Readers, we added a last-minute introduction to today’s podcast about what we do and why we do it, especially in light of the current anguish we’re experiencing in the United States following the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and subsequent needed protests. We hope you’ll listen.
Today’s guest Elyssa Gould is an academic librarian and “recovering English major,” whose goal is to get caught up on her own backlist while she’s separated from her natural habitat, the library. And you know me, when I hear “English major” my ears perk up. Today we’re shuffling around Elyssa’s 100 or so unread books into a few smaller stacks, for a self-styled literature curriculum that should keep her busy at home for as long as necessary.
I hope that sounds delightful, not daunting, because in my book, book flights are a ton of fun. Let’s get to it!
Let’s get to it!
You can admire Elyssa’s handcrafts at Instagram.com/elyssamakes
ANNE: What compelled you to pursue librarianship?
ELYSSA: I was an English literature major and I didn’t want to teach. [BOTH LAUGH] That’s it essentially.
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 237.
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, it's been a horrible week in the United States, and here in my city of Louisville, which, like many cities, has been home to protests spurred by the killings of George Floyd and Louisville resident Breonna Taylor. We don’t have any words that could possibly do justice to this ongoing tragedy. Many people are hurting, and we especially want to acknowledge the pain our Black readers and listeners are experiencing right now.
In light of current events, I wanted to pause and say that we don't just talk about books around here because reading is our favorite pastime, our preferred escape, our means to live a thousand lives instead of just one. Talking books and reading is a joy, yes—but it’s also serious business. We believe reading changes hearts and minds, and changed people change the world. It's an honor and a privilege to share books with you every week that just might change your life, and as a result, change our world.
We’re sharing resources for our readers right now in our newsletter and on our show notes page (that’s at wsirnpodcast.com/237), and will continue to do so.
If you haven't yet listened, I'd like to point you towards three WSIRN episodes with guests I admire and trust as I continue my own work of becoming an antiracist: Osheta Moore (Episode 7: Books that uplift and inspire, the books that "hook" you, and filling the Brown Girls' Bookshelf) Lamar Giles (Episode 186: Finding the book that feels like it was written just for you) and Traci Thomas (Episode 162: The best bad ending you'll ever read).
My team and I are continuing to read and to listen, as we create episodes that we hope, in a small way, not only make your reading lives better, but make this world a better place—and a safer place—for everyone.
[Today’s guest] Elyssa Gould is an academic librarian and “recovering English major,” as she puts it, whose goal is to get caught up on her own backlist while she’s separated from her natural habitat, the library. And you know me, when I hear “English major,” my ears perk up. I have a LOT of ideas, and the phrase “compare and contrast” along with a whole sleuth of terms from your school days, well, they’re going to come up. Today we’re shuffling around the 100 or so unread books lying around Elyssa’s house into a few smaller stacks, for a self-styled literature curriculum that should keep her busy at home for as long as necessary.
I hope that sounds delightful, not daunting, because in my book, book flights are a ton of fun. Let’s get to it!
Elyssa, welcome to the show.
ELYSSA: Thanks so much for having me, Anne.
ANNE: Ah, well, it’s a pleasure to talk books and reading with you today, what I imagine is sure our favorite subject.
ELYSSA: Always. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Although I’ve seen your Instagram account, so I don’t know, I would think that sewing and crafting would be right up there for you.
ELYSSA: Yes, it’s a close-tie between the two I think. Reading came first in my life, and the sewing and crafting came later, but they’re both great outlets.
ANNE: Do you ever combine them, or is it one or the other?
ELYSSA: Actually I’ve gotten into audiobooks while I’m sewing now because it’s kinda a nice use of something to do with my hands while I’m listening to something. As long as I’m doing a craft that I’ve kinda done before, there’s not too many instructions involved, I can do them at the same time. If it’s a brand new sewing pattern that I’ve never done before, I have to focus and can’t listen to a book while I do that.
ANNE: You are reading my mind because I was just wondering if you need to pause it at the tricky parts. My mom was a seamstress, so I sewed as a child and, like, made my own clothes in high school. I thought that was really fun, but I was just re-reminded maybe four, five years ago how sewing is sneaky because it looks like you’re working with soft materials and it looks like an art project, but really, it’s all math. Like figuring out how to turn something upside down and backwards in your mind. I would definitely have to pause it.
ELYSSA: Yeah. Yeah, I think it was on the Pantsuit Politics Podcast, the host was talking about sewing and how she hated it because it was math and ironing, two things she hated doing. [LAUGHS] Yeah, it kinda is when you think about it. [ELYSSA LAUGHS]
ANNE: That must be Sarah Stewart Holland, who I’ve talked about sewing with before.
ELYSSA: I think so.
ANNE: And she is a What Should I Read Next alumni as well. I think she’s episode 39, “books to cure a Hamilton hangover.” But when you look at a dress you don’t think math.
ELYSSA: You really don’t. I’ve had to enlist my husband a few times to help me, like, fit an outfit to me to adjust the pattern and yeah, it’s not his favorite thing either. [LAUGHS] But it’s nice to have another human to help you get the fit just right. It’s not as easy you would think.
ANNE: No, and after indulging in a project like that, I have so much more appreciation for how the things I take for granted get made. And I feel like that’s so applicable to the reading life as well. I’m fascinated by how a great book comes together because if the author does it really well, it looks effortless. It wasn’t a bunch of, like, banging your head against the desk, engineering 17 rounds of edits. Do you appreciate the behind-the-scenes of the writing life as a reader?
ELYSSA: I think you’ll see in one of my picks later actually I do kinda like that inner peek at things. I don’t ever want to be that myself. I don’t want to be a writer, but I enjoy seeing how it works, seeing behind the curtain. Looking at the seams, that kind of thing. I think with all the access we have to information now, too, it’s so much easier to hear an actual author tell how something came to being, and also I enjoy hearing how different it is for each person. It’s not the same exact process for everyone, and that’s just really interesting to see how it happens.
ANNE: That’s really interesting. It’s true. I imagine in days gone by, all we could do was speculate about the writing process. But now we can hear the author talk about it so much. And I am looking at your Goodreads list right now, and I’m seeing a little bit of that theme you’re talking about here [ELYSSA LAUGHS] which is fun. Okay, speaking of behind-the-scenes, what we’re doing today is dissecting your owned but unread shelf ‘cause it’s harder right now to bring new books into our lives.
ELYSSA: It definitely is. Our public library has been closed physically for two months, and probably at least two more, so I’m missing my easy access to bring in new print books right now. So yeah, I’m looking at what’s on my shelf instead.
ANNE: You mentioned that you did read a lot of new books. You must have a great well-stocked library. It sounds like you get them almost exclusively from the library.
ELYSSA: I spend very little of my own money on books. I prefer to borrow them from the library. As a librarian, I’m kinda supporting my cause here. But I really do enjoy getting them from the library without having to spend the cash to know, oh, is this worth my money or not? It’s kinda where I get into that battle in my head on things, and so I enjoy borrowing them.
And we also have a really good selection of ebooks and audiobooks as well, so that helps right now when the physical branches are closed, to get access to some new content. But I would still like to go back and read the older things I collected that are on my shelves.
ANNE: Is this a desire that predated the cut-off access to so many new print titles?
ELYSSA: Yeah. I think it really was helpful to find Whitney Conard’s Instagram account called The Unread Shelf.
ANNE: I love Whitney.
ELYSSA: She’s so great at supporting actually trying to read from your own shelves, and very encouraging about it.
ANNE: Readers, if you want to hear more, Whitney was on the podcast on episode 158, “the life changing magic of clearing your unread shelf.” So that was good inspiration for you.
ELYSSA: Yeah. I like that she has the annual challenge where you can kinda pick out a book from your shelves that fits 12 different themes throughout the year to kinda spur your thoughts on where to even go when reading off your shelf. In April she had a book bingo challenge that was really fun. Some people completed the whole thing and they got bingo in every direction. I got bingo in maybe two directions in April. [BOTH LAUGH] But it still helped to pick what to read next.
ANNE: Well your unread shelves are not as daunting as many are.
ELYSSA: I don’t think I feel too intimidated by it. I have been culling the shelves regularly. I’ve moved a few times in my adult life, so every time is a chance to kinda weed through and see what I want to actually read later and what I don’t. So I think this is a pretty good representation of what I generally want to read. I just get distracted by those new releases that I can get at the library.
ANNE: Ohh. [ELYSSA LAUGHS] I, along with many readers, can really relate to that. Something that we have talked about on What Should I Read Next before is the tyranny of the library. Where you find that new release that you know is in high demand there’s a waiting list behind you, so you want to read it and so what it does is it jumps to the front of the line. Because you only have ... It’s three weeks in my system. What is it in yours?
ELYSSA: Same at mine.
ANNE: So you have three weeks. So you have to read it now or you’re going to go to the bottom of the line, and it feels like the time is right. So if this happens over and over and over again, then you do end up reading all those new books. Which is great. It’s amazing. Except that you do it at the expense of the old. And I’m describing my experience. Does that resonate with you?
ELYSSA: Yes. I have a very similar one, and I think also that I’m trained to be beholden to that three week deadline, and the penalty I guess of having the book taken away from me if I’m not finished. So it helps me read faster but then when there’s no penalty, or no deadline behind what I own, it’s always there. It’s always at my disposal, then it kinda fades into the background I guess, and I kinda forget about it sometimes. Unless …
ANNE: Yeah that’s so true.
ELYSSA: My physical access to the library is taken away from me. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: It’s a strange time for libraries. And you’re a librarian. There are lots of different kinds of librarian work. Would you tell us a little bit about what your job entails?
ELYSSA: So I specialize in academic libraries. So I’m a very frequent customer of my public library. I don’t often read the books at the academic library because it’s a little bit more dry and research-like. But I specialize in the electronic content that we gather, which is actually perfect for right now. Just all the databases and ebooks and ejournals and we also have a lot of streaming videos at our library.
And so my responsibility is how to get the electronic materials, how to license them, get them paid for according to our parameters. Just kinda like the behind-the-scenes of getting an electronic item from the publisher into our online system, so then a patron can get to it. And then also troubleshooting that resource when it’s not behaving as you’d expect. [ANNE LAUGHS] Which we see a lot in these Internet-heavy days. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: My family has been checking out more ebooks than we have in ages. We’re also buying a ton of books from our local independent bookstore. I’m really lucky that those two institutions are very close to each other in my town ‘cause I go to both all the time. But we have fewer ways to get books.
ANNE: Actually a struggle we’re having right now is we do everything on my card. Everybody has their own cards, but we found out that then people forget and are fined, which are already significant, become astronomical. ‘Cause there’s a $10/cap on one account, but if you extrapolate that to 6 users, then we’d be giving the library 60 bucks every three weeks and we support our library, but I’d rather do it on purpose and not feel like ‘cause it’s just I can’t manage my items taken out.
So all that being said, we can have five ebooks out on this card at a time and managing all that is like ooh, who’s gonna read what, when? You gotta read that book ‘cause someone else is waiting to check out this other one. But it works seamlessly. It’s so simple when it works well which is almost all the time in my experience, but I know that that’s because there’s a lot of hard work that goes on behind-the-scenes and getting that content patron-ready, not just for the ebooks but for all the other resources you named.
ANNE: What do you think patrons would be really surprised to find out about what you do and how electronic resources work?
ELYSSA: Probably what would surprise them most is I would say how my family responds to my job where they think I do tech support [BOTH LAUGH] which is not quite true, but it kinda is. We’re in a funny position where the librarians are in the middle of the vendor who sells the content and produces that great database or that great ebook, and then the patron on the other end. And there’s a lot that can go wrong in between the vendor and the library and the library and the patron.
Working back through a problem to figure out where it started, where it branched off, who do I go to? Sometimes it’s hard to tell if it’s an internal issue with our own library system or if the vendor did not set up your permissions correctly. And so there’s just a lot of problem solving that goes into my daily job that I didn’t realize I would have, but I really like it. It exercises my brain thoroughly during the day, which is what I want out of a job is to use myself and feel like I flex those muscles every day.
ANNE: How long have you been in this field?
ELYSSA: About ten years and I’ve specialized in electronic resources for seven of those.
ANNE: What compelled you to pursue librarianship?
ELYSSA: I was an English literature major and I didn’t want to teach. That’s it essentially. [BOTH LAUGH] I ended up working at my undergrad’s library and realized that it was a place where I could see myself at. I’ve always loved books. Could be around books all the time. But yeah, it became just a good fit for how I could use my skills and my interests.
ANNE: Well I’m glad it led you where it did. Elyssa, I’ve gotten a repeated comment from librarians these past couple months and I’m wondering if you could speak to what they’re saying. So we’ve run some blog posts on Modern Mrs Darcy and I’ve done some Instagram stories about how my family’s using library resources right now for ebooks and audiobooks and databases even. Like we wanted to buy a piece of fitness equipment and we’re not subscribers to consumer reporters, but I just went in through my library research tools and fired up the consumer reports guide to the best fitness trainers blah blah blah because I am a member of my local public library.
But the feedback I’ve heard from librarians is thank you for reminding people that they can use our resources now. And what struck me about that is first of all, it just seems to kill librarians to think that people wouldn’t be able to use the library at all just because the physical doors are closed. But also how personally so many of the people who work in libraries take their job. Like their job is to put resources in people’s hands and when that’s not happening, they hate that.
ELYSSA: Yes. I totally agree with that sentiment that’s been expressed. A message that our library has been sharing to our campus as we have been physically closed is that campus is online, and so are we. And that’s really how it is every day anyway for us but people kinda forget. You get into that routine of how you use the library in one way, like maybe going in physically to borrow a book and you forget that there are other ways that you can interact with the library as well. It doesn’t appear in everyone’s mind that they can use that service maybe.
ANNE: I love what you said about how people get used to using the library in one way and how in the times we find ourselves in, they’re learning that there are other ways to use it.
ELYSSA: Or even maybe realizing that the library has always been set up for you to use it in other ways, you just didn’t think about it. It’s interesting how much our jobs are when we’re doing well, you don’t know that we exist. [BOTH LAUGH] And then when there’s a problem, you know, we’ll step in and help figure it out. And so, a lot of how I feel our success is the amount in which things run smoothly and you don’t know that you have people who specialize in electronic resources helping you out in the backend.
ANNE: Okay. Speaking of the list of taking things for granted, you said that you were constantly distracted by the new and shiny books that you borrowed from the library, even though your unread shelf has lots of good, older titles that you’ve collected from used bookstores and book sales over the years. Were those physical books you were checking out from the library?
ELYSSA: Often, yes. I’d say I read probably about 70% print books. Now it’s definitely more heavy on the ebooks, but our waiting list for ebooks are pretty long at my library for the new ones, so I can often even get a hold of a print new book faster than an ebook that’s new.
ANNE: Elyssa, since you help others read in a different way, I’m honored to be helping you read in a different way. Can we get into your unread shelf now?
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ANNE: All right, let’s do this. 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’ll explore what you should read next. How did you choose these?
ELYSSA: I chose these by looking at what I’ve read in the past year or so and what I just really enjoyed recommending to friends. If I want to talk about a book, I take that as a good sign that I really enjoyed it.
ANNE: Ooh, I like the sound of that. Okay. So, on that note, tell me about the first book you love.
ELYSSA: The first one is The Dutch House by Ann Patchett, and I know that’s been talked about a few times on your podcast already. But I actually listened to this one on audio. I’m a bit of a sucker for Tom Hanks. The audio recording read by him was just awesome. The book itself is a story of a family and a house. We see several generations being shaped by this house and their lives, and so the house seemed to both invite and reveal the dysfunction in their family, and you kinda see how that’s worked through in the story. The house becomes a symbol that they have to overcome in their lives.
ANNE: That is some serious English major talk and I like it.
ELYSSA: I can’t help it. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: Just do what comes naturally. [ELYSSA LAUGHS] What’s your second book, Elyssa?
ELYSSA: The second one I really enjoyed is a very recent read, The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel, and this one I really enjoyed. I finished it in about two days, which is pretty fast for me. What stuck with me more about the book wasn’t the story itself, which was really good. We’re seeing a Ponzi scheme that’s kinda tentacled out into an international level. You see how different characters are affected or involved in this scheme, and the story kinda hops around from person to person without actually losing track of what it’s trying to accomplish, which I thought was really impressive.
Often when a book switches between characters a lot, I get confused for a little bit, and this one was just very smooth. The story telling style just sorta carried me along with it. But what really stuck out to me was just the feeling I got from the book, it kinda felt a little bit otherworldly and you know it’s set in a world very much like ours. Almost entirely like it. There’s just a few little pieces of fantasy in it, but I don’t know, for me I got this, like, ethereal sense of the writing, of the storytelling style, and that’s really what stuck with me.
ANNE: I really like the way you describe that. Okay. Okay. So those are two very recent, new release. Were those library borrows?
ELYSSA: One was. And then The Glass Hotel, I actually got an advanced copy of at a conference, a library conference, and I got to meet Emily St. John Mandel and got it autographed by her.
ELYSSA: So that makes that one a little bit more special too.
ANNE: Very fun. Elyssa, what did you choose for your third favorite?
ELYSSA: The third one that I chose was Save Me The Plums by Ruth Reichl. I wanted to make sure I captured the more kinda nonfiction reading that I enjoy and this one for me is very escapist. It’s about Ruth Reichl’s time at the magazine Gourmet. Kinda a realm of writing and editing that I could have gone as an English major, but I just chose not to go that path. So it’s really fun to see what it looked like to be involved in editing a magazine and especially when they were going through some financial troubles as well.
What really stuck with it was just how Ruth Reichl tried something new that she didn’t 100% know how to do and I just found it really brave. Ruth actually talked about the risks that she took and the community that she found in it and how she kinda learned how to savor the small things as she was trying this new risky thing for her. And it hit me at the right time too because I had taken on some extra responsibility at work and that was feeling a little bit scary and risky as well and so it was kinda like she was giving some encouraging words as I was reading her memoir.
ANNE: Oh, I love that reading about her trying something new and also [LAUGHS] the publishing industry for magazines collapsing around her is embolding for you. I don’t know how the collapse of the industry actually felt for you [ELYSSA LAUGHS] but you know, you knew that she was going to reinvent her career again.
ELYSSA: Yes. And I think this was actually the first thing I read by her, and I have gone and read at least one more book since.
ANNE: I’m glad to hear that. I mean, the point of What Should I Read Next is to help listeners and guests find their next read, but I still gotta tell you, I just love her and I’m glad to hear that you found her and you’re reading more.
ELYSSA: I don’t know what it is about food writing, but it takes you somewhere new, somewhere different, and that’s always fun to read about as well.
ANNE: Elyssa, now tell me about a book that wasn’t right for you.
ELYSSA: So one that wasn’t right for me was Paris in Love by Eloisa James. In my mind this should have ticked all my boxes. It’s memoir. It’s about Paris. I studied abroad there in undergrad, and so I’m always drawn to memoirs or novels set in Paris. And she’s talking about this time she spent to take a sabbatical, move her whole family to Paris and experience the city as Americans living there for a year. But it was just missing depth.
I found out later that a lot of it was taken from short Facebook posts that she wrote during her time in Paris, and after learning that, it definitely reads like that. There’s a lot of thoughts that aren’t very connected. It’s not really telling a story in any way, and then it just doesn’t go as deep as I was hoping. There wasn’t really many significant reflections on her time in Paris. It was just a lot of snippets of this happened, and yeah that anecdote was amusing, but it’s just a bunch of anecdotes at the end. It was missing that depth that I was really wanting from a memoir.
ANNE: So it sounds like it was more journal than reflection.
ELYSSA: Yes. I don’t really care to read other people’s journals. [LAUGHS] Maybe that’s what it is in the end.
ANNE: Interesting. I mean, I know a lot of readers will say that they enjoy a memoir that wasn’t written immediately after the thing that they’re writing about, but that has the benefit of time so that they can see it from a distance and tell a story that feels like it has some measure of completion about it.
ELYSSA: I agree. And there was one that I read off my shelf very close to this one called Paris To The Moon by Adam Gopnik. I think since I read it first and it had some depth of reflection as well as talking about his time spent living in Paris as an American, I think I kinda ended up comparing them in the end. And that made the second one I read, Paris in Love, fall a little short because it hadn’t reached that depth that Adam Gopnik’s depth had.
ANNE: Okay. Is it a coincidence that those were both Paris books?
ELYSSA: Oh no. [BOTH LAUGH] Because I studied abroad there, I kinda tend to collect books that have Paris in them somehow.
ANNE: I think that’s great. What have you been reading lately, Elyssa?
ELYSSA: I just finished A Well-Behaved Woman by Therese Anne Fowler and I am currently working on City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert.
ANNE: How are those going?
ELYSSA: I really enjoyed A Well-Behaved Woman. It was an interesting glimpse into the Vanderbilt life. City of Girls is also really fun and I enjoy the sewing aspects that’s in there. I didn’t realize that was in there when I picked up the book, but I’ve been enjoying it so far.
ANNE: Interesting. So, Elyssa, what are you hoping for in your reading life right now?
ELYSSA: I am hoping to kinda strike a good balance between a good story whether fiction or memoir. But then also figuring out what it is about these books on my unread shelf that made me buy them and put them there in the first place. I’ve kinda lost some of them why I want to read all of these books and if I can get a little bit of help from you to help peek that interest again, that would be great.
ANNE: Okay. So I feel like we’re doing some kind of bookshelf diagnosis here. Since our listeners can’t see your list, I’m going to describe it a little. I’m looking at a Goodreads list that’s called “unread and owned.” There are 114 titles on it. The most recent addition was The Paris Hours by Alex George. That was added April 9th of this year. There are a lot of titles that were added all in a one-week period back in late 2018. The oldest book on this list is The Count of Monte Cristo, which you added in December 2018. And there’s a nice mix of literary fiction. I see a ton of short stories. There’s some like self-development books, some devotional books. There’s some narrative nonfiction like Erik Larson. There’s a lot of food stories.
ANNE: You cover a lot of ground here. I like it.
ELYSSA: I like variety. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: So how do you feel? What do you see when you pursue your owned-and-unread list, Elyssa?
ELYSSA: I end up seeing a fair amount of backlist titles. Often I get the newer book from the public library and I’m interested in the author so maybe I’ll find an older book at one of the library’s book sales or at a local used bookstore and I’ll grab it and add it to my shelf. I definitely see that I tend to buy more nonfiction overall I think than fiction. Just because I want to keep that nonfiction like out longer from the library than three weeks will let me have it. If I really want to savor it and go through it slowly, I see myself often buying the nonfiction to have on hand for a longer read. And then the fiction is like the quicker turnarounds, then I can actually keep up with the library deadlines on those. So that’s kinda some trends I’ve noticed in my own what I’ve owned.
ANNE: As I pursue these 114 books, for our purposes today, I’m just skipping over the personal growth and like the devotional books although I can say that I did notice that you have a good number of books that might be if you’re this kind of reader right at home on your nightstand, the kind of book that doesn’t need to be read in order that you can dip in and out of, that you might just want to read a little bit before morning or bed, the ones that really jumped out at me that based on our conversation, I think you may find it rewarding to prioritize are Dream More by Dolly Parton. I mean, talk about reflections over events that happened a long time ago from a woman that clearly has a well developed philosophy of doing business and also will make you laugh if you want to check that before bed. So that’s Dream More. It was actually a Dolly Parton commencement speech that got turned into a book. Oh! A commencement speech she gave in east Tennessee, where you are.
ELYSSA: Yes. Dolly is very popular around here, so it’ll be fun to read.
ANNE: I mean come on. Dolly’s popular everywhere.
ELYSSA: How could she not be?! [LAUGHS]
ANNE: But I’m sure it’s next level where you are.
ELYSSA: It is.
ANNE: Felicity by Mary Oliver seems like a good one for that and also The Next Right Thing by Emily Freeman, another podcast guest. This is like a walk down memory lane day.
ELYSSA: You can tell that I follow this circle of folks [ANNE LAUGHS] who interact with each other which is great. It’s a great combining of worlds and gets you to understand each person that you follow a little better.
ANNE: It’s really fun and I hope hearing them speak about their work and their interests and their lives bring an extra dimension to this story. I have to say based on what we talked about today, I can see why these lone two 2020 releases on your list are there. There’s The Paris Hours by Alex George because I mean it caught your eye because it had Paris in the title. It’s also been really well reviewed by critics. So if you want to indulge that shiny and newish, that’s a great place to do it.
And also we started by talking about the behind-the-scenes of the writing process and how things are put together and how it all happens and Writers & Lovers by Lily King that just came out in March is a perfect one for that. I mean, it’s the journey of a writer from a young woman whose life is not great on any level into just a really exuberant happy ending. Both personally and professionally. It’s so fun.
I can also tell you that as I was pursuing your list, the titles wanted to sort themselves into book flights like all on their own. Do you know what I mean when I say book flight?
ELYSSA: Yes. And that’s actually how I’ve kinda been picking what to read while I’m here at home and trying to choose from my shelf is I’ve kinda been collecting two or three at the same time. At least it helps me know what to read next if I have a few already piled up. But I do kinda see myself picking things kinda similar themed and then reading those, and then moving onto something else. So I’d loved to see what you’re seeing.
ANNE: So you enjoy doing a theme at a time and then moving on?
ELYSSA: At least right now. That’s what’s keeping it interesting while I’ve been at home for weeks on end. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Well some of these flights aren’t very original, but I don’t know. Some of them could be fun. And listeners, when I say book flights, I would recommend you Google a post — and we’ll put it in show notes too — that I wrote on my blog Modern Mrs. Darcy forever ago in 2012 or 2013. It’s called “reading is better when it’s done wine tasting style,” and the idea of a book flight which I wholly invented is that in the same way that you could sample a variety of different vintages, varietals, or years of a certain wine for the benefit of comparing and contrasting because that brings more to your experience. It helps you better appreciate the nuance of each individual selection. A good book flight can do the same.So some of these flights are so obvious, Elyssa, like you definitely have a foodie flight going.
ELYSSA: Most definitely.
ANNE: Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton seems right up your alley. You’ve got two Ruth Reichl selections, a fiction and nonfiction. And also I just have to put in a plug for Buttermilk Graffiti because Edward Lee is a local chef to me in Louisville and it feels my foodie bookish heart with joy to see people reading it.
ELYSSA: Those all sound great. Delicious and great. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: They sound delicious, I see what you did there. [ELYSSA LAUGHS] We talked about the books that might be right at home on your nightstand, one of the flights I saw these titles sorting themselves into was just some of my favorite books are on here. You had Crossing to Safety. You had The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel, which could be real interesting to read now because the story is so different but the style is similar which I would not have thought possible necessarily. Because so much of the feeling like you said of reading The Glass Hotel seems to be in the style of the book, so how do you do that again in a whole different world? But she does it there.
Writers & Lovers I loved this year. Also The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. All those books are atmospheric, evocative, or well done and so they’re able to transport you to another world. And by well done, I mean well written. Like they might not be to your taste, listeners, but I really think the author set out to do a thing. And whether you like it or not, they did the thing.
Okay. You have a lot of classics on here and many readers are taking advantage of this time at home with their unread books to finally tackle those classics. I noticed also that you had a lot of mid-century women writers, like Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath. You want to tell me a little bit about that?
ELYSSA: Yeah. I think those I ended up picking up probably as a result of having been an English major and maybe reading one work by these women, but not going into their other works and kinda wanting to expand and read them. And again, since I think it might take me a little bit longer than three weeks to do these works justice, I don’t like to read them on a library deadline schedule. I’d rather have them in my home so I can read them slowly and really enjoy them and kinda experience them maybe a little bit more so as I would have if I was in English class with a professor without all those deadlines for writing the paper about what I’m reading.
ANNE: I hear that. This is like a mini book flight. There’s just two, but you’ve got a Florida flight going on, and I noticed that those books were actually quite close to each other on … No, they’re back to back on your Goodreads shelf. I wondered if that was coincidence or not.
ELYSSA: Probably was coincidence. What did I have? I remember I have Florida by Lauren Groff.
ANNE: You do, and you also have Their Eyes Are Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.
ELYSSA: I forgot about that one.
ANNE: Okay. And finally, I would say you have a fair amount of compulsively readable literary fiction. You — and there’s some clusters there with my favorites — but you’ve got some of those books that are written for popular audiences that are gonna sell a ton of copies but they are wonderful page turners for readers. And I’m talking about, like, the works of Sue Monk Kidd and Barbara Kingsolver especially jumped out at me. You’ve got several of those. Lisa Coe is another one there. And also just so many short story collections. So many.
ELYSSA: I hadn’t realized that I had done that to myself until I was looking at this list [LAUGHS] thinking yeah, I have collected short stories. I wonder why.
ANNE: I was wondering why. You don’t have an answer to that?
ELYSSA: Not really. It’s not my usual go-to. I know I have the Flannery O'Connor's Books because my undergraduate institution is actually where she graduated from, Georgia College in Milledgeville, Georgia. And so of course we got exposed to her works as English majors at the university she graduated from. I kinda collect those works when I come across them. I’ve read several like Anne Lamott books lately that kinda work as short stories but also essays, so I’ve noticed myself kinda getting more into the essays as well. Maybe I’m just looking for things I can take in a shorter amount of time rather than focusing on a long work.
ANNE: Okay. I was thinking about the direction we were going to go and now I think you’ve just cemented it. So you’re an English major …
ELYSSA: Recovering apparently. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: You’re a recovering English major who graduated from Flannery O’Connor’s alma mater who owns the complete stories, who felt compelled to purchase this book but hasn’t read it. I think we’re going to build our flight by starting here.
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ANNE: Okay let’s start with the complete stories of Flannery O'Connor. I’m assuming it’s been on your shelf for longer than it actually got added to Goodreads.
ELYSSA: Yes. I think I started using Goodreads until a few years ago, so that’s how everything got added at once.
ANNE: Do you remember when you bought this book? Or where?
ELYSSA: I think it was a used bookstore copy because I think that exact edition is just beautiful and so [LAUGHS] they had it and it was a reasonable price and I’d been wanting the collection anyway.
ANNE: Do you have the one with the peacock on the front? Oh, it is so pretty.
ANNE: Okay so Flannery O'Connor is a …Actually you know what you had a lot of good number of Southern classics in the midcentury on your list as well, so she’s a good example of that if you want to build out your literary curriculum. But what’s special about this volume is it has a lot of stories including quite a few that didn’t appear in the story collections that were published in her lifetime. And those are classics that many of us read in high school and I hope it didn’t turn us off Flannery O'Connor forever.
But those are Everything that Rises Must Converge, and the first Flannery O'Connor story I ever read which was A Good Man is Hard to Find. I mean, my 16-year-old self just did not know what to do with that story. Like it’s funny, but is it okay to laugh? She’s so good at what she does. So in this collection you also have titles like The River, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, The Comforts of Home is another that some literary lovers really love. And I think that as someone who throws around words like you know, “structure” and “theme,” that you’re going to really enjoy exploring her work.
ELYSSA: I really appreciate what she does as a writer, how she flips your expectations as you’re reading, so yeah. I agree. I think this would be a good one.
ANNE: That is a great way to put it. You also had Eudora Welty on your list, The Optimist’s Daughter is on your unread shelf. If you wanted to read those two women together I don’t think that would be a bad thing at all. I mean seriously it’d be build-your-own curriculum. Okay.
ELYSSA: I agree.
ANNE: From there let’s pivot to that Lauren Groff collection. She is a talented living working writer. I was just thinking recently that we’re probably going to hear about a new book coming from her soon. Florida is her short story collection that came out immediately after the publication of her book Fates and Furies, which got a ton of buzz. I mean Barack Obama said that it was his book of the year, so I don’t know where you go from there if you’re a writer.
She is from the state of Florida and all these stories have a strong sense of place. She shows you a series of characters, some of whom seem to be the same woman but it’s never entirely clear. Some of these feel apocalyptic. Some of these feel like eco-fiction, like we talked about with Katy Yocom. There’s one that I thought particularly liked, oh my gosh, edge of my seat, how do you come up with this stuff? It’s called Eyewall and it’s about a woman who’s riding out a hurricane in her house.
So I think considering you have so many short stories and we’re doing the Flannery O'Connor, which is old, I love the idea of doing a newer one for you. And also pretty soon she’s going to have a shiny new novel I would imagine on the shelves of the library when we’re there again, and I love the idea that it could be a bridge from your unread shelf to your current shelf. But also just to hopefully seal the deal, not all of these stories are set in Florida. She goes one time to Brazil and several times she goes to France.
ELYSSA: That sounds like a good book for me.
ANNE: I hope so. That’s Florida by Lauren Groff. And finally I do like the idea of continuing our theme here with Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and I think that would be really interesting to read right on the heels of the Lauren Groff and the Flannery O'Connor. I gotta say, Elyssa, this story is not the surface one that bears much resemblance to the favorites you selected today. The Dutch House, The Glass Hotel, Save Me The Plums, and yet you also said you really like variety and how a good story can sometimes be a feeling.
This book, it’s now more than 80 years old. It’s often reviewed as a classic, and yet so many people … They know the name. They know the author. But they’ve never read it and they don’t understand how meaningful it is to so many readers and to literature in general. And I wouldn’t share that with everyone as a selling point. I mean I know that a lot of readers if you say, “the language was so beautiful,” they’re like yup, that means it’s boring and I’m moving on. [ELYSSA LAUGHS] But you’re an English major and that is okay.
ELYSSA: That means I will give it a chance, yes. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: I’m glad to hear it. So, this story is set in rural Florida and it was revolutionary at the time for having a Black female protagonist looking for love on her terms. You see her try and fail early in this story but finally she does find this husband whose name is Tea Cake. I mean that’s not his real name, but that’s what everybody calls him [ELYSSA LAUGHS] and that’s what Janie calls him. He’s all wrong for her. He’s too young. He’s not of her way of life. He’s unconventional you might guess by the fact that he asks everyone to call him “Tea Cake,” but she loves him. And in this story you find out why and you find yourself wanting to cheer her on and just see the world she portrays is so different than the one you and I live today just by virtue of time and place, identity and who you are in the world.
And if that isn’t enough, then Janie takes their story in a direction that I think it’s a wonder that more of us don’t see coming just because often, it feels like spoiling the classics is fair game, but this story does take a new and surprising direction. Janie is forced to make a really difficult choice, what was Zora Neale Hurston setting out to accomplish and why did she make those choices? And what did she want to show? Now that is definitely an interesting question that you may enjoy exploring because you’re interested in that kind of thing. We could have a rousing book club on this topic.
But I think you’ll be glad to have taken this journey back with Zora Neale Hurston to 80 years ago to finally cross this classic of your list that you were interested in enough to pursue, and the idea of reading it clustered with other strong female writers writing in either similar times or similar places sounds like it could be interesting on a whole other level to you. How does that sound?
ELYSSA: That sounds great. Probably by reading a few of these next to each other will probably give me more insight and thoughts and enhance the experience more than maybe if I would read them separately.
ANNE: Well I hope you find that to be the case. And I also just want to point out if you’re looking to cluster a little more, you do have so many classics that could make a really nice quarantine classics flight. Like you have books that are about writers, like you have A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, you have Crossing to Safety, you have Writers & Lovers. You have some seriously symbolic classics like David Copperfield, Till We Have Faces, and The Lord of the Rings. And you have so many great women writers piling Sylvia Plath, Edith Wharton onto those books that we just talked about could be really fruitful as well. There’s a lot you could do here.
I know it’s easy to grow accustomed to what’s on our own shelves and kinda lose that first burst of excitement that we have that brought that physical book into our life, like as its owner, but I’m really excited about the possibilities of what you could find here in this collection of books that you own. You know, the time has just never been right to read. I hope in talking about these books today you’ve rekindled some of that initial enthusiasm you had for them.
ELYSSA: Yes. Most definitely. Now I’m seeing them a little bit differently and a little bit more excited about what I have here in the house.
ANNE: Of the books we talked about today, The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor, Florida, the short story collection by Lauren Groff, and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, what do you think you’ll read next?
ELYSSA: Sounds like it’s going to be tough, but I’ll think I have to start with Flannery O'Connor, given my connection to her and yeah, see where it goes from there.
ANNE: I love the sound of that and I can’t wait to hear what you think. Elyssa, thanks so much for talking books with me today.
ELYSSA: Thanks so much for having me, Anne.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Elyssa today, and I’d love to hear what YOU think she should read next. And hey, let me know if you’d craft any book flights from YOUR unread shelf! Our friendly comment section is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/237 and that’s also where you’ll find the full list of titles we talked about today. You can see those beautiful handcrafts elyssa and I talked about on her Instagram, @elyssamakes.
Subscribe to What Should I Read Next 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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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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♥ The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
♥ The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel
♥ Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir by Ruth Reichl
▵ Paris In Love by Eloisa James
● Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik
● City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert
● The Paris Hours by Alex George
● The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas Pere
● Dream More: Celebrate the Dreamer in You by Dolly Parton
● Felicity by Mary Oliver
● The Next Right Thing: A Simple, Soulful Practice for Making Life Decisions by Emily Freeman
● Writers & Lovers by Lily King
● Blood Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton
● Buttermilk Graffiti: A Chef’s Journey to Discover America’s New Melting-Pot Cuisine by Edward Lee
● Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner
● The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel
● The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
● Author Flannery O’Connor (try this collection)
● Author Sylvia Plath (try her Collected Poems)
● Author Sue Monk Kidd (try The Book of Longings)
● Author Barbara Kingsolver (try Unsheltered)
● Author Lisa Ko (try The Leavers)
● Author Anne Lamott (try Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life)
● The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor
● Author Eudora Welty (try The Collected Works)
● Florida by Lauren Groff
● Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
● Pantsuit Politics podcast
● WSIRN Ep 43: Fiction FOMO and curing Hamilton hangover, with Sarah Stewart Holland
● @TheUnreadShelf on Instagram
● WSIRN Ep 158: The life-changing magic of clearing your unread shelf with Whitney Conard
● WSIRN Ep 178: The Next Right Thing for your reading life, with Emily Freeman
● Reading is better when it’s done wine tasting style
● WSIRN Ep 7: Books that uplift and inspire, the books that “hook” you, and filling the Brown Girls’ Bookshelf, with Osheta Moore
● WSIRN Ep 186: Finding the book that feels like it was written just for you, with Lamar Giles
● WSIRN Ep 162: The best bad ending you’ll ever read, with Traci Thomas
What do YOU think Elyssa should read next? And have you ever built a book flight from your own shelves? Tell us about it in the comments!