Today I’m chatting with Nadia Odunayo, a devoted reader and passionate entrepreneur who set out to give mood readers a holistic experience when choosing their next read. So she created The Storygraph, a brand new website full of tracking tools and detailed rating systems to help readers go beyond a book’s jacket copy and filter through information to find what they’re really looking for.
When you write a review on The Storygraph, you can share more than just a quick blurb. Reviews include pace (was the book slow, medium, or fast-paced?), moods (atmospheric, light, informative), and content warnings. I love hearing behind the scenes business stories, and it was fascinating to hear Nadia explain how this creative endeavor came to be.
It was also such a delight to talk with a fellow professional book recommender about the art and business of getting the right book into a reader’s hands. Reading is a top priority for Nadia these days, and she’s looking for books that keep her invested in a character’s story, as well as some nonfiction to balance out her book stacks. I’ve got a mix of short stories and essays to recommend (those don’t make appearances on the podcast often), and I can’t wait to hear what you think.
NADIA: And I remember taking it to my English class, I was just carrying it around all day, you know, I’d maybe started with the opening pages and I had it on my desk and my English teacher while like talking to the whole class, saw it on my desk and said, oh wow, isn’t it amazing? [LAUGHS] And I was like oh … Like I hadn’t even really gotten into it yet. [ANNE LAUGHS] But I was like okay, this is a book.
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 271.
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, a few weeks ago, we celebrated a big anniversary: five years of podcasting and producing What Should I Read Next! And just last week I marked another major milestone: TEN years of blogging at modernmrsdarcy.com. This podcast that you’re listening to actually started as a blog series, where I would ask a friend to share three books they loved, one book they didn’t, and then post their answers along with some book recommendations suited to their taste.
I still share posts about books and reading every week on the blog, but I also get personal now and then, sharing an idea from my journal, a favorite new recipe, or an essay post. Last week, I spent some time reflecting on ten years of blogging. You can read that post (and stick around for some book recs) at modernmrsdarcy.com.
To those of you who started as blog readers and made your way to the podcast, thank you for spreading the word about my work and following along for all these years.
Today I’m chatting with Nadia Odunayo, a devoted reader and passionate entrepreneur who set out to give mood readers a holistic experience when choosing their next read. So she created The Storygraph, a brand new website full of tracking tools and detailed rating systems (including those beloved quarter star ratings, for those who need 4.75 stars to capture exactly how they felt about a book) with the purpose of helping readers go beyond a book’s jacket copy and filter through what they’re really looking for.
Readers, it was such a delight to chat with a fellow professional book recommender about the art and business of getting the right book into a reader’s hands. Reading is a top priority for Nadia these days, and she’s looking for books that keep her invested in a character’s story, as well as some nonfiction to balance out her book stacks. I’ve got an exciting mix of books to recommend that I think will suit Nadia’s taste AND mood, so let’s get to it.
Nadia, welcome to the show.
NADIA: Thank you for having me.
ANNE: It’s always a delight to talk books with a fellow book lover, but today is especially interesting for me because I get to talk books with a fellow professional book recommender, and I’m really excited about that.
NADIA: [LAUGHS] Me too.
ANNE: I love the behind the scenes of anything. I like when books explain it to me. I love to hear people talk about their reading lives. I love to hear people talk about their businesses, and today we have a convergence of all these things.
NADIA: Yes, we do.
ANNE: Now you are the founder of The Storygraph. How do you quickly describe that to people when you’re telling them what you do?
NADIA: I say that The Storygraph is the place to help you choose what to read next based on your mood and any topics and themes that you’re interested in.
ANNE: This show is called What Should I Read Next and the reason it exists is because it can be surprisingly difficult for readers, including myself to find our next read.
NADIA: And that’s how I ended up building a product around it. So at the beginning of January 2019, the last venture that I was working on suddenly fell apart and I was left with, oh, do I get a new job? Should I try and work on my own thing? And I had a side project and it was to do with tracking and sharing reading lists and I said, well let me just tinker away on this for a little bit. I spent a few days building a rough prototype of a product. I showed it to a few people and the reception was, oh, this is cool. But they didn’t seem excited enough.
But what I knew from those three days of tinkering away on the side project was that I really felt alive in a way I hadn’t done before because I was working on a product to do with books. You know, I’d worked on so many different types of products before, in so many different industries, but this was the first time I’d focused on a books product, and so I said okay, if I want to actually experience the everyday, I need to find something that is compelling enough.
And so I just started talking to readers, book bloggers, friends, and I was trying to find, is there a pain point? Is there a niche? Is there a gap in the market? And I guess similar to how your podcast came to be, I saw that choosing what to read next is still not a solved problem. People have tried and they try and to different varying degrees of success, and I thought there was room for a software product to try and do that better than what was currently out there, and hence me focusing on recommendations.
ANNE: In all your conversations with readers and your own experience in the reading life, what is it about choosing the books that we want to read that is so vexing so often for readers?
NADIA: I think first of all, it probably comes from the multitude of choice. [BOTH LAUGH] There’s just so much out there.
ANNE: That rings true.
NADIA: [LAUGHS] Like even if new books stopped being published from today, and you had to continue choosing what to read next over the coming years, you would still struggle because there’s just so much, and then on top of that, you do have many different sources of recommendations whether that’s articles, you know, literary reviews, other websites, Goodreads, Amazon, bloggers. You know you’ve got so many different … Friends, family, so you’ve got so many people telling you this book is great, read it.
Each reader has to kinda filter through all of that and figure okay, who is making the best recommendations for me? What do I like? And then you’ve got the aspect of mood, which I realize a lot of people, you know, they’ll say they’re mood readers, so one day a book could grab them and the next day it won’t and it depends on, you know, what’s going on in their lives at the time, what they’re interested in.
And so all of these things mean that it can often be quite difficult to choose, and then also we’re not taking into account what is actually going on in your life that might mean that you’re not in the right headspace to read certain things. You know, can I take a book that deals with this type of content or do I want something that’s easy and light? And maybe easy and light is not what I normally read, so now I’m back to the beginning and I’m not sure what to choose. So I think there’s so many different factors in play.
ANNE: Something that I see happening with readers that I talk to who are disappointed that they picked up a book that they expected to love and it just wasn’t right for them, they feel like they have been actively deceived by either recommendations from people who just don’t understand that we all read differently, we’re looking for different things at different times for different reasons, or because they succumb to the marketing copy. You know, like publicists and that jacket copy, it exists to get you to pick up the book and I love publicists and bless the people who write that jacket copy because it can be so helpful, but also so misleading sometimes. I just see that trip readers up over and over again.
NADIA: Yes, and that’s what I found in my research too, because people are trying to, they’re trying to sell their books, right? And that’s fair. They want to sell their book and so the marketing copy that you speak about it often says things to grab the reader’s attention which might not be an accurate reflection of what’s actually in the book.
On our website, you can find books based on pace, so we’ve got fast paced, medium paced, and slow paced. And we’ve had a few people in publishing or authors reach out to us, you know, complaining that my books are marked slow paced. Well these books are marked slow paced, and that’s not attractive, and the thing is we have people who love a slow paced book. They’re looking for slow paced books. If you look at the stats of all the books they read, the vast majority of the books are similar paced. It’s not a negative thing. It’s like there are people who actually your book could be perfect for but if it’s marketed as something that it’s not, then the readers who will love it you know, have a lower chance of finding it.
And so what we’re trying to do with The Storygraph and all of our mood tags and our pace tags is separate away from the marketing copy and really trying to connect people with content that will resonate with them, really grab them, really suit them and it doesn’t matter you know who the author is or when it was published, it’s gonna fit your mood, it’s gonna fit the style of book that you love.
ANNE: Now I’m really interested in hearing about the evolution of going from a personal recommendation to software.
NADIA: Yes. The first version of The Storygraph was just a personal recommendation website. That’s all it was. So there was no tracking your wider library. There was essentially a form. You filled out the form. You said the mood you were looking for. I think you maybe said some books you loved, some themes or topics that you were looking for, then I essentially got an email every single time someone submitted a personal recommendation and this wasn’t a public website. That would have been a bit too much. [ANNE LAUGHS] I - I personally invited people …
ANNE: Oh, wow.
NADIA: I personally invited people to try, and so I would get loads of emails and then I would just set aside time and I would just go research and read a bunch of information about different books. I would read about the content of the book, what people read it for. I would look for book reviews. I would look for articles. Lots of different information and I would come up with kinda an assessment of whether that person would like the book, and I also looked at their reading history, you know, what they liked to the person. What they hadn’t liked. That was very important as well.
ANNE: Ooh, tell me more about that. Why is it so important to hear what people didn’t like?
NADIA: Because within a book, there are many different characteristics and sometimes a book can have a bunch of things that you love, but also some things that are a turn off, and a turn off can spoil a whole book for someone, right? Someone can be really invested in a book and then the ending, you know, maybe the main character dies or maybe it’s not all wrapped up and there are so many unanswered questions, that can really disappoint a certain type of reader. And they can feel like they invested all that time and while wish they hadn’t.
The reason why it’s important to also check that a book that doesn’t contain things that you don’t like is to make sure that by the time you’re done with reading the book, it’s the whole package for you and you’re not left disappointed. Yeah, it’s just a way of making sure you get a holistic experience, a holistic, positive experience. And sometimes I found when researching and looking up other recommendation systems, there was a lot of focus on what you liked or other people also liked this, but the main thing is well, is what that person also liked relevant to me? If they don’t share the same dislikes because they may give something five stars, but I’m going to read it and not like it so much because it had XYZ which this other reader doesn’t care about.
ANNE: What kind of feedback did you hear from these readers who you were giving the personal recommendations to?
NADIA: The main thing was wow, I have never heard of this book before, but it sounds right up my alley.
ANNE: Ohh, that’s the best thing to hear.
NADIA: Exactly. You know this as a personal recommender … Is that a word? A recommender? [LAUGHS] Oh, well.
ANNE: On this show it should be.
NADIA: Yes, there we go. So as a personal recommender yourself, you will know that that’s the best thing to hear, but of course to get to that, it takes time. [LAUGHS] It takes a lot of time to find something that someone hasn’t heard of before, particularly the more avid a reader is, the harder it is to do that.
NADIA: And so I realized pretty quickly that this was not going to scale. If I wanted to build something that was sustainable, profitable in the long run, an independent business that was going to last, I had to find a way that it was going to scale. So there were two things. One is how can I scale this personal recommendations service, but in the way that keeps the personalized effect, you know?
NADIA: Because a lot of problems with recommendation systems is that the bigger, the vast scale that they are, or the more people they serve, often the quality can go down. People feel like, is this really for me or did it just like say if this, then that? And it spits out a book like yeah, sure, you’ve heard before and so and so many other people have the same recommendations. So we wanted to avoid that.
But then the other thing I found was that a lot of the feedback was after wow I never heard of this before, amazing, it’s like okay, I’ll probably read that in five books time though because I’m in a book right now. I’ve got three other books on my shelf or on my bedside table that I’m going to read, and that’s where I moved away from we’re a personal recommendation service to we help you choose what to read next. Choosing what to read next might be something completely new. Or it might be that pile of unread owned books you got, something you’ve already marked as want to read because we all as readers have a lot of books on our radar and it’s like which one do I pick up now?
ANNE: So how long has The Storygraph been your full time job?
NADIA: Since January 2019. That was when I first started tinkering on the side project and then after I spent a week or so on that, it was a few months of just talking to people and then I started building the personal recommendation service early 2019. By summer 2019 I was building the beta, and it was initially private. I onboarded people automatically, and then it was towards the end of 2019 when my co-founder Rob Frelow got involved, and he was the one that helped me automate the recommendations. So originally he just built tools to help me do what I was doing faster, so just search a load of books faster, and then instead we completely automated it early 2020.
ANNE: Nadia, where did the name come from? The Storygraph?
NADIA: Actually it’s an old name. So in 2012 when I was at university, I was lamenting with a friend one evening about because of all our course work and extracurricular activities, we weren’t reading a lot. We had the idea to start a short story e-publication. Of course what ended up happening was we spent whatever free time we had running this creative writing e-publication, and not actually reading more beyond reading submissions. [ANNE LAUGHS]
Originally it was going to be an online newspaper. So we wanted a newspaper-y sounding name, and we also, I had this idea that ‘cause it was online, it was going to be an immersive experience. There was going to be artwork attached to each story, which there was. We got custom … We commissioned art for each story that was published and I had an idea that maybe there’d be like music or something else later on.
I actually had that as a business since 2012. We ran it for a few years and then shut down the publication after we graduated and the … I just left the company dormant then. It’s quite funny because at the time my mum said, you know, keep the company because this name is so good and I don’t want you to lose the company so that you lose the name, and the domain, thestorygraph.com. She’s like it’s just so good. I feel like you could do something with it. [ANNE LAUGHS]
And the funny thing is when I first started tinkering away on this reading app that I was working on at the beginning of January 2019, that had another name called Readlist. Like and I was just sitting on this, you know, The Storygraph limited and when I was doing conferences and gigs and things like that, I would get into pay any fees or expenses to that business, but it wasn’t attached to this reading project that I was working on, and it was only when I started saying hey, I might build a book recommendation and tracking site, that it suddenly clicked, and I was like ooh, I could start using the storygraph again.
ANNE: Meant to be.
NADIA: I think so. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: So books have been your job since 2019. Something that many people who work in the book space have learned is that having books be your profession doesn’t actually necessarily correlate with reading more. What has going full time with The Storygraph done for your reading life?
NADIA: Interestingly, it’s massively increased my reading.
ANNE: [GASPS] Oh, that’s wonderful!
NADIA: [LAUGHS] So since 2016 I think it was, I’ve written an annual blog posting of what I read in 2016, 2017, I think 2017 was my first post. And I said in my 2019 post, it starts by saying oh, you know I was worried because I started this thing called The Storygraph, but in fact, being immersed in the books world, particularly in Instagram, and just finding a lot more books that I was excited about, and also I think I felt like if I’m going to run a company that’s a book product, I really need to get stuck into this identity of being an avid reader. Like I don’t want to be running a books company and not read, you know? [ANNE LAUGHS] So those two things meant that I also set aside time to read every day. I was able to connect with potential users of the product that I was going to build in a proper way, in a meaningful way, talking about books. [LAUGHS]
Up until I started The Storygraph, the few years before that, I read about 20 to 30 books a year, and then 2019 I read 57 and last year I read 67, something like that. And that just comes down to like I said prioritizing it and having that hour slot in my calendar every day, and also just … I’m a reader, so reading is very important for my mental health as well, you know, running The Storygraph, you know, for the first year I was alone.
I was a solo-founder doing everything, the tech, the customer research, the product development, the community organizing, and even now that I have Rob as a business partner, and Abbie, @ab_reads on Instagram who works for us part time, you know, I’m still leading the initiative and it has its stressful times. There’s times of doubt and anxiety and just like a lot of work to do. I love reading, so [LAUGHS] having that hour to look forward to each day and escape into a different story it’s very therapeutic. It’s healing. So all those combined have meant that my reading has just increased and I’m trying to find ways to like keep reading more within a year [LAUGHS] despite my workload increasing.
ANNE: What has working on this project to help other readers find books they love taught you about your own reading life?
NADIA: Through working on the project, my network of readers has expanded massively. It’s exposed me to a wide variety of books. I’ve tried some romance books which I normally don’t read. I’ve been trying to read more essay ... essay collections and different types of nonfiction to the nonfiction that I would normally read. And so first of all it’s shown me that yes, I have a really broad range of taste.
It’s shown me through both talking with other readers, getting book recommendations from there, and building the product and seeing what my own stats from what the product tells me, if someone had asked me what types of books do you like? I would have said oh, fast paced, lots of action, drama, and I realized oh no, I can really love a slow paced character-driven novel. The first one that made me start to realize that was reading My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Mosfegh.
That was the first book where I was like oh wow, oh that’s very character-driven. There’s not a lot of, you know, like action about, you know, as it says in the title, a woman who takes a year of everything. [LAUGHS] And just like you know hangs around in a drug induced stupor, and the blurb, upon reading the blurb, I felt oh, this isn’t for me, but The Storygraph helped me see that you know, maybe this is something for me. And so yeah, it’s also just helped me realize that I do like a slower, character-driven novel as well.
ANNE: That’s a really important realization that could really change the books you pick.
ANNE: I can’t wait to hear more about your specific tastes. [NADIA LAUGHS] I know readers are going to want to hear so you have an hour a day on your calendar when do you read during the day?
NADIA: So here’s another thing about me. I love experimenting and mixing up my schedule. Keeps it fresh, you know, depends on what’s happening with work, when I feel like I need to get to work, so for a long time, at the beginning of 2020 it was in the morning. It was one of the first things that I did and then I realized as the site grew, most of our users are Stateside, so that means the quietest time on the site is my morning hours, so I get up at 6.
So the quietest time is, you know, 6 to like 10, and so I decided that maybe I need to start working then because I can do bigger changes on the site, like things that would be a little more destructive, it’s better for me to get stuff out then and then as more and more people wake up later on, you know, I can tend to more customer support, or see what’s happening on our bookstagram and Instagram, so I actually moved my reading now to like after my lunch breaks. So after my lunch break, assuming everything is going okay, I step away for an hour and I’ll do some reading. So right now it’s like 2:30 to 3:30 every day.
ANNE: That’s so interesting that though you’re in London, so much of your Storygraph audience is in the U.S.
NADIA: Yes. It’s funny also because I think a lot of the customers assume I am in the States, or assume it’s run by people in the States, so I often have messages from people saying you know whether they want to volunteer for us or work for us, or whatever it is, they’ll say, you know, I’m in the U.K., is that okay? And I’m like well I hope it is because I’m in the U.K. too [ANNE LAUGHS] so that better be okay. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Do you have a way to account for the distribution of your reader community?
NADIA: We have really basic stats in there, we don’t - don’t collect a lot of data on our users, so it’s just you know, whatever we see from basic analytics and the I.P. and so we just get a high level breakdown of where people are, and that’s how we know about 50 to 60% are in the States.
ANNE: Nadia, I would love to hear more about your reading life and specifically what you are reading and loving. Are you ready to dive in?
ANNE: Well 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 talk about what you may enjoy picking up for your next read.
NADIA: I’m so excited.
ANNE: How did you choose these books you love?
NADIA: The ones I love, one of them is it’s something that I’ve always said for the longest time is an all time fave, and I recently reread it so it was top of mind, and then other two I read more recently and loved. And then the one I chose for didn’t like it was because so many people loved this book, and I went into it expecting to love it, and I didn’t.
NADIA: And I was kinda sad.
ANNE: I mean that is the kiss of death, sky high expectations.
NADIA: Yeah. So I wanted to call that one out, and actually one of the books I loved was another one that people had been raving about for years and it met those expectations, if not exceeded them, so that was great.
ANNE: Oh, thank goodness. Well now we get to hear which is which. Tell me about the first book you love.
NADIA: The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I first read this when I was like 13, and having reread it …
ANNE: Oh, gosh. [LAUGHS]
NADIA: I know.
ANNE: I have a 13 year old and the idea of her reading The Secret History …
NADIA: I read all sorts when I was 12 and 13, this was when I first started secondary school and they had a library and I just picked up whatever. I will not forget it. I was by my locker one morning and one of my fellow book club members, we were part of this book club, came up to me and she said I stayed up all night reading this. You have to read it. Pushed it into my hands, and I was like okay. And I remember taking it to my English class, I was just carrying it around all day, you know, I’d maybe started the opening pages, and I had it on my desk and my English teacher while like talking to the whole class saw it on my desk and said, oh, wow, isn’t it amazing? And I was like oh wow [LAUGHS] you know, I hadn’t even really gotten into it, but I was like okay, this is a book. [ANNE LAUGHS]
I don’t remember, like, really like reading it, all I remember is I loved it and since that time I’ve been calling it one of my all time favorites. I was never one to reread books. I understood why people would reread, but personally I always said to myself, well, this … I already know I’m not going to be able to read all of the books I want to read in my lifetime, so I’m just going to prioritize new stories always. And then getting involved with the books community in Instagram, I saw a lot of people who I followed were rereading and the joy they were getting out of it and I said well you know what, there are these five books I keep going around saying they’re my all time faves but I’ve read pretty much all of them when I was like 12 to 14, you know, now I’m in my late 20s. Do these still translate? Are they still my favorites? So I reread the five or so books, The Secret History being one, and up until The Secret History, I don’t think any of the books had retained a five star rating in my …
ANNE: Oh, no! How did that feel?
NADIA: It was kinda, like, disappointing, I was like oh no, who am I as a reader like what is my reading identity, what have I been telling people all of these years? And so I went into The Secret History nervous, I was like oh no, if this is not a five star, then … ‘Cause this is the one out of all of them that I was like oh, yeah, this one is my all time favorite. [LAUGHS]
So I was nervous because I just thought oh, if none of them are five stars, then who even am I as a reader? I was a bit nervous at first. It was a bit slow, but then at some point it just really, it grabbed me, the writing. I was just hooked. I was into it. I - I didn’t want to put it down and I was like okay, this is … Yeah. This is still a fave. This is amazing.
ANNE: I’m relieved to hear it. Although I mean readers change and grow and that is okay, and yet. [LAUGHS]
NADIA: Indeed. I think I was nervous because I hadn’t, and I know everyone’s rating system is different and personal to them, but I’m really picky with five stars and I even sometimes would say to myself, do you need to relax with your ratings? Like why are you finding it so hard to give a book five star rating? [LAUGHS] And I think I just had it in my mind that five star stuff had to be absolutely perfect, and any little niggle just like then it couldn’t have a five star rating and we’ll talk about one of those books in a bit ‘cause it’s one of the books I mention as loving.
So I think I was just nervous, like wait, the books that I thought were five stars, they’re not even five stars anymore, like do I have any five star reads that I want to … And that’s why I was worried, it was not worried about changing but more like what are my favorite books? [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Nadia, tell me about another book you love.
NADIA: So this one is The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin, and this was one that people have been raving about to me for years, saying you know, it’s incredible. The best series ever. I was definitely curious, especially knowing that I think every single installment of the trilogy won the Hugo Awards. I think no other series has done that before like in consecutive years, so I said let me see what all the fuss is about.
And I knew going into it, you know, people had said you know it’s a bit complicated. It’s a bit hard work, you have to get used to it. Yes, it was complex. You know going into it world building and the set up, it takes a bit of work to get into it, but and you see this when you push through and everything starts clicking, work that N.K. Jemisin has just put into this to just construct everything. It’s just so well put together, like you just, like it’s a masterpiece. You just have to appreciate how it’s all put together.
It’s the kind of book where yes, it’s not an easy read, but it’s the kind of challenging that’s so rewarding when you start to see all the pieces fall into place. You start to understand the terminology and get used to the world, and honestly, it was just a real masterpiece, and when I spoke about the whole five star rating thing, this book [LAUGHS] and if you look at my review, I’ve given it 4.75 stars. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: That is very precise.
NADIA: Very precise. [ANNE LAUGHS] Quarter star ratings on The Storygraph, which people love, by the way. And it was just because I’ve gotten into this mindset where like I said, oh, five stars have to be perfect for me, and one of my criteria is I just have to generally understand everything. I can’t be too confused because for something to be like one of my all time favorites I feel like I just have to have a good grasp of everything and with The Fifth Season, I felt like there were just a few elements where I struggled to visual or struggled to really say like what happened here, and I know that some people that’s like, that’s fine, like I didn’t completely get that. It’s part of the experience, you’re not meant to completely get it, but I just needed to get it a little bit more, to be able to visualize it a little bit more of it for it to like be up there as like okay, five stars. But it’s still one of my all time favorite reads.
ANNE: 4.75 [NADIA LAUGHS] I like it. What’s your final favorite?
NADIA: I’m sure lots of people have heard of Girl Woman Other by Bernardine Evaristo. The reason I wanted to bring this one up is because this is one I wasn’t sure I was going to like going in despite the fact that people had been raving about it. One of the reasons was because, or maybe the main reason, was because I knew it was written in a verse style and I was a bit like mm, I’m not sure if this is for me, and I remember having wandered into a bookstore at one point picking it up, opening a page, and thinking like okay, you know, like I don’t think it was going to be anything that really like captivate me or I don’t know if It was going to be like the most enjoyable reading experience. I guess I was worried about the accessibility of it, you know, hearing that it was in verse. And I know verse doesn’t necessarily mean complicated. I was concerned about not particularly knowing about, like, the Man Booker prize and knowing that those tend to be more literary, I was just wasn’t sure how much I was going to take to it.
From like the opening pages, I was just hooked. Like it just … I was turning the pages, the words were just flowing into my head. But the main thing for that book for me was just the richness of the cast of characters, like I felt like they were so real. [LAUGHS] I didn’t … We have this question on The Storygraph reviews where do you find the characters lovable and I think I actually put mm, it’s complicated for that question [ANNE LAUGHS] because it’s not that I didn’t love all the characters. They just felt so real with their hopes, their desires, their histories, their actions.
Lot of it was set in London, and so my home, I just loved it and every time I went to put the book down, I just wanted to get back to the characters, get back to this world and they were all linked in different ways and yeah, I just thought it was brilliant and so … And that’s the other thing I’m not someone who tends to reread or reach for rereading. When I finished the book, I remember feeling like oh, I want to start it all again. I didn’t, but I did feel that way strongly. So that was an clear sign of an all time favorite.
ANNE: I’m so glad you chose that and not just because it was the right book for you, although, Nadia, how many stars did you give this?
NADIA: Five. This one got five.
ANNE: Five solid stars. [NADIA LAUGHS] But despite it being absolutely true that so many readers have read this, no one has chosen it as a favorite before.
ANNE: Thank you for bringing it to the favorites section of What Should I Read Next.
NADIA: I’m glad.
ANNE: [SIGHS] Now tell me about that book that you had high expectations for that didn’t quite work out the way that you hoped.
NADIA: [SIGHS] I’m even like, you know, hesitant to say it because I know there’s going to be a lot of listeners who are going to go oh, no, I loved that book.
ANNE: And there will also be a lot of listeners who hear what you say about why it wasn’t for you and say oh, but it is for me, and rush out and get it right now, so …
ANNE: That’s - that’s the way it works with books.
NADIA: And that’s actually something I always try to do in my reviews. Like I was actually looking back at my review for this book, and I say if you like XYZ, then this is for you. I always try to do that and I think it’s in ethosolve of The Storygraph, and I’m sure it’s in your work too being a personal recommender, a book is always for someone. There’s always someone out there that’s going to give a book five stars or it’s going to be their all time favorite, you know?
ANNE: Absolutely. And by talking about the reasons why it doesn’t work for you, it becomes clearer who it would work for.
ANNE: And what will work for you in the future, so okay, without furth… I feel like we’re just putting this off. [LAUGHS] Tell me about it.
NADIA: Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson. I definitely think there was an aspect of me maybe not being in the right mood for it, you know, I spoke earlier about how I discovered that I do enjoy a slower paced, character driven novel, but I think when I read this one, I think maybe I did need to pick up something that was faster paced and a bit more exciting.
You know it covered a lot of topics, deep topics, you know, we have motherhood, identity, family, race, racism, social mobility, grief, there were a lot in there, I think, and it’s a short book, and I think I just didn’t feel like I had enough to feel connected to the characters to feel invested in the story, to really get to the emotional effect that I think Woodson was trying to evoke in the reader. So I just felt a bit detached from it.
I felt a little bit bored at times, or like yeah, just yeah, not really invested in the story. I could see at times you know I could really see a way people said they loved the writing, but I just think yeah, it just wasn’t for me at the time that I read it and I remember just being so excited and then being like oh, no, it’s not for me.
ANNE: Nadia, what have you been reading lately?
NADIA: I’ve been reading a bunch, but I realized that so far I’ve only spoken about fiction books, and normally I read about 25% nonfiction and I’ve been trying to get that up to a third because I do have a lot of nonfiction on my TBR. You know, my degree was in philosophy, politics, and economics. I love reading about startups. I enjoy the odd true crime book. I want to read more essays and things like that, so I wanted to share a couple of recent nonfiction reads that I have really enjoyed.
So the first was Our Women on the Ground. It’s an essay collection edited by Zahra Hankir, and it’s all about Arab women reporters reporting in the Arab world. And I remember at the beginning of the book, I think it’s written by Zahra Hankir, the intro basically says you know, we recognize the limitations of just saying the Arab world and Arab women, but it’s kinda the easiest way to, you know, talk about it because it’s like, you know, these 22 countries, many different languages, it is a bit of just grouping a bunch of different countries and cultures in one. But essentially you know, that is what it is, and I’ve always been fascinated by reporters who have such a desire to seek the truth that they put themselves in danger or they travel to war zones.
And then to add on to that, being women reporters in countries were women are discriminated against, women are looked down upon, and there’s lots of sexism, I was just blown away by the bravery, the fierceness, the things that these women went through and because it’s an essay collection, every chapter written from a different voice, a different perspective, it was just rich and the variety of experiences, it was hard reading, you know. Obviously a lot of content warning for like death and grief, description of, you know, war zones and things like that, so it was tough, but that was a very rewarding experience and I would definitely like to read more essay collections that kinda show me a perspective or a different type of career, a different type of ... a cultural perspective that I just wouldn’t normally read about.
And then the second one that I read last year Don’t Touch My Hair by Emma Dabiri, and that is the history of Black hair, and you might think, okay, Black hair, okay, but actually it touches on so much more. You know there’s also you know, the social history of Black people, the economic history, politics. It even goes into mathematics.
Emma Dabiri uses the history of Black hairstyles to reveal the mathematical ability that Black people have and the history of that, and it was just fascinating, and that was awesome because that was reading about, you know, something that was very important to me, you know, as a Black person, as someone who has my own Black hair history, it really helped me change my perspective on how I viewed my hair and my relationship to it, so there’s you know, stuff about how, you know, Black hair takes a long time and it’s really easy for people, particularly people today and today’s western world to say oh, you know, we’re almost too busy to spend time on it da da. You know, Emma sorta talks about … Really helps, you know, Black people appreciate the fact that no, this is actually a part of our culture that should be celebrated, that you know, our hair needs this much time and care and so it really helped change my perspective.
So that book was great because it’s one of those books where I think it’s great for non-Black people to read to just understand this rich history that you might not be aware of and what it says about many different facets of society and Black culture, but then also for Black people to read, to again understand and appreciate certain parts of our culture that you may not have done previously. Interesting parts of history, pockets of history that you might not focus on as a topic, you know? Black hair history is something, kinda specific area and so looking for those kind of deep dive history reads as well is something that I’m trying to do.
ANNE: Okay. Nadia, you’ve touched on this a little but what do you want to be different in your reading life?
NADIA: So I think the main thing right now is getting up that nonfiction, I mean, you can see even when I was originally talking about books, I had to remember to say oh yeah, let me include my nonfiction reads. [LAUGHS] It’s very easy for the focus to be on fiction and I’m someone who has a wide range of interests. I’m running a business. Like I’ve said, one of ... My degree is all nonfiction philosophy, politics, economics. My nonfiction TBR is growing, so I think the main thing is just keeping up that nonfiction percentage of reading. I want to get through more in a year.
And apart from that, I think it’s just keeping up my focus of continuing the practice that I’ve done of focused reading time so that I can get through all of these amazing books that I’m discovering and I’m sure you’re going to put a few more my way now, so. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: All right, Nadia, let’s talk about your books. You loved The Secret History by Donna Tartt, The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin, and Girl Woman Other by Bernardine Evaristo. Not for you Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson, you mentioned that timing may be an issue there. Recently you’ve been reading more nonfiction as you strive to get your nonfiction percentage up from about 25% to about a third.
ANNE: So you’re continuing to want to look for nonfiction in various formats, including but not limited to essay collections, and what I want to keep in mind is you said about Red at the Bone, how reading about those characters you felt detached, bored, not invested, which is the opposite of what I really heard you saying about the books you loved where these authors just built whole worlds that you felt like you were walking into and becoming apart of the page.
NADIA: Yes. 100%.
ANNE: Okay. With all that being said, I’m a little afraid to recommend this, but something I think we both know about book recommendations is sometimes a reader doesn’t know what they’re looking for until they start reading it and then they go, oh, this is for me. So you like books where the author creates whole worlds, yet I want to try out a short story collection on you, is that okay?
NADIA: That is brilliant because I always say short story collections aren’t for me, but I also feel like I haven’t read enough short stories collections to definitively say that, so I’m very excited about this.
ANNE: I feel like I’ve seen this on bookstagram a lot and I know you hang out there, but the book I’m thinking of is The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw. Is this a book you know?
ANNE: Oh, okay, I’m so excited! It came out in the U.S. in fall 2020, so it hasn’t been around forever. This is a wide ranging short story collection. Some are just five or six pages. Some are 40 where you spend a lot of time with the characters, but what I like about these for you is that even though yet you get these quick little snippets into aspects of each woman’s life, I mean, women are front and center in this collection as you can probably gleam from the title. She drops you so quickly and effectively in the midst of these women’s lives that you feel like you are there with them for as long as you are with them. Her writing is so emotionally rich and evocative. I think that’s really what she does best is she captures the feeling of a situation and she adds all the details that would make you experience it.
So these are about work and children and love and sex, all kinds of relational problems, some ending in triumph, some not at all. There are hints of connection between the stories but just hints. They’re united in tone, but just right from the very beginning the epigraph is from Ansel Elkins autobiography of Eve. It’s “Let it be known, I did not fall from grace. I leapt to freedom.” And even though in every story we meet a new character, I didn’t feel a jarring sense like I feel in so many short stories where you turn the page, it’s a new story and you have to figure out like wait, where, what is happening now? Who am I with? I feel like she just seamlessly carries you into another woman’s life.
The attitude behind the stories, the tone is very similar while like every character can still feel like a distinct human being with her distinct problems. There’s a short story about peach cobbler that I thought was absolutely fantastic. That’s one of the longer ones. A mother daughter duo and an illicit relationship that the daughter is just not quite sure what to make of, and then becomes involved in when her mother pulls her in. But the one that I loved the most, like I finished it and I turned back to the beginning and I read it again
ANNE: And I could do that because it was only 20 pages, it’s called “How to Make Love to a Physicist,” which is about a woman with some stuff getting in the way of relationships.
ANNE: But … Well, I won’t tell you how it ends. I will say thought that I wanted to read it again. [NADIA LAUGHS] This is a short story collection that makes people who love them say this is why and that makes people who say short stories are not for me say, well, except for that one book.
ANNE: So that’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw.
NADIA: I’m excited to pick that one up.
ANNE: I am glad to hear it. Okay, this is a little bit of philosophy, a little bit of politics, not so much on the economics, but you are a business owner who’s bringing people together and running your own company, I’m wondering what you know about The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters by Priya Parker.
NADIA: I don’t know much.
ANNE: Okay, I can work with that. So I think this is really interesting nonfiction. Nadia, you were talking about Don’t Touch My Hair which is called Twisted in the States, which is interesting. Sometimes the covers are completely different, too, and I always want to know why.
ANNE: But I don’t always get the answers to that. [NADIA LAUGHS] You were talking about how it’s a book about hair, and yet it also went into all these other topics and explored areas that made perfect sense but you weren’t expecting, and I don’t know if you said this in many words, but that that was a really engaging experience for you as a reader.
ANNE: And that’s why I think that you may enjoy The Art of Gathering, so this book was recommended to me by many disparate readers when I said hey, I want to run better meetings and they recommended this book and so I entered into having business meetings in mind and was so delighted to see her talk about all kinds of different gatherings. Her speciality is social conflict resolution and she has all kinds of experience bringing all kinds of different people together, whether that is college friends or political readers meeting in board rooms, flash mob parties. She tells a story from Arab Israeli summer camp and all kinds of conferences, just a wide array of gatherings.
But she talks about how different kinds of gatherings she’s been involved in, how they can go horribly wrong and how they can go really, really right if we do it with intention, and she shares so many stories that I think really are the best part of the work because not only is it just fun to read about these - these pop up dinner parties with people just dressed in white that happen in various locations around the globe, which read very differently if you’re reading it in the midst of a global pandemic ...
ANNE: … Makes you long for what will be again and what could have been in the past. I mean not only are those just fun to read about, but also she explains her philosophy and then she says let me show you what it looks like. And something that I think you’ll find especially interesting about this book is so many of her suggestions are really counterintuitive. Although perhaps not to you because one of her recommendations is think very purposefully about who you are excluding and she explains to readers, okay, you may think we’re talking about gathering, why are we talking about excluding people? Isn’t that kinda rude and wrong? And she says no, no, no, no, no, no. Like for a gathering to go well, you have to think about who it’s for and that means it’s not for people too, which sounds very much like what we were talking about earlier about recommending books or perhaps you can see how easily that’s extrapolated to building an online community, like who is it for, who is it really not for?
But she tells all these wonderful stories with takeaways that I think will make you think differently about running your business but also just engaging in your everyday life, like she tells stories about friends coming together and why maybe sometimes that awful dinner party could not have been so awful if things had been handled differently. And she tells stories that give you insight into why things work that also are just I mean fascinating but also a little painful to read, like she talks about a missed opportunity at a funeral, how everybody was gathered together and the moment was ripe and the preacher went to open his mouth to say something, which was let me talk to you about parking and how just the moment - the moment was lost and how we can plan those moments to happen, but also not wreck them when we have managed to build them. It’s not a long book, but I think you’re looking to read different kinds of nonfiction that this could be worth your time. How does that sound?
NADIA: Honestly it sounds so interesting. I’ve always been someone who’s interested in facilitation and being better at facilitating meetings. You know I like to think I’m pretty good already, but there’s always room for improvement and also I - I did a series of conference talks around communication and giving feedback and one of them was on nonviolent communication in particular, and you mentioned that there’s talk of conflict resolution and things like that and that’s something I’ve always been interested in, you know, how do you be honest and open with people while not leaning to conflict, not leading to people being defensive and it sounds like there’s aspect of this within this book. And I love nonfiction that, you know, has a lot of anecdotes or stories different, different case studies, things like that, and it sounds like this book is packed with them.
ANNE: Yes, I think so. So that is The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters by Priya Parker. Finally, you said essay collections and I think because of the time and because we’ve touched on London, my thoughts went to Zadie Smith. Tell me about your relationship with Zadie.
NADIA: My relationship with Zadie is when I was like 12 or 13 I read White Teeth and I don’t remember it and now as an adult I’ve been seeing lots of friends, avid readers who love her and I keep saying I need to reread White Teeth ‘cause I don’t remember anything about it and how I felt about it at the time and I need to read all of her other stuff too because [BOTH LAUGH] like you said Londoner, so yes, I have been waiting to get back into Zadie Smith.
ANNE: I wasn’t thinking of White Teeth because of what you said about nonfiction. I actually thought that maybe starting small and timely could be good for right now in early 2021. She has a newish essay collection that just came out in the past few months. It’s called Intimations. It’s very slim. There’s only six or seven essays in here. This collection was prompted and reflects on the pandemic. She just started reading this in March. She’s a wonderful essayist. If you read this and really enjoy the next one I would pick up is Feel Free and what’s interesting about this collection is she was born in London and has spent much time there, but since she’s writing during lockdown and she teaches at NYU, she’s writing this from Manhattan in the early part of lockdown.
I do love a good epigraph in the front of a book, it just sets the tone and tells you what the author has in mind and what she chooses for this is from Marcus Aurelius who says “It stares you in the face. No role is so well suited to philosophy as the one you happen to be in right now.” She also uses a Grace Paley quote, but I think that that line about philosophy from Marcus Aurelius could indicate that this book could be right up your alley.
And she also talks a good bit about the doubt she feels about how she’s living her life and about the world right now. But she lands on some metaphors that I just think are so perfect and thought provoking. One of her essays is called “Something to Do” and in it, the line I had to jot down is that, “we are all looking for things to fill the time, and what we do with our life is really just finding a way to pass the time.” She also talks about people talk to her about a novelist, what does a novelist do? But what I had to jot down was “there is no great substitute between novels and banana bread. They are both just something to do,” and she talks about that at length. [NADIA LAUGHS]
So there’s some drama essays, some of which are very much like speaking about right now like how people are handling themselves well or falling apart during quarantine in New York City. But she also has this really lovely section that just attribute to various people in her life who really matter to her and taught her something and it can be anyone from like the musician Tracy Chapman to very particular friends like of one friend she says that friend taught her just think about her life differently because this friend showed her that mothering is an art, housekeeping is an art, baking is an art. Small talk is an art. Sending cards at holidays to everybody you know, this too is an art. But above all these, and this is the one her friend taught her, playing and just what it means to play. It’s a slim book, but it has really wide range. How does that sound?
NADIA: Sounds brilliant.
ANNE: That’s Intimations by Zadie Smith. Nadia, of the books we talked about today, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw, The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker, and Intimations by Zadie Smith, of those three books, what do you think you’ll read next?
NADIA: I know I want to read more nonfiction [LAUGHS] but I think I’m going to pick up the short story collection.
ANNE: Well I’m not sad about that, and I can’t wait to hear what you think. Nadia, I so enjoyed talking books with you today. Thank you so much for joining me.
NADIA: I loved it too. Thank you so much for having me.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Nadia, and I’d love to hear what YOU think she should read next. That page is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/271 and it’s where you’ll find the full list of titles we talked about today.
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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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•My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
♥ The Secret History by Donna Tartt
♥ The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
♥ Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo
△ Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
•Our Women on the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World, edited by Zahra Hankir
•Twisted: The Tangled History of Black Hair Culture by Emma Dabiri (UK title: Don’t Touch My Hair)
•The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw
•The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters by Priya Parker
•White Teeth by Zadie Smith
•Intimations by Zadie Smith