WSIRN Ep 310: Big books that are worth the effort

image of pages of a book fanned out before a yellow glowing light

Many of the guests on this show are self-assessed introverts who love the solitary act of immersing themselves in a good book. But we know reading isn’t only for the introverted crowd—and today’s guest calls himself a mega-extrovert! However, between his extroverted personality and ADHD (he was diagnosed as an adult), he finds himself easily distracted, and he’s looking for some long books that will hold his attention.

Paul Randall Adams channeled his extroverted energy as a middle-school teacher before launching his current ventures: a literary-inspired soap company and a podcast of his own. He’s always been a reader, and he’s satisfied with his reading life as a whole, but lately he’s noticed that he shies away from picking up longer books—and that’s something he really wants to change. Paul Randall is looking for the confidence to select the right “big books” that will be worth the effort and time required to complete that high page count.

In my conversation with Paul Randall today, I’ll equip him with some tips to help him craft his own vetting process to identify longer books that will make the cut—and, of course, I’ll share some hefty reads I hope he’ll find irresistible.

Listen to What Should I Read Next? on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your preferred podcast app—or scroll down to press play and listen right in your web browser.


What Should I Read Next #310: Big books that are worth the effort, with Paul Randall Adams

Connect with Paul Randall on Instagram, shop his soaps (including the recent Narnia-inspired collection!), or tune in to his podcast.

PAUL RANDALL: What did I read last? So then I’m scrolling through my Goodreads or my reading journal like it has really been three and a half weeks since I read a word that is not scrolling to my doom on social media. [ANNE LAUGHS] Let's - let’s fix this.

[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]

ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 310.

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, now that my new book journal My Reading Life is out in the wild, I’m constantly thrilled to see so many of you putting it to use, whether you’re whittling down your TBR or gaining some new insight into what you love to read, and why you love to read it.

My Reading Life is the book journal I designed after years of talking books with readers, just like we do here every week, and it’s my best recommendation for any reader this holiday season.

If you are still looking for gift inspiration, why not pair a recent read you’ve loved with a copy of My Reading Life? It’s a book flight that’s 100% adaptable to any taste, and a gift that will keep on giving for your recipient.

There’s just one catch: the supply chain woes of 2021 mean that there’s limited stock of My Reading Life available. The good news is, many local independent bookstores have it on their shelves right now, so you can order your copy of My Reading Life for your favorite reader’s stocking this season.

You may know I’m an introvert, which definitely impacts when and how much I read. Today’s guest is not an introvert—in fact, Paul Randall Adams calls himself a mega-extrovert. While that served him well when taking charge of a classroom full of middle schoolers, it has led to some struggles when it comes to his own books, as he tries to reconcile his extroverted energy with the introverted act of reading.

Paul Randall was also diagnosed with ADHD as an adult, and today you’ll hear how that directly impacts when and how he reads. He describes himself as easily distractible—sometimes going a week or more without reading before even noticing he’s forgotten all about his novel-in-progress.

Thankfully, Paul Randall is satisfied with his reading life on the whole. There’s just one thing he feels he’s lacking, and that is long books. Right now he doesn’t even think about reading them, because it feels like a huge gamble to invest all that time and energy in a book with a high page count without being certain the reading experience will be worth it. But you’re about to hear why he’s not okay with automatically knocking these books out of the running when he’s deciding what to read next—and what he thinks might help him give longer books a try.

Today I’m helping Paul Randall identify some “big books” that will be worth his time and effort, and also offering ideas on how to craft a vetting process to identify future reads that will make the grade.

Let’s get to it.

Paul Randall, welcome to the show.

[00:03:02]

PAUL RANDALL: Thanks for having me.

ANNE: Paul Randall, tell our listeners a little about yourself.

PAUL RANDALL: So I grew up in a small town in east Texas. I grew up on a 20 acre farm in the middle of nowhere. I feel like the part of being Texan is that we have to throw it in everywhere we can. [ANNE LAUGHS] You know, like my wife thinks it's hilarious. She bought me Texas flag boots once and so like that's just like my identity regardless of anything else I do.

So yeah, I went to college here in Louisiana and I wanted to major in English. That was always my dream, but the school I went to offered me a full ride in music and that's when I was like oh my god, how did you know my dream was to go to school for free? [ANNE LAUGHS] So that led me to being a music teacher for many years before switching finally into the English classroom and now I work from home making soaps inspired by books and you know, just having a blast with my beautiful family. I have a wife who's a pediatrician and way smarter than I could ever hope to be and just this past year we adopted a son.

[00:04:03]

ANNE: Congratulations.

PAUL RANDALL: Thank you.

ANNE: One would think that going from the classroom to making soaps is totally different, but you had that literary bridge connecting them.

PAUL RANDALL: Yes, absolutely. So I consider myself an artist first, like I'm completely right-brained and so I think of my soap as art pieces. So I get to play with colors. I get to play with themes. I get to play with scents and mix it all together into this usable art piece that brings me a little bit of joy everyday too.

ANNE: Paul Randall, when you were in the classroom, who were you teaching there?

PAUL RANDALL: I ... When I was a music teacher, I taught sixth through 12th grade, and then when I switched into English for my last three years in the classroom I taught just middle school. Sixth, seventh and eighth grade and my heart always has been in middle school and should I return to the classroom it'll be back to middle school. My hope was to teach kids to love books the way that I do and I think for the most part I was successful and sometimes I wasn't and that's okay, too. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: What is it about those middle school years that get you?

PAUL RANDALL: I think that is so important when students are finding their identity and figuring out the person that they're going to be. Middle school is often seen as this strange transitional age, but I think it is the part where students are kinda developing their own ideas and learning for themselves instead of just kinda mirroring the world around them, so to be somebody who understands the big emotions that they're going through, the social issues they're facing and accepting that those social issues are real to them and offering them a safe space to have those issues and to feel those feelings. I just think is so important in helping them become the people they're going to be.

[00:05:44]

ANNE: Now as a middle school parent, I would definitely want someone sympathetic to that age and stage in the classroom with them, especially in English where I feel like ... I mean, when you talk about figuring out the person you're going to be, the books you're reading I think help young readers think through that. I mean, it's still helping me think through that, you know?

PAUL RANDALL: Right. [LAUGHS] You know, since the conversation has turned so much more in recent years toward representation on the page and finding characters and finding situations that look like you, which is what helped me become an even more diverse reader as an adult is helping my students find all of these characters that look like them and that live lives like them and I'm so grateful that the trend is moving toward more representation ‘cause it made my job so much easier.

ANNE: Interesting. I could see that. What would we be surprised to find out are the similarities between your current right-brained business and teaching in the classroom that we might not expect?

PAUL RANDALL: My classroom never looked like you would expect a traditional classroom. A) I never turned on the overhead lights, like just get rid of that as an idea in my classroom. Don't think of desks in rows. Instead imagine your favorite coffee shop and that's closer to what my classroom ever looked like. I had lights hanging from the ceiling. I had lamps. My desks were all in groups so kids could talk. I had couches. There was a lot of singing and dancing and even sixth, seventh, eighth graders like to sing and dance whether they'll admit it to their parents or not. [ANNE LAUGHS]

Incorporating those artistic things that I love. I had a group of kids who really loved Greek and Latin roots, so we would do a weekly song where we broke down the word within a word curriculum and they would come up with movements and we had the song, the root and the definition. Incorporating all of those, a whole-bodied activities, but also activating all of the creativity that I think is often lost when you get into the thick of a curriculum. Created such a fun experience for me but also things, experiences that students kept and an opportunity for them to continue to learn in a way that wasn't just drudgery.

ANNE: So that's the kinda environment that you created for your students. We're just going to jump right into your reading life, Paul Randall. Tell me about your favorite place to read now.

[00:07:59]

PAUL RANDALL: Oh, my favorite place to read now … Right now it's just on the couch in my living room with my dog in my lap, [ANNE LAUGHS] like a really chill area. Oh, and especially on nice days I like to read outside under the trees, but I do live in Louisiana where you either become one giant mosquito bite or you sweat off 90 pounds trying to sit outside [ANNE LAUGHS] so there's a very narrow window that I get outside reading time.

ANNE: Tell me about your reading life. What does it look like?

PAUL RANDALL: So, when I was younger I was very much fantasy, sci-fi oriented. I loved the exploration of what could be, and as I've gotten older I find myself more drawn to more realistic settings, realistic fiction, historic fiction and memoir. I really love memoir, which is not represented on my list because it is very hard to pick three books that represent your entire reading life. [BOTH LAUGH]

ANNE: It is. It's so hard. I'm not sure if I should apologize or congratulate you because you did it.

PAUL RANDALL: Listen, I'll take a small win today. Also I find it my ADHD really affects my reading life in that I may have six books on my nightstand that I'm reading from at the same time and I never know what my hand is going to pick up. That also means sometimes I put a book down and months pass because it becomes part of my nightstand rather than an active member of society, and I pick it back up and go huh. Have I read any pages of this book before?

ANNE: I'm sorry. You think of your books as active members of society?

PAUL RANDALL: Oh, they have to be. I often forget that the characters aren't real. As somebody who is a mega extrovert and has to talk to through every book I ever read, they become my friends, like you know, people talk about that as kids like, oh you know, I was friends with Anne of Green Gables and that was such a huge experience for me, but I never grew out of that childlike wonder.

And so I just read The Other Einstein and then made my wife listen to a diatribe about the book as if it was happening in real time. So they just become an active part of my life and my family's just prepared for like a lecture that's going to come based on the book that I read and the characters and the way that I feel very strongly about them.

[00:10:10]

ANNE: Is lecture the right word? I feel like that might be a little self-deprecating.

PAUL RANDALL: Oh, I mean lecture like a college professor, not lecture like they're about to get screamed at. No, no.

ANNE: Ohhh. Okay.

PAUL RANDALL: Back in my education brain. They're getting a full fledged lecture with maybe a Powerpoint if they're lucky.

ANNE: [LAUGHS] Once a teacher, always a teacher.

PAUL RANDALL: Absolutely. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: Paul Randall, I know that you're open talking about your experience with ADHD as a reader and I'd loved to hear more about that.

PAUL RANDALL: Well sure. First of all, I was not diagnosed until I was an adult and I think that is a very interesting place to be that when you're, you know, in your late 20s and you finally have an explanation as to why your brain works the way it works. It's kinda freeing.

ANNE: Yeah.

PAUL RANDALL: So being a diagnosed as an adult meant that I had an explanation for the way that my brain worked and then I could do more research to figure out what are some good coping for me, you know, what are things that work for other people and how can I incorporate those things into my life? But also getting that diagnosis helped me to be prepared for things that were going to happen, like not only does it affect my reading life in that I'll put a book down and walk away and forget that I ever touched it, or have more multiple things going, or sometimes I like to refer to as my superpower, sit in the room while my family watches a movie and I can read a book and keep up with both storylines because my brain can sort through all that.

ANNE: That is a superpower.

PAUL RANDALL: But it also means that I have to be aware that sometimes adults with ADHD go through mood swings that they can't control. When I know that it's coming, then I can do some things to mitigate that or to separate myself, to be patient with myself and others, whereas used to I would just be worried about like why am I suddenly angry? Or why am I suddenly sad? What is wrong with me? And then finding out that it's not something wrong. There's just a legitimate reason.

[00:12:10]

ANNE: It's so empowering to know the reason.

PAUL RANDALL: Absolutely.

ANNE: Well, I'm so glad you pursued that diagnosis as an adult. I hear from a lot of people, I'm not in school anymore, why bother? And you're the best one to answer that question, not me.

PAUL RANDALL: Oh, absolutely. For one I especially started medication for it before I started having to teach completely virtual. When the world shut down in March of 2020, I realized that when we were coming back to school, school was going to look very different and my singing and dancing and having some room to get off task was not going to be available anymore as about 60% of my students last year were completely virtual, and if I just wandered away from my computer to do whatever my brain said was important right then, they were going to miss a large part of our lesson for the day.

And so for the sake of my own productivity, it was important to pursue medication at the time, but up to that point it was just as important too like I said to know how my brain works, why it works and to find the research. I feel like if I have the research and I can read what people much smarter and better educated than I am are saying that I have a fighting chance to live my best life and to be the best me that I can be.

ANNE: Paul Randall, you said in your submission that your ADHD might have something to do with the fact that while reading is your favorite thing, that doesn't always mean that it's easy to stick with.

PAUL RANDALL: No, that is true. So between being an extrovert and needing some world outside of all of my very introverted things that I do, reading is the thing that’s easy to push aside because it feels like the biggest, like most self-indulgent thing that I do sometimes, so I can put that away and go out and live my extroverted life. I don't know that months have gone by, but weeks for sure have gone by that then I go when is the last time I cracked open a book?

ANNE: Yeah.

[00:14:10]

PAUL RANDALL: What did I read last? So then I'm scrolling through my Goodreads or my reading journal like it has really been three and a half weeks since I read a word that is not scrolling to my doom on social media. [ANNE LAUGHS] Let's - let's fix this.

ANNE: Okay. Well we are going to get into all that and more today and we're going to do it by talking about what you enjoy reading [LAUGHS] and what you really don't enjoy reading. I can't wait to talk about the book that was not right for you. [PAUL RANDALL LAUGHS]

***

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***

ANNE: Paul Randall, you know how this works. You're going to tell me three books you love, one book you don't, and what you've been reading lately and we will talk about finding the next right books for your reading life.

PAUL RANDALL: Sounds great.

[00:15:58]

ANNE: Okay, how did you choose these today?

PAUL RANDALL: So I kinda wanted to pick books that represent big themes or big ideas that I like to read and things that I'm drawn to to kinda give a wide angle shot of the type of books that I like.

ANNE: I like it. Sounds like a good method. And where did it take us? What's your first favorite?

PAUL RANDALL: The book that I have stood on forever as my favorite book, Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. I was first required to read this as a freshmen in high school, and coming out of middle school was a very difficult reading time for me, especially because in middle school was the first time we were required to read for accelerated reader as part of our grade. Another beautiful part of my ADHD is the abstinence defiance that comes with it. [ANNE LAUGHS] And the minute you tell me to do the thing that I love the most because it's required, it's no longer the thing that I love the most. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: Yeah.

PAUL RANDALL: So as a teacher I never required AR points for that because I wanted students to continue to love it and I know that part of that was informed by my own experience.

So Ender's Game was either our first or second assigned book in the ninth grade. I could not put it down. I would finish my work in other classes early so I could pick it back up and read. I would read through lunch. Sometimes I would skip lunch and eat in the library so I could read it because I'm a slow reader, so I know that my friends were reading it, you know, and it took them a few hours, one of my friends was a very fast reader, and it took me a span of days, but I just couldn't get out of it. I'd come home from school and tell my parents about this book and I could see the look on their face like can you please find a new book? It's gotta ... We've gotta move on from this one. [BOTH LAUGH] And the unfortunate news is that I never found a new book because I think I reread it 15 times at this point, and I'm not a huge rereader.

For people who are unfamiliar with the book, which feels strange to me, but I guess that's a thing. It is about Ender Wiggin who is a young boy identified by the government as a brilliant kid who is going to help in this war against an alien race called the Buggers, and he is pulled up to a school in space to train kinda military style. He's taught war tactics. He's taught military strategy. All of those things. At the same time, Orson Scott Card does a great job at showing the conflict of like an eight and ten year old having to learn these very complex things and prepare for this because this war is impending, but I remember just being drawn to the writing itself, but also the relationships that are formed and that is something that I've noticed in my own reading is that I love a book that draws on relationships and draws on the interactions between characters.

[00:18:54]

ANNE: Have you read any of the other books in the series?

PAUL RANDALL: I've read the whole series multiple times.

ANNE: Okay. Okay. I have read that book myself. I listened to it actually and it was ... I don't know how your friends read it in a couple hours 'cause it is not short on audio. It's something like twelve hours.

PAUL RANDALL: Did you listen to the one that's the full cast? 'Cause that's such a good recording.

ANNE: I did. That's the advantage of not listening to an old book until [LAUGHS] until there's time to give it, like, a really like glitzy production, which it definitely had.

PAUL RANDALL: Mmhm.

ANNE: I mean, that's one of those books that I find myself thinking about on a regular basis and I don't want to give anything away but the way it ends and the implications thereof are something ...

PAUL RANDALL: Yes.

ANNE: Something I think about all the time.

PAUL RANDALL: Yes, absolutely, and I think that twist is something else that I have grown to love in literature, and I don't know if it's a chicken or egg situation.

ANNE: Oh, interesting. Okay, we're just going to let that marinate. [PAUL RANDALL LAUGHS] Tell me about another book that really worked for you.

PAUL RANDALL: So the second book that I picked was Rules for Civility by Amor Towles. And actually I believe I heard about that one from you here sometime ago.

[00:19:58]

ANNE: I'm not sad about that.

PAUL RANDALL: It represents my love of historic fiction, and then my very niche interest in just about any book set in Manhattan. I don't care the time period, I will gobble up a book that is in Manhattan. My dream was to one day be a Broadway musician for a long time, and so I just knew one day that I was going to be called to Manhattan to live forever and as I'm 33 and happy in Louisiana, I don't know if that dream is going to come to fruition so I will just continue to live through my books.

ANNE: [LAUGHS] You can go visit.

PAUL RANDALL: All the time. I go all the time. It's one of my favorite places.

ANNE: Yeah, and have much better, you know, sleeping hours.

PAUL RANDALL: Oh, absolutely. [LAUGHS] So Rules of Civility is about Katey Kontent. She is a young woman in Manhattan. She's the daughter of Russian immigrants I believe who is kinda working her way up through the social ladder of Manhattan. She is working as a secretary and lives in one of those apartment buildings for all women that I think you read about so often in historic fiction that I'm sure they were real but it's a concept that I've never seen as a small town boy from east Texas [ANNE LAUGHS] so I assume that they're real. [LAUGHS] But she makes a good friend and they run into a man one night when they're out at a jazz club. Their relationship with this man, his name is Tinker, kinda changes the trajectory of both of their lives.

I love the way that the story is told. The beginning and the very ending are 30 years in the future from the rest of the book and I know that has become kinda an historical fiction trope that we have dual timelines, but I think that one is done really well, that it's bookended in a way that it doesn't weave itself in and out of the story, but also again, we get to see the relationships of Katey Kontent and all of her friends and the way that she goes from this just starting out young girl to this budding socialite, to the end when she's a woman with 30 years more experience looking back on this incredible story that she got to live.

ANNE: I feel like it's not my job to enjoy the books that our guests love. That's not the point of our conversation and in fact, I love it when a guest hates a book I love, or loves a book that I personally despise, but I just love that book for all the reasons you said. The way it is told and the way ... Because of the way it's told, it just has this wistful kinda longingness to it that I really personally dig.

PAUL RANDALL: Yes, absolutely. It kinda gets shelved in my head in a place right next to Everyone Brave is Forgiven in the way that it's told.

[00:22:40]

ANNE: Ooh. Interesting.

PAUL RANDALL: Kinda that historical fiction. There's this interesting kinda story of this woman who is having to redefine her life as she goes and of course their stories are very different and their themes are not even very similar, but I feel like the pacing is very similar and I feel like I love the characters the same way.

ANNE: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And you were saying with Ender's Game, which kinda surprised me in that context, but as you explained it, I could see it. You love the relationships in stories and you like to see the interactions between the different characters, and you really get them and all those books that you’ve highlighted so far.

PAUL RANDALL: [BOTH LAUGH] Maybe it's my extrovert coming out, the need for community. I told you those characters were all real for me.

ANNE: Paul Randall, let's see if those themes continue. What did you choose to complete your loved list?

PAUL RANDALL: So my third book is I'll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson. It is a young adult, kinda self-discovery, kinda interesting story that I discovered whenever I first started looking for more books to represent my students and I knew that my current bookshelf did not have enough LGBTQ-centric books, and so I was looking for things that my students who needed that in their lives could read and love.

This is one of the first books maybe in my entire life that I sat down and read all in one sitting and it was kinda like that meme where you start out in the armchair the normal way and then you flip around and, you know, every position you can sit in an armchair while you read the book. That was me throughout the whole day just turning page after page, so it tells the story of a set of siblings. I believe they're twins but it's been several years since I read it, whose mom is an artist and they are learning art from her when she tragically dies.

Anytime we're reading the sister’s story it's in like present day. It's what's currently happening, and anytime we're reading the brother's story, it's what happened in the past. The sister is kinda literally dealing with the ghost of her mom in that she is at this prestigious art school. The book opens with her having made this sculpture that explodes in the kiln and she knows it's her mom who's mad at her for this great thing that she has done that is revealed much later in the book. There's this like kooky grandma who gives them the spiritual advice that's like an amalgamation of every kind of nutty grandma you've ever seen in any like movie.

And then we see the boy's point of view who when we see from the sister's point of view, he is very sad and kinda broken and very plain in description, but when we get to see the world through his eyes, he is so vibrant when he speaks and his thoughts are so beautiful and there's a point where he's getting made fun of and he says, he picks up a mountain and he hurls it at the kids who are making fun of him, and I just remember that being such a beautiful image that that's the way he fights in his head even if it's not the way he can fight out loud. That he feels all these big emotions and so when we get to see the world through his eyes, as the reader, we get to feel those big emotions with him. And much of his story is struggling with his sexual identity and coming to terms with that and how the world around him is going to accept him for better or worse, and then when the story's converge, again, a big twist ending that I didn't see coming to the point that I like gasped because I couldn't put it together before it happened. And then the resolution is just beautiful.

[00:26:22]

ANNE: Paul Randall, now tell me about a book that wasn't right for you.

PAUL RANDALL: Okay, so I chose The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. It's one of the few books I hated that I've read all the way through because I am not afraid to DNF a book, like life is too short for me to struggle through a book that I hate. So I'm reading this book by this brilliant writer. Every word is perfect and exactly right for what she's saying, but it's the story of these children who meet at this kinda bougie summer camp where [ANNE LAUGHS] everyone's fancy except for the ... I feel like the main character's name is Jules. She is not bougie. It feels like she's there on scholarship in my memory, but they band together this group of kids who decide that they're going to call themselves the interestings and parade around as if they are better than those around them, and I just kept waiting for some of adult to intervene and put them in timeout [ANNE LAUGHS] for the rest of their lives.

The book keeps progressing and they keep making these choices that I would not have made and I know that that's just my own life. But at no point do I feel like they ever learned a lesson and I'm just waiting for like some giant finger to shake at them and for them to wake up and come to a reality [LAUGHS] that makes more sense to me, but there is no timeout. There is no one telling them to get their acts together and then I closed the book and went well, that is a thing I read.

ANNE: [BOTH LAUGH] So you've just been saying how characters in novels are so very real to you and I can sense your frustration that you wanted to just like plunge into the text and do something.

[00:28:02]

PAUL RANDALL: [LAUGHS] Yes, exactly. Maybe it's the teacher in me who wants to perpetually help, but I'm like, none of you are doing what you should be doing! Come on! Learn a lesson! Learn one!

ANNE: Is it necessarily true that you need likeable characters to enjoy a book? I mean, I'm wondering if the question here is just one of degree, or if we should steer clear of books where I mean your words were just so funny that you felt every one of these characters needed a large and impressive timeout.

PAUL RANDALL: Large and impressive timeout. I mean, I used to think that I didn't need likable characters, but when I reflect back on other books that were not for me I see a theme of I need to be able to get on board with a character. I think of Ottessa Moshfegh, what was that, Eileen? Was that …

ANNE: Mmhmm.

PAUL RANDALL: I could not get on board with her. I think of so many books that the characters all many of them, I just felt like needed an adult to put them in timeout and have a regrouping that I did not enjoy because of that. So maybe I do need characters I can get on board with.

ANNE: That can absolutely be a story that is thrilling to some readers like a book where younger people, or someone is desperate for some kind of intervention they don't get it, and that is the story, but it's not the story that you want to read.

PAUL RANDALL: Right. Apparently not. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: We got it. We got it.

PAUL RANDALL: Thank you for helping me identify that.

ANNE: [LAUGHS] We're not just figuring out the reader you're going to be but also putting words to the reader that you are.

PAUL RANDALL: Absolutely.

[00:29:30]

ANNE: Paul Randall, what have you been reading lately?

PAUL RANDALL: Oh, man, I'm actually on a big reading kick.

ANNE: I like it.

PAUL RANDALL: The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel, have read that and Station Eleven again. I love the way she puts together storylines. I love the way she puts people in and out of each other's lives, just effortlessly.

ANNE: Paul Randall, what do you want to be different in your reading life right now?

PAUL RANDALL: I find that I will steer clear of a quote, “big book.” If I look and it is a 500 pager, I will put that sucker back and I don't know if it's an opportunity cost situation where I could read three books in the time it takes to me to read a 500 pager. I don't know if it's ... I don't know what it is, but when I see a book that big and I know, I do know that part of it is I consider myself a slow reader, that when I see a book that big it's just kinda intimidating, but I know there are great books that are worth my time. It's being able to vet which ones actually are going to be worth my time, which one is going to be something that I will get the most out of if I'm going to commit to something that will take that much of my time.

ANNE: Mmhm. I mean, part of me wants to say well the same way you vet shorter books, and yet I hear in your words and your tone that the longer books, like it feels like a higher stake situation to you.

PAUL RANDALL: It does, and I think part of it is that I give myself a certain percentage before I put a book down if I don't like it. So I'll give myself 25% at the high end, so between 10 and 25% depending on where this book is going before I will put it down. For a book that big, you know, that's a much larger commitment than a book that's 350 pages or 300 pages, 10 to 25% is a lot less of a time commitment to decide if it's something I'm going to continue.

ANNE: What I really want to know is this really something that you want in your reading life? What's your gut reaction? Like of course I do, Anne, or well, I don't know ... 200 page books are pretty great.

PAUL RANDALL: So the new Amor Towles. I love Amor Towles. His new book just came out and it looks intimidating to me. How do I know that this is something I want to commit to knowing that I love this author, you know? [ANNE LAUGHS] So I feel like there are books worth reading that are that long that I can't get past that mental hurdle for.

[00:31:49]

ANNE: Ooh, okay. So you do want to do it, but you can feel the resistance from within.

PAUL RANDALL: Yes.

ANNE: Okay.

***

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***

ANNE: Let's review. The books that you love that all represent like a category of novel that has really ... That is something that you are drawn to. Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, and I'll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson. Not for you The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, which was every word was perfect, but every character needed a large and impressive timeout, which meant you ultimately found it unsatisfying. Actually, I think you might have said dissatisfying.

[00:33:42]

PAUL RANDALL: I think so. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: Yeah. Even more so. Lately you've been reading The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel, which is not a short book, I don't believe.

PAUL RANDALL: I did read it on audio, so I will throw that in. I do about 50% of my reading on audio and that is helpful.

ANNE: Does that make the longer books less intimidating?

PAUL RANDALL: No, 'cause I can still see how many hours they take.

ANNE: Uh huh. I find long books on audio pretty intimidating. I hear you there. [PAUL RANDALL LAUGHS] And yet you did it. What was your secret there, Paul?

PAUL RANDALL: I've got a big event coming up with my soap and so I've been working longer hours than usual and I put it on while I was working all day.

ANNE: Oh. I wanna be a soap maker.

PAUL RANDALL: Right?

ANNE: I just realized that you get to listen ... Oh! Very nice. So literary business in more ways than one.

PAUL RANDALL: Absolutely.

ANNE: Okay, I love it. This - this ... [BOTH LAUGH] This soap.

PAUL RANDALL: This revelation. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: This edition powered by Emily St. John Mandel. Okay, I love it. Also you've been reading The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict and Instructions for Dancing by Nicola Yoon and you want to read longer books.

PAUL RANDALL: Yes.

[00:34:42]

ANNE: And you also love historical fiction and books set in Manhattan. Now with Amor Towles, those two categories connect, but do they necessarily need to?

PAUL RANDALL: Oh, absolutely. I think The Sun is Also a Star was set in Manhattan and I loved it.

ANNE: Oh, yeah.

PAUL RANDALL: I mean, I love Manhattan currently. It's a place we go all the time. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: Alright, Paul Randall, you were the boss of your reading life but here's what I want you to know about The Lincoln Highway.

PAUL RANDALL: Okay.

ANNE: So this is a very different book from Rules of Civility. [LAUGHS] In some ways and yet Amor Towles likes to do interesting things with time and structure.

PAUL RANDALL: Right.

ANNE: He has that certain like wistfulness about his tone. Rules of Civility unfolded in one calendar year.

PAUL RANDALL: Uh huh.

ANNE: But so much of the writing style is the same and you like characters and relationships between the characters. There's a map at the beginning. That's a big selling point for a lot of people.

PAUL RANDALL: Oh, absolutely.

ANNE: Do you know The Lincoln Highway, these characters travelling begins in New York City in Times Square?

PAUL RANDALL: I did not.

ANNE: And some of the important action happens there?

PAUL RANDALL: I had no idea.

[00:35:50]

ANNE: This is a New York City novel! I think maybe you just needed a nudge in the right direction.

PAUL RANDALL: I think so.

ANNE: I actually had another, I think, deceptively long book in my mind set in New York City that is historical fiction and it's Liz Gilbert's, I think this is still her latest. It came out in 2019 but I don't think she's had a more recent one. It's her book City of Girls. Is this one you've read?

PAUL RANDALL: I have not.

ANNE: You really enjoyed Rules of Civility as we have definitely covered and you also loved Everyone Brave Is Forgiven. That has a very different tone. I mean, that one is lively and snappy, but you really enjoyed the way both stories were told and the voice in both stories and City of Girls is historical. It's set in 1940, I believe. It has a very distinctive voice. It's snappy. It's bubbly. It's funny. It's a little [LAUGHS] not quite ... It's a little larger than life over the top and I think ... I think it might be fun.

When it begins, it begins with a reflection. It starts in 2010, your narrator is saying I received a letter from his daughter and I thought about her many times over the years and she tells you the moments, the years, and she was surprised to get this new bit of information and it takes her back. And then you launch into chapter one, in the summer of 1940 when I was 19 years old and an idiot, my parents sent me to live with my aunt who owned a theater company in New York City.

And she talks about how she got kicked out of Vasser for paying more attention to how to roll her hair into this like complex hairstyling technique and maybe [PAUL RANDALL LAUGHS] she might, maybe have gone to class a few times instead, but she never found her place there and now she's needing to find a new place and she goes on what feels like one long caper in New York City living with the theater people, which is highly disreputable, at least to her parents and she gets into all kinds of risque kinda adventures and trouble.

I think that publisher's blurb says something like glamour! Sex! Adventure! But I think this could be a lot of fun for you and that it has a lot of elements you know you enjoy while being wrapped in a different kind of story and package then you've read, which I think could be a fun departure and it moves fast. I think it could be fun. How does it sound for you?

[00:38:08]

PAUL RANDALL: That sounds amazing. I'm already in.

ANNE: I am happy to hear it. Okay, now let's go the YA route. I mean, you teach middle schoolers. I feel like you must know all of them, but We Are Okay. Nina LaCour.

PAUL RANDALL: I know nothing.

ANNE: [GASPS] Really?

PAUL RANDALL: Really.

ANNE: Okay, that makes me soo happy. I don't know that you need this encouragement but this book is ... It's so much fun to talk about, like this novel would make for such a great book club conversation because it's ambiguous in nature. Read it, you'll see what I mean. It's about a girl named Marin. She's away at college on the opposite side of the country from her loved ones who are in California and for reasons that are clear in the early pages, she has to stay on campus for winter break and there's a blizzard and she's stuck all alone.

In the book it's really moody and atmospheric like she is primed to reflect on what has happened in her life recently. There's an important event that has happened that she is grieving and it's been really complicated and it's brought her a lot of angst. She is at a moment where she’s waiting for her best friend to visit and she's wondering if they can fix their relationship because something has happened, but also if she and her longtime best friend can become more than friends.

This book can be pretty heavy, so much about loneliness and grief. The difficulty in friendship, a lot of the fear she feels in taking the relationship in a different direction potentially. Her writing feels very true to the story. It's really lovely and the descriptions of the weather.

PAUL RANDALL: Now listen, I love Dickens. This feels very Dickensesque already.

ANNE: Interesting. That isn't something I would have jumped to but I can see it.

PAUL RANDALL: Very atmospheric, descriptions of the weather, or like Brontë. Maybe I'm channeling some Brontë right now.

ANNE: You know, it really is very atmospheric. I think especially … You could totally read this on the beach in the summer. It would be fine, but we are going into what for many people is a cold season, a snowy season, and her description of the environment, which is also completely suitable to the environment of her soul, they feel right for the character and for the book and to watch her contemplate her relationships and to see the interaction between the characters when we get more than just one on the stage, I think it has elements that you would really enjoy. How does that sound?

[00:40:20]

PAUL RANDALL: That sounds great. The way you described it so far sounds like the location is equally important, which is something I love when the setting becomes a character or like, you know, more than just the place where it is set.

ANNE: I hear you and I hope you find it satisfying. Okay, Paul Randall, of the books we talked about today, The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles, City of Girls by Liz Gilbert, and We Are Okay by Nina LaCour, I hope you meant it when you said you like New York novels 'cause that's what you got. [PAUL RANDALL LAUGHS] Of those books, what do you think you'll read next?

PAUL RANDALL: Oh, man. Okay, so I already got Lincoln Highway at home so I may just go home as soon as we're finished and start reading, but City of Girls really sounds amazing so I'm going to see if my library has it and if I can get my hands on it soon.

ANNE: I hope you enjoy it and I can't wait to hear how it goes for you. Thanks for talking books with me.

PAUL RANDALL: Thank you so much.

[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]

ANNE: Readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Paul Randall, and I’d love to hear what YOU think he should read next. Find the full list of the titles we discussed today and tell us your suggestions at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/310

If you’re not receiving our newsletter yet, it’s one worth adding to your list. We keep it short and sweet, and it follows the same format as our show—each week, I share three things I like and one thing I don’t, as well as a quick peek into what I’m reading now. Sign up at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/newsletter.

Be sure you’re also following us on Instagram at whatshouldireadnext and at my personal account, annebogel. That’s Anne with an E, B as in books, O-G-E-L for more peeks behind the scenes here at What Should I Read Next. If you have a photo of how you’re using My Reading Life, we’d love to see it, so be sure to tag us in your story.

[00:42:10]

And if you love listening to our show each week, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. Your reviews help other listeners find our show, and we’d be ever so grateful.

Please make sure you’re subscribed in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or my favorite podcast player–Overcast. Tune in next week for more readerly recommendations and to talk about all things books and reading.

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.

Books mentioned:

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (Full Cast Audio Edition)
Rules of Civility by Amor Towles 
Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave
I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh
The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel (Audio Edition)
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel 
The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict
Instructions for Dancing by Nicola Yoon
The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles
The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon
City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert
We Are Okay by Nina Lacour

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31 comments

Leave A Comment
  1. Dana Weltmann says:

    I think Paul should give “The Count of Monte Christo” a try on audio. It’s big, it’s long, 47 hours, but I couldn’t wait to listen to it more and so my dog benefitted by longer walks and I did laundry more often than usual. A classic with fabulous characters, especially the protagonist, Edmund Dantes, and the setting was Bonapartist France and the next twenty years or so and Rome. The narrator is fabulous. Wonderful historical fiction.

  2. Alison says:

    I second the motion for Count of Monte Cristo.

    My husband and I just started slow reading Les Miserables together. We keep the book by our bed and read one (short) chapter a night. It should take us about a year to finish.

  3. Amy says:

    Recommend City of Fire by Garth Risk Halberg. It’s long (900+ pages), set in Manhattan and is historical-ish fiction. Also can’t go wrong with 11/22/63 by Stephen king. Excellent on audio.

  4. Nina Murphy says:

    Good Morning – I thought of a book Paul might like, it’s long and it’s about New York – Pete Hamill’s FOREVER! I remember that this book was FANTASTIC. I think you will enjoy it. It’s about a man who has to stay in New York forEVER starting in the 1700’s! It’s full of history and adventure and drama. Give it a try!

  5. CindyAnn says:

    My brain screamed ‘The Source’ by James Michener. It’s a long book (most of his are) but this one was a favorite. I’m only sorry it isn’t in Manhattan! Set at a dig site in Israel, each item found, layer by layer, gets its’ own story. The ‘glue’ is the cross-faith relationship story of the two main characters. I felt it did the story within a story very well and found the chapters about each artifact (a coin, a piece of pottery, etc) fascinating. The chapters alternate between ‘now’ (it was written in 1965 so not really ‘now’ ‘now’) and ‘then’, with each ‘then’ going farther back in time. I read it 30 years ago and it has remained a favorite.

  6. Brandon H says:

    Here is my insight about longer books. Just because they have more pages does not mean that they should require more time to start hooking the reader. They should spark that same feeling of not wanting to put them down that “regular” length books do. Use the same vetting process that works for you on other books for longer books, but if you are using percentages, decrease them.

    If you liked Rules of Civility, you should look at A Gentleman in Moscow. It is well worth the time and gets a full five stars from me.

  7. Given his love of historical fiction and all things NYC, I’d recommend the novels of Fiona Davis. All of them focus on landmarks in NYC and develop as dual timeline historical works.

  8. Indiana Gigi says:

    Stick with The Lincoln Highway! I loved all the main characters, and also the supporting characters they meet on the way (especially Ulysses). My favorite New York book is Lillian Boxfish takes a Walk which is perfect to on New Year’s Eve! I share the same struggle concerning long books, yet some of my very favorite reads are long, and I’m so happy I read them (A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, and Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry—unforgettable characters!!!)

  9. Barbara Kochick says:

    I second Gigi about Lonesome Dove. I just finished listening. Great on audio. Absolutely unforgettable characters. Well worth the extra reading or listening time!

  10. Bryce Russo says:

    A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is the perfect book for Paul. This is one of my top 3 favorite books of all time. It’s tragic and beautiful, complex and heartwarming…the story of friendship, growing up, and the human experience. And it takes place in NYC! I tell anyone who will listen about this book, it’s been years since I read it and I still can’t stop thinking about it.

    • susan c says:

      A Little Life…is my #1 book EVER!!! Nothing has equaled it – there are many great longer books out there that are very good…but hands down “A Little Life” is mine for sure. It sits on my bookshelf so I can see it everyday.

    • Elizabeth Thomas says:

      My mind also went to “A Little Life” when I listened to the episode (it’s also one of my all-time favorite books for all the reasons you mentioned, Bryce). Plus, it would challenge anyone who is endeavoring to get more comfortable with reading big books. It’s a tome, but worth every single page.

  11. Suzanne C says:

    I’m going to need more information about Paul Randall’s “diatribe” about The Other Einstein! Could it be similar to my diatribe about that book? 😄

  12. Linda says:

    I think Paul will be pleasantly surprised reading Lincoln Highway. I found it to be fast paced, character driven, and hard to put down. I also agree with Brandon H., that Paul might want to put A Gentleman in Moscow on his TBR list.

  13. Courtney says:

    This was a fun episode!! I think Paul should try anything by Fiona Davis for historical fiction set in NYC. Start with “The Lions of Fifth Avenue”- I think he would love it!

  14. Bonnie says:

    Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir. This book is so good on audio, allowing you to experience the story in a way that is not possible in print. It is best to go into without knowing too much. On the surface it involves a mission to save Earth, but it becomes so much more. The only downside to the audio is that there is quite a bit of math science in it, which would have been easier to skim in print.

    The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. A SciFi novel that I continue to think about. First contact, great world building, in-depth characters. Philosophical exploration of what it means to be human and how are understanding is limited by our experiences.

    A Boy’s Life by Robert R. McCammon. Beautifully written, capturing an era (1960’s) and a boy’s early adolescence with a hint of the magic that is childhood.

    The Passage by Justin Kronin. Engrossing, post-apocolyptic world with pieces that slowly fall into place.

  15. Ellen W says:

    Paul Randall – I would have loved to have you be my sons’ ELA teacher. Both are great readers but have not enjoyed English classes that much (they currently are in 7th and 10th grade). I also have the same feelings about The Interestings and have decided Meg Wolitzer may be a great writer but she’s not my cup of tea.

  16. laura shook says:

    The Golem and The Jinni by Helene Wecker, set in New York: a book where the setting is most definitely a character in the story, but the story focuses on the relationship between the main characters. I think Paul would really like this one!

  17. heather says:

    The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. It’s mostly in New York. It’s very Dickensian. The characters are still with me. It’s long and I wish it was even longer. And I agree with the comment above: for a long book, you don’t need to get 25% of the way through to decide if you like it or not.

  18. Sara says:

    I can’t believe I don’t know Paul Randall. I’m pretty sure our book club here in Shreveport needs to invite him for a visit!

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