yeah. It’s really - it’s really wonderful to find a community, but thus far actually, I haven’t spoken about this problem to anybody else. I don’t know if anybody else suffers from it. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: I think you’ll find if you hang out with other writers, I don’t believe this is universally true, but I’ve heard it said time and time again, writers need to be really careful about what they’re reading while they’re writing because you don’t want someone else’s voice to influence your own, and I feel like that can sound really pretentious like if you’re listening and you’re not a writer and you’re like now picturing us with our berets and our like long cigarette handle things like they had in the, like no, that’s not what’s happening here. It’s like when I go to Texas, I come back and I can’t stop saying “y’all”...


ANNE: Because I have enough “y’all” naturally in me growing up in Kentucky when I’m around people saying “y’all” for a few days, I’m like, yup, this reminds me of how I think it sounds adorable and comfortable. I can’t stop. That’s also true for writers. Like when I was writing my new book Don’t Overthink It, I read so much fiction without fear of it influencing my writing voice because it was so totally different and that was a joy because I was like oh, I can’t read how-to books. What I really need to read right now for the sake of my craft is like a new mystery. I mean, of course, like good style is good style, but I wasn’t afraid that I would read Louise Penny and then suddenly start sounding like Louise Penny in my like personal growth book, you know? And is this - is this the kind of thing you’re talking about?

LACEY: I think it could be, yes. It is definitely unconscious but I just, I, you know, I never thought about maybe just trying to read a book in a genre that is so totally different and maybe not something that I usually read. So for example, I don’t typically tend to read mysteries. I do love it when, you know, a book has a kind of mystery element to it, but I don’t specifically sit down and read a police procedural for example. And now I’m starting to think that maybe I should [LAUGHS] because I certainly don’t write in that - in that genre. I tend to, you know, at the moment I’m kind of writing lyrical YA, so maybe I just need to jump into a really hardboiled detective novel just knock me out of my - my rut because yes. What I’m doing right now is definitely not working.

ANNE: I mean, if you’re writing lyrical YA, then you absolutely want to be reading lyrical YA, but not at the same time. There’s another hazard to reading while you’re writing. When you put down your draft that you’ve been working on that depending on what stage you’re in might not be good, like not at all, and then you pick up a book that’s a lot closer to the finished version of what you hope to produce. It can just be totally demoralizing, like oh, I can never take [LACEY LAUGHS] what’s on my Microsoft Word screen right now and make it look like anything resembling finished work that’s a pleasure to read like this one right in front of me. It can just be really bad for morale.


LACEY: Oh, that’s so true, and I haven’t - I haven’t reached that point yet where I felt like my finished work was, like, I could even compare it, you know what I mean? Like it’s just so far beyond whatever the finished work is that I’m looking at. It’s so on a whole other level that I haven’t quite faced that yet. Maybe that’s a good thing, or maybe one day, you know, whatever I’ve written will be close enough to whatever the finished product I’m looking at and then I’ll start to feel those pangs of anxiety, and I will know I have made it. [BOTH LAUGH]

ANNE: Lacey, it sounds like your reading life for the past maybe ten years, it sounds like you’ve had a bumpy ride. I don’t know. I’m picturing like this tide going in and out. You started in a good place. You went to school. You had your breaking point. You finished. You’re working hard. Practicing criminal law, so you wanted to read YA. Now you’re writing and that’s having its effect on your reading life. I mean, this is - this is a lot of changes for a reader.

LACEY: It is, and you know until you mentioned it I never thought about it in that way. That’s the benefit of talking to you because of course looking at it, you can see, you have a long view and whereas I don’t. I’m sorta in the middle of it, but yes, I guess - I guess that’s true. Part of it as well, the bumpiness can be attributed to my own reading habits.

When I was living in London, there would be so many circumstances when I would be out with my husband and we would go to a bookstore and I would look at a book and I would say, oh, I really want to read that, and he’d say, okay, well why don’t you get it? And I would tell him, no, I can’t, because I’ve already got a copy of this back in Canada. [ANNE LAUGHS] So I cannot buy it here. And then he would look at me and he would say, well, why didn’t you read it when you were in Canada?

And that’s a very good question, but the problem that I often face is that I’m a big mood reader. You know, I’ll be in the bookstore and I’ll see something and I’ll go, oh, that looks really fabulous. I’ll pick it up, and then bring it home and I’ll read a couple paragraphs and go, meh, I’m not in the mood for this right now, and I’ll go pick up another book and finish that. That’s sorta been my reading practice ever since I got my first job in a bookstore.


ANNE: [GASPS] Your first job in a bookstore?

LACEY: Yes! So, when I was 17, I got hired to work in a bookstore. That was my very first job ever and it was delight because I spent most of my time sorta browsing the books as opposed to actually, you know, shelving them properly. But anyways [BOTH LAUGH]

ANNE: We’re not going to blame you for that.

LACEY: Oh, gosh, I can’t even … It was horrible. I did do my job, and to this day, I will still go into a bookstore and if I see that the books are not arranged properly like in alphabetical order or they’re falling over, I will actually straighten it out of habit.

I remember having this conversation with my manager and she’d been reading The Devil Wears Prada, and she’s like ah, it’s a good book, but I’m not going to finish reading it. And I was just like, flabbergasted, I was like why, what are you talking about? She was well, you know, life’s too short. If you’re not enjoying the books, don’t finish it. I think that was just such a revelation for me that I have never forgotten it, and then ever since then, you know, if a book doesn’t start to grab me within the first few pages, I will put it down and I will go look for another book. All of which is to say, this is the reason why I have whole bookshelves of unread books. I have every intention of reading, I just haven’t gotten around to doing it yet.

ANNE: So we’ve got to get you in the same place as your books when the mood is right.

LACEY: Exactly. The living accommodations in London can be very, very tight, you know, it’s a really densified kind of city. So London I was really conscious of not buying too many books, but when my husband and I made the decision to come back to Canada and I was telling him about my mother’s basement which is just filled with my books. You know, he said, when we come back and we’re going to make you a bookshelf of shame because it will remind you that you need to read all these books. [LAUGHS] And so ...

ANNE: Aww, a bookshelf of shame.


LACEY: A bookshelf of shame.

ANNE: How about a bookshelf of anticipatory delight.

LACEY: Oh, I love it! Oh, that’s such a good title for such a bookshelf. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: It’s not as snappy as your husband’s version though.

LACEY: I will say my husband is very, as a reader, he’s extremely good at finishing books, even when he doesn’t like the book. I’m the complete opposite, so I’ve just sorta collected these books over the years. I do believe that there’s a time in your life when you’re meant to read a book. So for example, I … One of the books that I bought, ten years ago when it was published, was Hillary Jordan’s Mudbound, and I bought it knowing okay, I know I’m going to like this book you know, it’s set in the south. Talks a lot about racial issues. It’s a family drama. I know I’m going to like it. But I was like 22 at the time, and things just sorta, I just never got around to it.

But a couple months ago when I came back to Calgary, I sat down and I opened it and I read the whole thing and it was totally engrossing. And I feel like reading it now, the emotional impact of the book was bigger than I think I would have experienced it to be than when I was 22. You know, because it talks about marriage. It talks about infidelity, and I’m in that space of my life now where I can understand those experiences. So in my defense, I may have a bookshelf of shame, but [LAUGHS] I do get around to reading them eventually.

ANNE: I mean, words are powerful. So I can see how one reader could call it that but another reader can view it in an entirely differently. I’m thinking of our episode with Will Schwalbe. He talked about how he had all these unread books. When he needs a book to read next, he goes and shops his own bookshelves to find that next read. That’s just a different way to approach the same collection of unread books.

LACEY: I like his because it sorta implies not an obligation but a choice and joy, which is what reading really ought to be. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: Well and I really like the idea that you talked about that there is a time in your life when you’re meant to read a book.


LACEY: I am in that part of my life now where, you know, marriage, kids, you know, more adult obligations are sorta crowding in and reading YA is wonderful, but they don’t talk about, you know, these issues. ‘Cause obviously, it’s about a different part of your life and I, and I just really, I think I really need to read something where I can see myself in the pages again.

ANNE: And now you’re in a time in your life unlike before when you feel like you’re wanting to go there.

LACEY: Previously when I was in London and practicing criminal law, I didn’t have the headspace to sorta grapple with the problems of fictional characters when I was sorta wrestling with the real life problems of people who, you know, are facing very serious - serious charges in their own life. So yeah, now that I’m sorta free of that kinda emotional and psychological obligation, I’m definitely ready to take on something a little more serious or perhaps a little more thorny in my own reading life.

ANNE: Lacey, this sounds like fun.

LACEY: Oh, I’m excited! [LAUGHS]

ANNE: Okay, so decide what to add to your stack or I mean, it’d be really great if we could identify some books on that bookshelf that we will not designate a name to. [LACEY LAUGHS] I mean, maybe we’ll discover that the time is now right to read some of those books that you’ve had in your collection for a long time now.


ANNE: But first we gotta talk about what kinda books are right for you. Are you ready to do this?

LACEY: Yes. Let’s do it.


ANNE: Okay. You know how this works. You’re going to tell me three books you love, one book you don’t, and what you’ve been reading lately and we will talk about what you may enjoy reading next. How did you choose these books, Lacey?


LACEY: When I chose these books, I thought long and hard about the books that I loved to go back to and reread, but also the books that sorta blew my world apart in terms of widening my perspective whether on emotional states or things that are happening out in the real world. And also, I just chose books that really surprised me. You know, the first book I chose was Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. This is a book I reread every single year. I read Austen’s complete works every year.

But I chose this one in particular because it always makes me laugh [LAUGHS] and it gets funnier the older I get. I don’t know why. I think maybe distance allows you to sorta look at the heroine’s progress throughout the novel in a new light. I just love Catherine Morland. She’s such a kind, good hearted character, and you know her interactions with the romantic interest Henry Tilney and her stumbles but eventually her growth is just so wonderful to read and to laugh out loud about. The other reason I chose Northanger Abbey was because I feel like Jane Austen is so much a literary rebel. [BOTH LAUGH]

ANNE: Tell me more about that.

LACEY: I mean, as I’m sure you know, she was a huge fan of gothic novels, gothic literature. Which of course at the time was causing a huge moral panic about, you know, what it was doing to young girls and how it was affecting their health, and I love that by writing Northanger Abbey, she’s putting herself out there and saying I love gothic novels. I read these and I love them enough to write my own take on those.

But b) she sorta takes these kinda discourse around the novel and flips it on its head, so instead of, you know, showing Catherine suffering from all these strange maladies that you were supposed to have gotten if you’ve read a gothic novel, instead she’s sorta suffering from an inability to really understand, you know, human interactions or to read people probably and you know, the whole novel is her learning how to do that. I just love that Jane Austen wasn’t afraid to take what was so popular and so commercial and really make it her own. I think it’s one of my bugbears, you know, whenever somebody says oh, I refuse to read X because it’s this kind of genre or it’s written by this kind of author. It just really drives me a little bit up the walls [BOTH LAUGH] so I appreciate Jane Austen putting herself out there like that.


ANNE: One of my favorite little snippets of commentary I ever read on Northanger Abbey is along the lines of what you’re saying. It’s in William Deresiewicz’s book A Jane Austen Education, I wish I had the exact words in front of me. I may have to go back and reread this chapter again, but he says, Jane Austen could never have skewered the gothic novels so brilliantly had she not been reading those things by the bucketful. [LACEY LAUGHS] And I just love the idea of Jane Austen just with a giant stack of … Basically I was picturing my collection of Baby-Sitters Club if I read like a lot of Harlequin romance, I would picture like that kind of book, but I’m just thinking about like the inexpensive, readily available paperbacks that everyone is reading. I like to picture Jane Austen with a big, similar stack of gothic novels. [LACEY LAUGHS] She was doing her research.

LACEY: Absolutely. Oh, what a wonderful image.

ANNE: [LAUGHS] And I love what else you said about readers categorically dissing certain kinds of books ‘cause I think so often you don’t know what you’re missing if you’ve never gone there. I hope that implies that you have a spirit of adventure in your own reading life.

LACEY: Oh, absolutely, yes. One of the things that I actually notice about my reading life recently is it has become more adventures than when I was living in London and I think a large part of that is because in the U.K. books particularly on Kindle are extremely cheap. When you couple that with the fact that libraries are being shut down by the hundreds in the U.K., you know what you end up doing is you end up sorta buying the same kind of books that you always read.

And coming back to Calgary, you know, Kindle books are so much more expensive Canada, but as well, Calgary has a wonderful public library system and I live very close to the central library which was recently redone, a huge collection. So every week I go and I end up just browsing the shelves and looking around and what that means is I am sorta venturing into books that I wouldn’t normally pick up, and it’s been a lot of fun sorta seeing what’s out there. So definitely a spirit of adventure.


ANNE: I’m glad to hear it. Lacey, what did you choose for your second favorite?

LACEY: My second favorite is something completely different a book called Dispatches by Michael Herr. I was sorta intrigued by the cover, and so I picked it up, but it just, ugh, it blew me away. I’ve always been sorta a fan of military nonfiction, which is really weird considering what demographic I fall into. [LAUGHS] I’m like in my 30s. I’m Chinese-Canadian woman. It’s not - I think when people think like military nonfiction fans, I’m probably not the person that comes to mind, but I’ve always had a soft spot for it ever since I read Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden.

I think a thing that really just sorta shook me was the prose of Dispatches. I mean, Michael Herr is a journalist in the Vietnam war and the way he writes about war sorta anything like I’ve ever read. His writing is so hallucinatory. When he writes, he doesn’t explain jargon, he just kinda drops you in the middle, and so the effect is just as bewildering, and is this conflict. Of course all the images of the Vietnam war that we have because of pop culture, pop apocalypse now, all of that is based in this work and I can see it. Just the effect that he gets is so incredible. But I also love the humor that he uses in it and the way he is able to examine the complicity of war journalists in conflicts, including his own.

ANNE: Oh, interesting.

LACEY: Yeah. It’s really. He’s not afraid to examine it, and I really appreciate that kinda honesty, especially in nonfiction. And the other thing that I thought was so intriguing about is that it’s almost like a mystery within a mystery. He talks about one of his friends and colleagues who is the son of Errol Flynn, Sean Flynn was his name, and he was a photojournalist and he went missing in Cambodia during the conflict. You know, his body has never been found. We don’t know what has happened to him. So all throughout his various essays about the war, there’s this kinda haunting, unresolved mystery about his friend. I always think it’s so interesting when the backstory of a nonfiction work is as intriguing as the work itself. And it kinda put me in mind of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara because of course she was writing about the Golden State Killer and the unresolved crimes that he committed, she passed away before she finished the book. So that’s what I really enjoyed about Dispatches.


ANNE: That sounds fascinating. I’ve not read anything by Michael Herr. Yet.

LACEY: I hope I sold it to you, Anne. [BOTH LAUGH]

ANNE: I think you made it sound incredible. Lacey, what did you choose to round out your favorites?

LACEY: My third pick is a YA novel because of course I love YA, so I couldn’t not pick something from those incredible works. This novel is a sequel. It’s called Thunderhead by Neal Shustermen and it’s the sequel of his Scythe Series. The premise of course is that somewhere in the near future, humanity has eradicated illness and death, but the only way to keep the population under control is people called Scythes who go around occasionally killing people. You know, we follow two young protagonists as they undertake this profession, I guess is what you would call it.

And I picked it because Scythe and Thunderhead are really the first books I ever listened to on audio. I’ve never listened to an audiobook before. Last year I saw that audible in the U.K. was offering some sort of deal, so I thought, oaky, let me try this out. I never done this before, but it could be fun. And it was incredible. Greg Tremblay is the narrator for Thunderhead and he does a wonderful job really distinguishing between all the characters and his narration just sucks you in. The plot moves quickly, but it always feels like it’s in a kind of natural unfolding.

What I loved about Thunderhead is when I was reading it, it was like I was watching a movie. I could see .. It was so epic the way the scenes unfolded and the emotion was so strong, especially by the end of it. And Neal Shusterman has such a fabulous way of taking very serious concepts and just spinning them out in a really entertaining way and exploring them in a very, in a very deep way without sorta making you realize that he’s doing it. I’ve now actually introduced the series to my husband and we listen to it on our car journeys out to the mountains when we go skiing. He’s real gotten into now too, so I’m really pleased. [LAUGHS] Yeah.


ANNE: Lacey, now tell me about a book that wasn’t right for you.

LACEY: Oh, Anne. Okay. This book is a YA novel. It’s The Last Voyage of Poe Blythe by Ally Condie. In my reading log, I have like, you know, like little ratings and little comments about what I liked and what I didn’t like and this is the only book last year that I gave like a half star.

ANNE: Wait, what?

LACEY: I feel horrible because now that I’m the one, you know, I’m trying to like write my own stuff, I know how much effort and time and heart goes into these things, but I was so mad about this book. [LAUGHS] The first thing was, when I picked up this book, I was like oh, I’m so excited by this premise, you know, it’s awesome. It’s a young strong girl, the captain of her own ship. You know, she lives in this kind of dystopian world. For me, strong women on ships, like, I’m like yes, I am there. Totally. This sounds like an awesome premise. As soon as I opened it up, it just never quite lived up to it, and I thought about having high hopes for a book and then it doesn’t live up it, I think it can really maybe the book is mediocre suddenly becomes worse in your eyes [LAUGHS] because you’ve had such hopes.

ANNE: I do think expectations are real and powerful influence on how you approach a book.

LACEY: The main character, she would have all these internal dialogue sections. They were just sorta like a series of questions. What should I do now? Should I trust him? How can I know that I should trust him? What should I do about this? And it wasn’t about one twice, it felt like every chapter had a very long paragraph of this litany of questions. I just found that it took me out of the story and I think perhaps if it had been shown in a different way, I wouldn’t have been so baffled by all these questions that were sort of littering.

ANNE: I wonder if that might have read differently to you if you had been a teen reader.

LACEY: That’s a really good point. I mean, I don’t know how you were when you were a teenager, but when I was a teenager, I was very... [BOTH LAUGH]

ANNE: I probably asked a lot of annoying questions.


LACEY: Very self involved, right? Like everything is about you and like what you are going to do next and ....

ANNE: Totally developmentally liberated. Yeah.

LACEY: [LAUGHS] You’re right. Oh, gosh, now I might have to go back and reread this book.

ANNE: I mean, I’ve read and loved many YA books and many adults read and love YA novels, and many teens read and love adult novels, so I’m not saying stay in your lane. It’s not written for you. I’m not saying that at all. But I am saying sometimes what an author’s doing doesn’t make sense to us as a reader if we don’t understand why they’re doing it. So I’m just asking if that’s a possibility.

LACEY: I think it’s definitely a possibility and it’s one I’ve never considered before. There were other issues that I had with the book. I mean, the other one was that, this is totally my fault. I thought it was a standalone novel, so when I got to the end of the book [LAUGHS] and I realized that nothing had really resolved and that there was going to be continuation, I was so sorta confused. I really probably should have just done my research, but you know, when I picked up the book [BOTH LAUGH] and read the synopsis, I thought oh, sometimes you’re just in the mood to read a standalone book as opposed to one that’s part of a trilogy. As we’re talking, I sorta feel like maybe [LAUGHS] my opinions on this book sound far more about me and expectations than the book itself. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: I mean, I think that’s true, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I mean, when you’re talking about a reader reading a book, there’s a reader and the book both in that equation. So of course it says a lot about you as a reader and that is the information we rely on to choose our next read. And that is okay.

LACEY: [LAUGHS] Makes me - makes me feel slightly less guilty.

ANNE: Lacey, what are you reading now?

LACEY: The books that I managed to finish most recently, one of them is called The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch by Daniel Kraus. It was a really interesting novel because you know, it’s kinda billed as a YA novel, but themes and the subject matter are really quite dark. So it follows a young man who was killed but is somehow resurrected and he goes on this sorta adventure across America throughout the years, throughout the turbulent years of the 20th century. As a narrator, he’s really engaging. I love it when protagonists have really strong voices, and his voice is very unique. You know he uses really ornate language and that’s totally in keeping with his character because he prides himself on being very eloquent. So I have to say I wouldn’t recommend it for highly sensitive people because, you know, it deals with possible animal mutilation and things like that. You know, it gets quite grim. So if you’re able to stomach it, it’s a really fun read.

And then the other thing that I finished recently was amazing. Reminded me of what the reading experience should be is The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang. I mean, it is just a fantastic romance novel about a woman with autism. And for me, I think one of the things that really mastered was the fact that her love interest is Asian. You know, because I’m Chinese-Canadian and growing up, I never saw love interests who were Asian. You know, I think there’s this discourse that often happens in Western media and things like that of Asian men sorta not being attractive or not being as masculine as their Western counterparts. They’re not sorta viewed as objects of desire and all of a sudden, I’m reading this book and you know, her love interest is this very sexy, half-Swedish, half-Korean guy who looks like a K-pop star. I’m, like, oh my goodness, [ANNE LAUGHS] this is speaking to me on a very visceral level. And it’s just funny and so sexy and I was, like, this is great. I’m totally here for it.

ANNE: Lacey, that gives us a lot to work with.


ANNE: So the books you love Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen; Dispatches by Michael Herr; and Thunderhead by Neal Shustermen. Not for you was the YA novel The Last Voyage of Poe Blythe by Ally Condie. And you are ready and willing to go all kinds of different places. You’re interested in a variety of genres, and I’m definitely aware of the fact that now you have the space and brain power to tackle more challenging works than you did back when you were practicing criminal law, I want to give some of those to you.


LACEY: All right.

ANNE: So and I know that you love beautiful prose, complex themes; you have a soft spot in your heart for YA novels, and the way that they’re so readable. Is that a good way to put that?

LACEY: Absolutely, yeah. I would so love to find adult fiction or nonfiction that has the same kind of compel and drive as a YA novel. So, yes, absolutely.

ANNE: Well I wasn’t expecting you to throw out Helen Hoang. [LACEY LAUGHS] But since you did, I recently finished a new adult romance that’s coming out in June from Berkeley.


ANNE: It’s by Sara Desai, it’s called The Marriage Game. It does not have a Chineses leading man, but he is Indian.

LACEY: I am all for representation. I love it.


ANNE: Okay. This book is called Marriage Game by Sara Desai. It has an adorable cover, like so many books that are set in San Francisco do. It’s so unfair. They just get put, like, some houses on a hill and a streetcar on the cover and it’s … I mean, you have a darling book. This is how it works. It’s an unfair advantage that San Francisco settings have for all the other romance novels out there. It’s not like the openness of open doors, but there is definitely some sexy time in this book. So readers, heads up.

So now that we have a disclaimer out of the way, this requirement consultant, her name is Layla Patel, she’s been living in New York with a guy who was not right for her. So she has moved home to her tight knit family in San Francisco. They all live close to each other. Her family lives right by the Indian restaurant that her parents have been running for a really long time, so she comes home to lick her wounds and put her life back together and to do it under the living supervision of her family.

But as soon as she gets home, her dad has a heart attack and she’s devastated and he has to pull it together. And this is really sad, so I need to tell you that this is definitely a fun, funny, lighthearted book. But because her dad has had a heart attack, that is the only reason she’s willing to indulge him when she finds out that he has posted her profile on a really funny website that has a hysterical name and wish I had the book in my hand so I could look it up. I didn’t know when I was reading that this detail was going to be needed on What Should I Read Next very soon. So it’s our parents’ generation helping their children arrange marriages. So her father has taken in all these resumes of all these men. He’s narrowed the list to ten.

LACEY: Oh my goodness.

ANNE: And has set up all these meetings. And because her dad had a heart attack, she’s like okay, I’ll do it. But this is a romance novel. So we got to introduce our leading man who’s also fun and funny. Have you seen the movie Up in the Air, where George Clooney flies around the country firing people?

LACEY: Yes, I have.

ANNE: Okay. This is what Sam Mehta does in this book. He runs with his old pal whose motives are not as pure as Sam’s, a corporate downsizing company. He fires people for a living and he needed a quiet office for his business. He’s rented the office above the restaurant from Layla’s dad, but nobody knows this, so Layla walks into what she thinks is her office to like get her life started again one day, and there’s this man there. And not only a man, but he’s really a jerk of a man, but also he’s a really handsome man.

It’s his space, but Layla really wants it, so he lets her stay and they work out a deal and they kinda make a bet and he starts helping her with her ten blind dates with all these Indian men. How does that sound as a set up to you? It’s so sweet and charming and funny and it’s definitely like more than a little spicy in places, so you read Helen Hoang, so I know that you’re great with that, but readers, if you’re listening, please take note. That being said, it’s just so fun. The Marriage Game, Sara Desai. How does that sound?


LACEY: It sounds wonderful. You can’t see it right now, but I was smiling ear to ear when you were describing the set up. I just, there’s something about romance tropes and like you know, the inevitable meet cute. Ah, I love it.

ANNE: It’s fun, and I really like her. Layla is unapologetic about her life. So fun. I was really cheering them on, and also there are enough food descriptions in this book where I was like, I need - I need lunch. [LACEY LAUGHS] I need lunch right now.

LACEY: That’s amazing.

ANNE: Okay. Am I allowed to recommend a YA novel to you?

LACEY: Yes. Yes, you are.

ANNE: I actually thought this was an adult novel and then when I looked it up, I realized no, this is actually being reviewed as a children’s publication. Like YA novels are. Have you read The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender?

LACEY: No, I haven’t.

ANNE: Good, I’m so glad. This novel is about fiveish years old and what I love about it for you is that it has a lot of substance, a lot of heart. The writing is beautiful. It’s whimsical. It’s got a strong magical component because this is about a girl who is completely normal in every way except she was born with wings. Tiny, tiny detail.

LACEY: Oh wow.

ANNE: Her writing is really gorgeous. Did I already say that? And also it is incredibly fast paced. So you’re looking for a book that has that addictive, I just need to keep reading feeling, I think this could be good. This is by Leslye Walton. This is her debut actually. You know, I guess we could say another thing that sets Ava Lavender apart is that she has a strong family and a strong family history.

So this is a multi-generational novel. It almost feels like a fairy tale in places. There’s a heavy dose of family legend. So even though the story revolves around this 16-year-old girl who was born with wings, we go back in time and hear her whole family history, halfway around the world. Her grandmother was a child in rural France, and then she traveled to 1920s Manhattan and then she became a baker in Seattle. This is another book that’ll make you hungry because her grandmother’s pastries are important. The symbolism that the pastries, you need the right mix of ingredients and you need the sweet and the salty to have a satisfying dish, and the same could really be said about the book.

So we hear all about her grandmother and then we hear about Ava’s mother and how when she was young, she was deeply in love with a childhood friend who didn’t love her back and how it affected her and her family history. And then we get to Ava Lavender who of course has her own struggles and loves, the sorrows of the title is almost a pun because of the character in the book. She has a great friend named Cardigan, which I thought was just totally adorable. [LACEY LAUGHS] But what I like about this for you is it’s lyrical, whimsical, fantastical, but gently so YA that is also strongly action driven. I think it does have that addictive quality you’re looking for. It's just a beautiful story. How does that sound to you?


LACEY: Yeah, it sounds absolutely up my wheelhouse. I do love fairytale novels, retellings, so I will definitely check that one out.

ANNE: I’m glad to hear it. Lacey, finally, this book is perfect for you but it might be so perfect you’ve read it already. [LACEY LAUGHS] Neil Gaiman, Ghost at the End of the Lane.

LACEY: You know I actually haven’t read this book yet. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: Is it on your bookshelf?

LACEY: It is not. No.


ANNE: Oh. I was hoping we could cross one off!

LACEY: Oh, no, it’s okay though because I’ve seen it everywhere and obviously I’ve heard about it, but I actually know nothing about the story. I love Neil Gaiman’s works for younger readers of Coraline and Stardust, but I haven’t actually read much of his adult stuff.

ANNE: This is definitely an adult novel. Even though one of the timelines in the story focuses on an young book and what happens to his family after something unexpected, quite of this world, and holy but suddenly terrifying happens. You’re seeing the story through a child’s eyes, but oh, ugh, no. I would not hand this to a child. This is an adult novel. This is a long-winded way of saying yes, this is an adult novel.

This is a slim book that packs a serious punch. I think it’s just under 200 pages. The protagonist is an artist, which is not the reason I’m recommending it but I do think it’s a really nice fit for you right now is you are creating in a way that you haven’t been in awhile. He is called back to his home in the English countryside because someone has died, so he goes back to attend a funeral and when he does, he takes a walk and he’s in reflective mood and he starts remembering what happened to his family, something like 14 years prior when he was a young boy. Because this is a Neil Gaiman novel, this woman, or she appears to be a woman, she appears to be a housekeeper, she weasels her way into the family and very, very quickly his stable world is completely rocked and it is devastating to this child. So for help, he turns to the family of witches...


ANNE: At the farm up the road. But getting through that experience, really defeating evil because that’s the kind of thing Neil Gaiman writes about, requires things of this boy that he was not prepared for. And I’m having a really hard time putting what this book is about into words because to me this book is a feeling.


ANNE: Oh, it’s so evocative and atmospheric. The cover with its ocean blues, it’s so beautiful and moody and that’s what this book is. If you’re a mood reader, reading this book in the right mood will be absolutely perfect. It’s just completely immersive. It’s so fascinating and it’s the kind of story you read and you think how do people come up with these ideas? Another reason why this is an adult book is that Gaiman writes so well about regret and also that sense of loss in innocence and it’s so poignant on the page. It’s really powerful. How does that sound?


LACEY: My heart is just so gripping with emotion just listening to it ‘cause you said you didn’t feel like you were describing it, I really understood it because even if you don’t talk about the plot but just the fact that it’s about memory and distance from a childhood that sorta went off the rails a little bit, I think that’s so - so intriguing ‘cause you know often in YA novels you’re telling it in a particular time and place and you don’t have that perspective yet that you have on those experiences when you’re older. And it sounds like this book sorta combines the best of both worlds into one.

ANNE: I hope so. So, Lacey, of those three books, we talked about The Marriage Game by Sara Desai; The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton; and The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, of those three books, what do you think you’ll read next?

LACEY: I think I’m going to start with The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton.

ANNE: Well I love the sound of that and I can’t wait to hear what you think.

LACEY: When I read it, you will be the first to know, Anne.

ANNE: Well I can’t wait to hear. Thank you so much for talking books with me today.

LACEY: Thank you so much. [LAUGHS]


ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Lacey, and I’d love to hear what YOU think she should read next. That page is at and it’s where you’ll find the full list of titles we talked about today. You can follow Lacey on Instagram @lacey.yong. That’s at lacey dot yong, Y-O-N-G.

Subscribe now so you don’t miss next week’s episode in Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and more. We will see you next week!

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Readers, you’ve got one more week to preorder my next book Don’t Overthink It. I’d appreciate it so much. Available wherever new books are sold and to anticipate a frequently asked question, yes, that includes your local independent bookstore.

Thanks to the people who make this show happen! What Should I Read Next is produced by Brenna Frederick, with sound design by Kellen Pechacek.

Readers, that’s it for this episode. Thanks so much for listening.

And as Rainer Maria Rilke said, “ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading.” Happy reading, everyone.

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Books mentioned in this episode:

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Mudbound by Hillary Jordan
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
The Babysitter’s Club series by Ann M. Martin
Dispatches by Michael Herr 
Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War by Mark Bowden
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara, Gillian Flynn, and Patton Oswalt
Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman
Scythe by Neal Shusterman
The Last Voyage of Poe Blythe by Ally Condie
The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch by Daniel Kraus
The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang
The Marriage Game by Sara Desai
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Coraline by Neil Gaiman
Stardust by Neil Gaiman

Also mentioned:

WSIRN Ep 184: You’ll never conquer your TBR — and that’s a good thing, with Will Schwalbe

What do YOU think Lacey should read next?

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15 comments | Comment


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  1. Kristen Prepolec says:

    Welcome to Calgary, Lacey! If you are interested, the Imaginative Fiction Writers of Alberta group might be good for you. Their sponsored conference in August, When Words Collide, is great. Hope to see you there.

    • Lacey says:

      Thanks Kristen! As it happens, I was looking at the conference and considering whether to join it. You might have made up my mind for me! Looking forward to seeing everyone there.

  2. Pat says:

    Hi Lacey. My recommendation is THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE. It will get you off to a quick start (quick read) and it’s a wonderful book!

    • Lacey says:

      Hi Pat. Despite what I said on the podcast, I ended up reading “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” first and it was indeed wonderful. Thanks for your recommendation and if you have any thoughts on what else I might like, I’m all ears!

  3. Sachi says:

    Hi, Lacey! I enjoyed listening to your episode this morning! I love when a fellow Asian guest is on the podcast (I was on episode #133). Since you mentioned that you were interested in books with Asian representation, I wanted to recommend some of my favorites to you 🙂

    These first two are recommendations I had based on the comments you made on the episode:
    – MIRACLE CREEK by Angie Kim | This book immediately popped into my head when Anne recommended reading genres outside of what you write (such as mystery), and after you mentioned that you have a law degree. This is a fictional courtroom drama / mystery about a group of people who were killed when an HBOT facility is set on fire. Angie Kim is an ex-lawyer, and it really shows in her expertly written courtroom scenes.
    – THE BRIDE TEST by Helen Hoang | Like yourself, I really enjoyed THE KISS QUOTIENT and I loved Hoang’s second novel THE BRIDE TEST even more! If you loved the Asian centered love story, I think this one is even better as the premise begins with a mother looking for a bride for her unruly, wealthy son.

    • Sachi says:

      Here are some other great Asian reads that I think you might love because they are beautifully written and have great storytelling elements:
      – ALL YOU CAN EVER KNOW by Nicole Chung (Nonfiction – Memoir / Chung discusses growing up as an adoptee of an interracial adoption and the search to find her birth family)
      – KNOW MY NAME by Chanel Miller (Nonfiction – Memoir / “Emily Doe” from the Stanford rape case opens up about her experience as a victim of sexual assault)
      – A THOUSAND BEGINNINGS AND ENDINGS edited by Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman (Anthology, Short Story Collection / Authors from the Asian diaspora retelling their favorite stories based in Asian myths and folklore)
      – IF YOU LEAVE ME by Crystal Hana Kim (Historical Fiction / Follows a family in the after effects of the Korean War)
      – PACHINKO by Min Jin Lee (Historical fiction / Travels from Japanese occupied Korea to Osaka Japan)
      – THE POPPY WAR by R.F. Kuang (Fantasy / Story of a strong female warrior and based on Chinese history)
      – SOMEWHERE ONLY WE KNOW by Maurene Goo (YA / A female K-pop star and paparazzo collide for a weekend of adventure in Hong Kong)
      – THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER by Emily X.R. Pan (YA / A daughter grieves the loss of her mother by spending the summer with her maternal grandparents in Taiwan to learn more about her family and culture)

      Happy reading! 🙂

      • Lacey says:

        HI Sachi! I listened to your episode too (and I’m a fan of Reading Women), so thanks for reaching out and providing such an extensive and varied list of books with Asian characters and themes!

        I actually have “The Bride Test” on my TBR pile, but your list is a timely reminder to read it and the other books you recommended. I’m not familiar with “Miracle Creek,” but it sounds fascinating and totally in my wheelhouse!

  4. Kacie says:

    Great episode! It makes sense that being an English major would make it tougher to just let go and read a book for fun. Hope you can get your groove back!

  5. Susannah says:

    Can’t help playing Anne’s role and recommending….If Lacey hasn’t read the YA Bloody Jack series by L A Meyer, and she loves the idea of a girl captain, she should try these! They are sort of “cheerful” Dickens stories, with a spunky, always-floats-to-the-top heroine.
    And somewhere near the idea of The Marriage Game, there’s a little gem called The Marriage Bureau for Rich People, by Farahad Zama, set in India. A retired man is driving his wife crazy with nothing to do, so he sets up a marriage bureau (what else?) for matching couples. It’s fun.
    Finally, I just read Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng, which features a Chinese American, and his half Chinese children, and how they want to fit in.

  6. Amanda Lamb says:

    Lacey, if you haven’t read Emily Henry yet you need to try her works! Her first two are magical realism YA and they’re beautifully written!

  7. Glen says:

    I read “bookshelf of shame” and immediately thought of the TBR books, patiently waiting for me to read them. THen I looked at another shelf, on a adjacent bookshelf, and found…horrors! More books I don’t remember reading! And that’s not counting recently bought books. Now that’s a bookshelf of shame!

  8. Katie Snyder says:

    I still need to finish the episode (especially because based on the list of titles, we have similar taste!), but I wanted to say I TOTALLY RELATE to the challenge of reading for pleasure when you major in English. It took me years to get over the feeling that I could only read “important” books of high literary merit. *insert eye roll here* Don’t get me wrong–I loved my degree. It just took a bit to recalibrate!

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