Readers, today’s guest is here to get some help with a struggle that feels more and more universal these days: combating distraction and reconnecting with the sensation of being totally lost in a good book!
Hannah Gorrie grew up as a voracious reader, but in her adult life she feels like something is broken in her reading life, and she’s not happy about it. While she’s always loved reading long books, lately she’s struggled to find the desire to pick up a doorstopper, or even to stay fully engaged with a shorter read.
Hannah reads widely and only draws the line at a handful of themes, and she especially loves fast-paced stories with compelling characters, interpersonal drama, and political intrigue. I’m here to help her find some ways to recover her reading groove with some titles that she’ll find captivating.
Connect with Hannah and she what’s on her nightstand at Goodreads.
HANNAH: I was put off by it at first, just the size of it, especially … She gave me a small paperback. [ANNE GASPS] It was so – I mean, it was like four inches thick. [ANNE LAUGHS] I'm like how? No! [BOTH LAUGH]
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 318.
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, if you’ve loved using my reading journal, My Reading Life, I have exciting news for you: this summer, I’m launching a version made specially for young readers!
My Reading Adventures is the ideal companion for kids’ reading adventures, especially for the 8-12 year old set, and is designed to help instill a lifelong love of reading. It’s filled with fun lists of book recommendations for different genres and interests, creative reading-related activities, and space to record what they’ve read and what they would like to read next!
Pre-order a copy now before it releases this August, and learn more at modernmrsdarcy.com/kidsjournal
Readers, I’ve heard from so many of you that you’re battling distractions in your reading life more than ever before. Today’s guest Hannah Gorrie is in that boat, and she’s hoping I have some tips to share. (Spoiler alert, readers: of course I do.)
Like so many of us, Hannah grew up as a voracious reader, but as an adult she’s lost some of the passion that used to propel her reading life. Today, she’s looking for concrete ways to reclaim the sensation of being completely absorbed by a good book. In the past Hannah loved reading loooonng books—as you’ll hear from her favorites—but recently she’s struggled with any book longer than 250 pages. She’s not happy about it, and she’s here to get some help in rebuilding her reading stamina.
When she’s choosing what to read next, Hannah says a book’s genre is merely incidental: she reads widely, especially enjoying stories that feature wacky characters, political intrigue, and high drama, but as you’ll hear there are some themes that make her draw a hard line. We explore all that today. I’m excited to recommend titles that will captivate her attention and help her find her reading groove again.
Let’s get to it.
Hannah, welcome to the show.
HANNAH: Thank you. I'm thrilled to be here.
ANNE: Hannah, we'll dig into this more as we get into the episode, but you voiced a concern about your reading life that I am hearing with increasing frequency from among our listeners and from readers everywhere. I'm not sure if you knew what good but also concerned company you're in in your reading life, but I'm excited to explore that today.
HANNAH: Yeah. I had an idea and part of what had me submit this particular issue is because a lot of my friends who also are big readers are experiencing it as well, you know, we're all in our late 20s, early 30s, used to be big, big readers in our teen years and early 20s even, but as reading stamina being able to sit down with a paper book or you know, Kindle or what have you, and read for more than 15, 20 minutes without our attention being pulled away has been super challenging. So I do have some friends who are interested in hearing our conversation, too.
ANNE: Oh, I think there are many readers listening today who are interested in what's going on there and maybe what we can do about it. But first tell me a little bit about yourself. Where - where are you in the world, and what are you typically up to on a Tuesday morning?
HANNAH: Well, I'm currently in central Illinois which is where I am originally from, but I grew up on the east coast in Maryland. Been there for most of my adult life as well. I recently moved back to Illinois to be closer to family. During the pandemic was when that happened. It seems like a good time to reconnect and invest in my relationships, so it's been a good transition. I work at the university here in town, so I am usually at my desk. We're hybrid working these days, so I'm either in the office or at home.
ANNE: What's your area of interest at the university?
HANNAH: I am in computer science and I should say I am not a researcher or a teacher. I am a support staff. So I got into this job because I was interested in project management and writing 'cause I originally studied animal science. I have always been interested in animal welfare. I spent over a decade volunteering and working at a horse rescue, different humane societies, things like that. So that's what I was, you know, interested in when it was time to go to school, but then my early career ended up being biomedical research support.
And during my time there it was super fulfilling, but I found I really like the pieces of my job where I got to write, so I went back to school to study English, hoping to maybe stay in that research field, but do a little more of the grant writing and technical writing, but while I was there I got a job in administrative support at the university and I just loved it. I loved working with the professors and the students, facilitating education, so when I graduated I stayed put in that job and then when it came time to move, the university is here in town, so that seemed like a no brainer to start looking there. So I'm really enjoying where I'm at now and I do get to do some writing as well as project management kinda stuff. [ANNE LAUGHS] Yeah.
ANNE: I'm really resonating with your path because my background was in the legal field and I finally realized wait, [LAUGHS] if your favorite part of the job is writing about boundary disputes, maybe it's about the writing actually.
ANNE: Well I'm glad we're finding our way. [HANNAH LAUGHS] Hannah, do we see any of these interests reflected in the books you like to read?
HANNAH: Mmm. Animal science for sure, and agriculture. So I'm a pretty omnivorous reader and a big mood reader, so you know, the genres that I go for are kind of all over the place, but when it comes to nonfiction, I really enjoy memoirs by researchers and scientists and environmental science and animal science. Authors like Sy Montgomery who will do like investigative journalism pieces about different species. Those I really tend to like. I do not appreciate … For my own reading life, I stay away from fiction that has to do with animals. I read Where the Red Fern Grows when I was nine and was just completely traumatized by the sad –
ANNE: Well they're not all that ... I'm just speechless thinking about how to … No hyperbole I think goes too far Where the Red Fern Grows in just destroying your heart.
HANNAH: Yes. So tragic. So I never really sought out animals in fiction as a subject but when it would happen, when I would come across that as a subject, it was almost always super traumatic and cruel and awful, you know, the animal always comes to a heart wrenching end. So I usually stay away, but definitely in nonfiction, I do appreciate animal science.
ANNE: Right now my brain is going straight to the website, Does the Dog Die? where you can look up sad endings and things like this online. Doesthedogdie.com just file that away for later.
HANNAH: I didn't know that existed!
ANNE: Also I have to say that my brain is immediately going to science in fiction which is specifically what you said [LAUGHS] you didn't want to read. Although … although I'm just making a note just in case for later.
ANNE: Hannah, tell me more about your reading life right now. What do you tend to pick up and how do you end up choosing it?
HANNAH: I really appreciate magical realism, historical fiction. The genre, it tends to be incidental. I really appreciate any story that has a really good fast-paced, compelling plot and lots of character development. I don't necessarily need to like a character. I read The Queen's Gambit recently and I was so impressed that I was able to – the author like ... I loved the story, but I did not like a single character and I was like alright, that's good. [LAUGHS] They've done a good job.
ANNE: How was that in book form?
HANNAH: I enjoyed it. I read it first before watching the Netflix series and I thought the Netflix series did it justice. I listened to the audiobook when I would drive and it was a nice, kinda smooth listen. I really enjoyed it.
ANNE: So I hear you say plot. You love a solid plot.
HANNAH: I do like it to be fast-paced. The books that I've chosen today are pretty fast-paced and the one that didn't work for me was too slow. You have an acronym for when you quit a book before finishing it. I can't remember what –
ANNE: Oh, the DNF.
HANNAH: DNF. That's what I'm thinking of. So, I recently … I used to be very type A and very much like you have to complete everything that you pick up, but I saw that I would stop reading altogether and when I would analyze like why don't – why don't you read anymore? It was usually because there was a book that I wasn't very enthusiastic about. I hadn't given myself permission to move past, and you know, honestly, actually I think I listened to a couple of your podcast episodes where you had discussed that it's okay. [LAUGHS] It's okay to let it go. It's okay that it wasn't for you. Don't spend your time on things that aren't right for you. So I tried it once and twice, and it felt good and I, you know, then picked up a book that I was in the mood for and was able to sustain, you know, that reading habit easier. That's what did it, I think.
ANNE: This seems like an especially good time to experiment with setting books aside just because we are now nearly two years into a pandemic, but so many readers who previously had not thought themselves to be the personality that could set aside a book that they had committed to by reading the first page were better able to understand through experience what it means to be reading a book that might be right for you, but is not right for you right now. And I think that really empowered a lot of people to experiment with setting things aside, telling themselves it was temporary, although we're still in the pandemic, so I don't know if we've [LAUGHS] all have had the opportunity to return to some of those books where we said no, not during a pandemic.
HANNAH: Yeah, absolutely and that's been true for me as well, and what's helpful too is knowing that I am a mood reader and that things are so tumultuous right now and I might not have the attention span or books that are super heavy topics that I am interested in. It's been easy for me to say not right now and to not throw the book away and to never read. That has been super helpful.
ANNE: Well, Hannah, we're going to dive into the particulars of your reading life and you know how we're going to do that.
You're going to tell me three books you love, one book you don't, and what you've been reading lately, and we will talk about what you should read next taking your current readerly concerns in mind. Now how did you choose these today?
HANNAH: Analyzing what my reading life is currently like and what I wish it would be again, I was thinking back to times that I was super engaged, could not set the book down, and I also picked longer books because part of my current reading life that I am dissatisfied with is that I am intimidated by longer books. Anything that's over like 250 pages, I'm probably not going to commit to. I definitely rely on the fuzzy feeling of finishing a book. I get a lot of satisfaction of watching the bookmark move through the pages [BOTH LAUGHS] closer and closer.
But these books are ones that stand out to me when I look back on my reading life as favorites. I also like tend to not remember books that I've read off the top of my head. You know, as I browse through my Goodreads list of past reads, I'm like oh, yeah, that one. That one was amazing. But these three also stand out as off the top of my head books, so I felt like those were super notable.
ANNE: What did you choose for your first book?
HANNAH: So my first book is Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. It was one that my mom read before me and brought to me and was like you must read this book. I think I was 19 at the time. I was like okay. That's really long. What's it about? You know, tell me more. Convince me, and she said well, it's historical fiction about a village that builds a church, or a cathedral.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] There's a sales pitch for you.
HANNAH: Right. [LAUGHS] I'm like no thank you. That sounds terrible. [LAUGHS] She is a reader that I trust for sure and then she brought it up a couple more times, not anymore compellingly I should note, [ANNE LAUGHS] but she did keep bringing it up, so finally I just I had ... I spent the summer house sitting for a couple of basset hounds. I had a lot of time on my hands. I was like I might as well just give it a try, and oh my goodness, when I look back on that summer, all I think of is this book because that's all I did. Oh, I was so gripped by it, and I loved the sprawling timeline of multiple characters and multiple generations. There was so much space to develop the characters. I think from what I remember the plot wasn't super fast-paced, but there was enough drama and the inter-politics of, you know, the nobles versus the villagers and the priests, it was very compelling. So yeah, I really gobbled it up, and I've not reread it. It's always been one that I've wanted to reread.
ANNE: Are you so curious about what you would think now?
HANNAH: I am, but you know what, I also like that kind of is what keeps me from rereading it also. What if it does not stand up to my memory of it?
ANNE: Your description of your early reading experience is so relatable because I think I was 17 when I read this, and I'm trying to remember why I would have picked it up, but I remember telling friends at the time, they're building a cathedral and it's so good. [LAUGHS] Like I just don't know - don’t know how to describe to you why.
HANNAH: Yes. I don't have words for like how to make it super compelling, so yeah, I give my mom a lot of grace on that one.
ANNE: We love you, Hannah's mom. We really do.
HANNAH: [LAUGHS] Thank you so much for bringing this book into my life, yes.
ANNE: But I mean, I think actually, so it's a village building a cathedral – that sounds boring – but you hinted at like the politics and the drama and there's so much conflict and they're embarking on this epic quest that as I recall they talk in very lofty terms, and there's all these people who are dedicated to committing an achievement that will last longer than they do for the people who are coming ... Like you know, the stakes are really high in this book. They're not just building something 'cause that sounds kinda boring. But it's not boring on the page. As my 17 year old self thought.
HANNAH: Absolutely, and like the cathedral feels incidental even. It kind of stands in place as things happen around it and it comes into play in those inter-politics to some extent, you know, of course there's some obvious ones like how do they afford it, or you know, who is for and against it? Obviously the priests want it to be built, but even why? Why do they want it to be built in a specific place when it's a super tumultuous time and
ANNE: Wow, there's so much to fight about. Lots of good fodder…
ANNE: For plot development. Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. What did you choose for your second book, Hannah?
HANNAH: My second book is The Stand by Stephen King, which was another one that a friend brought to me and was like you must read this book. [ANNE LAUGHS] She knew I was a Stephen King fan. I had read his shorter novels.
ANNE: I'm laughing 'cause I've been meaning to read this for ten years.
HANNAH: Oh, absolutely. So when I recommend it to people now it's always like I know it's a huge commitment. I know it's scary, but please read it. [LAUGHS] I was put off by it at first just the size of it. Especially she gave me a small paperback. [ANNE GASPS, LAUGHS] I mean it was like four inches thick. I'm like how? No! [BOTH LAUGH] I didn't want to hold this thing!
ANNE: We can put like a hundred words on your thumbnail at that print size.
HANNAH: Yes, exactly. So I ended up picking up the audiobook at some point years ago and I loved it so much I've reread it every year since.
ANNE: All 500 hours of it?
HANNAH: Exactly. Exactly.
ANNE: Surely it's less than 50.
HANNAH: It might have been 45. It was very close. I picked it up actually because when I was a lab technician I had so much time to listen, like my whole eight hour workday I could be listening to audiobooks. I was looking to maximize my audiobook listening time [ANNE LAUGHS] and I was like well this …
ANNE: Pennies per chapter.
HANNAH: That's exactly right! What I love about it is that the book that you start reading does not feel like the book that you end with. It feels like it could be a trilogy. The flavor is very different from start to finish at about like three different points. So when you start you're zooming in on different characters around the country as they're getting to experience this mystery illness, and I will say, maybe not the best book to read during a pandemic. It is a little triggering. I reread it last year and was like hm, this feels very different. So you know, you meet many of the characters right away. It happens very quickly. Lots of people start dying. You're following the characters as they experience kinda a post-apocalyptic wiping out of their communities and they're left with you know, what do I do? Where do I go? You know, what is my purpose now?
And then what I feel like is the next flavor, they're coming together, meeting each other, and trying to learn what happened and where do they find other communities? So again that kinda post-apocalyptic, which I will say also is not my jam. I do not really enjoy apocalyptic stories, so this one is also kind of an anomaly to me, but part way through the book there's then kind of a supernatural element where they are, they're dreaming either about the Walkin' Dude who's kinda the dark figure or ...
ANNE: From the terrifying cover editions I've seen? I'm assuming.
HANNAH: Exactly. Yes. Or they're dreaming about Mother Abigail who is more of the bright light, and they're drawn to either side, so at that point you have no idea what to expect what's coming next. Are they going to be in ... Are those two sides going to be in conflict? Are they just going to kind of live their lives harmoniously separately from each other? But you know there's so much more to come because you're only 20 hours in to your 49 hour audiobook. Kind of the third and final flavor was coming into conflict and the inter-politics, the morality, you know, one side versus another what they stand for.
It's a little religious I will say too, like it's not a denominational religion, but it definitely plays heavily into the good and bad morality of either side. The choices that they end up making, but what I really loved about it, in addition to kind of that sprawling narrative, was again the space to develop the characters and that you follow and learn about characters on either side. There are some characters that are totally neutral that you know I didn't find myself rooting for or against but were very rich to the story, but certainly then ones that you just loved to hate. [ANNE LAUGHS] Ones that you just fall in love with and hope nothing bad happens to. Stephen King is not gentle with his characters, so there's always a risk [LAUGHS] that you're going to lose the one you love.
ANNE: Have you read his memoir, On Writing?
HANNAH: I have not. It is on my to-do list.
ANNE: Okay. I would really recommend that to you. You're interested in writing. You've read works by Stephen King, so I think you'll connect to it like hearing how the story that you really enjoy ... You know, one of your favorite books ever, he talks about how he got to a certain point in the story – I don't know which flavor this would be – I think probably he got through the first two, and how he just didn't know where to take it next, and so he walked and he walked and he walked and finally it occurs to him … I don't know if this is much of a spoiler or not because I haven't read the book, but finally it occurs to him what he's going to do to blow his plot open. I think you'll enjoy reading that, but also just knowing your interest in developing your own writing, many readers pick it up for that specific reason.
HANNAH: Yeah. I do – I really appreciate that. Thank you. I will look into it. Something I will say about King's writing is he often struggles to really tie it in, tie the ending up. I often read his work just for the journey [LAUGHS] and not for the conclusion. [ANNE LAUGHS] If it ends satisfyingly then that is a bonus. I feel like this is one that he ended well. For anyone who's familiar with Stephen King and is unsatisfied with his endings, I feel like this one is good. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: That is The Stand by Stephen King. Hannah, what is your third and final favorite?
HANNAH: My third is American Gods by Neil Gaiman. I read this one last year. It really gave me hope that I can be really drawn into books [LAUGHS] and not want to put them down, that I am not broken as a reader.
ANNE: You're not broken.
HANNAH: Not broken. It's totally I just haven't found the right books. So this was one. My best friend from elementary school, we grew up reading together. We exchanged, we lent each other our favorite books for Christmas last year.
ANNE: Oh, how fun.
HANNAH: Yeah. So she's in Maryland, and so we went ahead and mailed each other our favorite books and she sent me American Gods, and she said Hannah, this is for you. That's just all she said. She didn't tell me anything about the plot, and again it's just a giant book [BOTH LAUGH] and I knew that it was going to suck me in. I trusted her completely. I knew a little bit about the story, so I waited actually, a really long time, until I had the energy and attention and availability to really get into it and I'm so glad that I did because I really got to savor it.
The story follows the main character Shadow who like within the first handful of pages, his life is falling apart. He's just been released from prison for something that, it's not clear, I don't believe what he's in prison for. It sounds like he might be covering for somebody. But anyway, he's released from prison and his wife dies. So he's kind of unanchored, floating around, trying to figure out what his, you know, life is going to be like next and he's approached by a man named Wednesday who offers him a job as his bodyguard, or his assistant or something, just I'm going to pay you to come with me and protect me, and he says, you know, what the heck. Let's go for it.
It follows his journey with Wednesday. They're meeting lots of crazy, wacky characters. He's not sure what Wednesday is doing, but he's traveling around to visit different people to ask them to help him. It's all about mythology, so the main characters tend to be characters from Norse mythology, which was super satisfying. If you've read Neil Gaiman's Norse mythology, he really draws on those characters pretty heavily, so that was the most fun for me. The constant little hits of dopamine of oh, I recognize that character and oh, I know who that is. It is one that I will only recommend to certain people that I know have that interest.
It turns out I don't think this is a ... Like, it's … Wednesday is trying to recruit fellow Gods, old Gods, not just Norse ones either, some are Egyptian. Some are from Indigenous people's mythology. Some African nations mythology and he's trying to recruit the old Gods to fight against the new Gods, and the new Gods are representative of social media and television. You know, the things that modern society are paying attention to, worshiping in a sense. So even though the timeline, it's pretty short, there's just so much of that backstory and context that he draws from that is just so enthralling for me. I really, really enjoyed it.
ANNE: American Gods by Neil Gaiman, which is downright short at 500 something pages compared to your first two picks.
HANNAH: Just a breeze. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Hannah, tell me about a book that wasn't right for you. You've already hinted at why it didn't work, but let's hear all about it.
HANNAH: So I chose Ian McEwan's Atonement. This was a book that I tried three or four times to read. I don't know why. I think it caught my attention. When it came out I was a late teenager. I thought pretty highly of myself as a reader and so this was super popular, you know, I was seeing it in all the bookstores. People that I knew were reading it. Oh, I couldn't get into it. I tried and tried and it was too slow. The language was beautiful, but that does not do it for me.
So over, you know, a couple of years and again this was during my time when I was a completionist, so it really bothered me that I had not gotten through this book, but I truly didn't get past a couple of chapters each time. It did not hold my attention. The characters were not likable. The characters weren't very deep, you know, you follow the main character and have her thoughts and experiences, but I didn't like her. I didn't find her compelling, so yeah, it did not check the boxes for me and a few years ago I finally gave myself permission to stop trying.
ANNE: Everything I have to say next is spoiler filled. [HANNAH LAUGHS] I mean, if you listen to episode 299 with Michael Clark "playing genre hopscotch" is what that one was called, I just talked about how that book made me mad. It made me angry. Hannah, what are you reading right now?
HANNAH: I just finished Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen on audiobook, and this was one that I was skeptical of, stayed away from forever, but that a lot of my good reader friends had read and strongly recommended. I did not want to read it because I mean, the title alone. I'm like oh no. Elephants. [BOTH LAUGH] And then you know, knowing that it's about a circus, you know, a circus elephant and a veterinary in the circus in the 20th century, I was like oh no, this is going to be nothing but cruelty and tragedy and I'm going to hate it, but I went ahead. I needed something relatively short.
I absolutely loved it. I was so pleasantly surprised. I loved the character development and not that there wasn't tragedy and cruelty and sadness, but it was not as overwhelming as I expected it to be. The plot moved so fast and there was such compelling emotional characters and the relationships with each other and then the ending, I felt like there were two endings, really, and both of them were so satisfying. [ANNE LAUGHS] I ... Yeah, I definitely left with a really good feeling about that one, so I really ...
ANNE: I'm so glad you enjoyed it.
HANNAH: Yeah. Really appreciated that. On paper, I'm picking through two books. Firekeeper's Daughter by Angeline Boulley. I was really excited that this book was doing so well and was so popular. I really love to support Indigenous artists and authors, so my brother and sister-in-law just gave me a beautiful hardcover copy of this book. It follows an Ojibwe girl living on a reservation who goes undercover to help unearth I believe it's about unearthing like the drug ring 'causing a lot of strife on her reservation and for her people. I am moving through it very slowly. [LAUGHS] Because again that attention span really does not keep me in place for very long, but what I've read so far I've really enjoyed. I think it's a young adult book as well, actually.
HANNAH: So there's that. And the other one is Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America edited by Ibram X. Kendi. It's a collection of … Feels like essays. I don't know really what the correct terminology is, but a collection of essays by different artists, historians, writers, about different points in history, telling the African American history story and it begins with 1619 and comes up to 2019. So even though it's a very long book, it's broken into really small pieces and feels more approachable that way.
ANNE: Now, Hannah, what would you like to be different in your reading life right now?
HANNAH: I would really like to want to read for the sake of reading rather than I find myself not reading and wanting to develop a reading habit because I know I do enjoy reading. One of my favorite things to do is collect books, and that's been a lifelong thing. There are pictures of me at like four years old sitting in bed with just a stack of books taller than me. It's always been about collecting, but I would really like to be reading books that completely have my attention and that I find myself thinking about and can't wait to get back to when I have the time, rather than trying to develop a reading habit like an exercise.
ANNE: So you want to read books that pull on your attention even when you're not reading like these books did. I don't have an answer, but I do know that like 17 year old Anne reading The Pillars of the Earth for fun in humanities class when she was supposed to be paying attention, it is a different reader than today's Anne that is drawn to different things and honestly has a very different attention span that has been impacted by forces that I just did not forsee back in the late 90s [LAUGHS] and I'm interested in hearing more about how you think you got to this place with your reading stamina and attention span, like what do you think the factors really are that have brought you to this moment in your reading life? Wow, that sounds like a big epic thing, like we're about to like ...
HANNAH: It does.
ANNE: Dig out the cornerstone.
HANNAH: Like therapy. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: On a lighter note, like what are your thoughts about this?
HANNAH: I feel like I first saw my reading habit decline classically when I went to school for English and I was reading all the time because I was told to. Books that I didn't necessarily enjoy. Got a little burnout and that was about 2018. Things like social media and TV and I do like to play video games, that those like super easy like junk food for your brain, I find myself when I sit down and read and then turn to something else, it's one of those things. And then certainly at this point with the pandemic, I think I haven't really found my feet as far as what I know I will appreciate and enjoy. There are so many books that I've accumulated and sound interesting to me that I will collect and put on my reading list that when it's time to choose a new book to read, I struggle to find one that is compelling and not tragic.
ANNE: So you've got a lot of factors going on. You're in a different place than you were. You're reacclimating to what life looks like right now as your 30 year old self, and also you have these larger societal factors like truly working against you in ways that are [LAUGHS] not to go all apocalyptic 'cause you don't like that. [HANNAH LAUGHS] But in ways that truly are not doing your reading life any favors. Do you know the book Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman?
HANNAH: I have never even heard of it.
ANNE: That's a good one. So he describes himself as a recovering productivity hack, but I want to talk to you a little bit about his chapter called “The Impatience Spiral.” So, well first of all, let's talk about the book. It's called Four Thousand Weeks, which is about how long you and I will be alive on average. That's true for humans. The subtitle is Time Management for Mortals. His theory is if we don't understand truly that we don't have limitless time, we won't be able to make the decisions about how we want to spend those four thousand weeks, and so approaching your life realistically is the only way to derive satisfaction from the things you actually choose to do.
But this chapter's called “The Impatience Spiral,” and in it he talks about I'm sure you've heard how when manufacturers started coming up with time saving devices, the pundits said, what will we do with all this leisure? But we know that that is not a problem that many of us have, [HANNAH LAUGHS] like it seems like the more time we seem to have, the more we try to pack into it. And we end up feeling behind even though we're getting more done than before. But he talks about what this might mean for our reading, but he says that since the beginning of what he calls the modern era of acceleration, we've not been responding with satisfaction with the time we're saving, but just with agitation that we can't make things move faster still.
What this means for our reading life is even though we're accustomed to being able to do things faster like even you talked about watching Netflix, like if I'm watching something on YouTube, I'm probably watching it with my plugin that lets me watch it at 1.4 instead of the regular speed. He said [LAUGHS] this has done terrible things for so many of our experiences of reading and I'm quoting here, "Over the last decade or so, more and more people have begun to report an overpowering feeling whenever they pick up a book that gets labeled restlessness or distraction. What is actually best understood is a form of impatience, a revulsion at the fact that the act of reading takes longer than they'd like."
And what he says is that reading is one of those things that you can't speed up much without qualitatively making the experience something other than what it ought to be. 'Cause reading is the sort of activity that largely operates according to its own schedule, not according to ours. And this can be really frustrating, but he talks about even if we may have time to read that we may just feel like too impatient to really give ourselves over to the task and the way we need to to actually enjoy it and let the words penetrate our brains and make sense have they have to do when you're reading a book because that's how it works.
I'm sharing that, not to be depressing, but to say it's not just you, and I think until we as readers know what's going on, like we truly have been primed and inclined to welcome interruption instead of, I mean, I imagine 20 year old Anne was just curled up on the couch with Pillars of the Earth and she was just reading and it was fine. I wasn't like oh, I better go see what's in the fridge. There certainly wasn't a phone in my pocket pinging away or that I could pull out to Google something in my book. Actually I don't know that there was really ... We had dialup. You know, I wasn't even Googling cathedral pictures 'cause it was too dang slow and there wasn't that much out there on the Internet.
HANNAH: That's pretty prohibitive, yes.
ANNE: So it's a different ... I mean, it is a different space. And I think understanding, like this is what's going on in my brain at least will help you know what you're dealing with, instead of being like oh, what is wrong with me? I just don't like books anymore 'cause that's not it.
HANNAH: Mmhm. Yeah. That's tremendously insightful. I feel like that really speaks to what's going on with me, for sure.
ANNE: So I don't know for you what the answer is to that, but I know for me, it can look like I'm just going to go in this room and read without my phone and I'm going to get up at 2:30, when an alarm that says … Like it's going to go off at 2:30 that tells me I don't need to think about anything until I hear that pinging in the kitchen and then I'll get up. But that helps me create like a little bit of safe space to relax and not feel like I have to monitor what's happening out in the world, but just to focus on my book. And sometimes you'll find that the book is maybe not the place that you want to put your focus for that amount of time, and that's its own question, but we're going to try to find books you love today to at least make that part of the equation simpler. I don't know why I'm trying to make reading math, but you work in computer science so I think that's not going to totally repeal you.
HANNAH: [LAUGHS] No. I'm not scared by it.
ANNE: So with that in mind, let's talk about what you may enjoy reading next, and there's many different directions we could go because there's so much stuff that you enjoy which is really a great position to be in, but let's try to find you three amazing books for right now for your uninterrupted reading time. I really hope you haven't heard about this 'cause I would love to be the one to tell you about it. Nonfiction, came out last summer by Elizabeth Letts. It's called The Ride of Her Life: The True Story of a Woman, Her Horse and Their Last Chance Journey Across America.
HANNAH: I have not heard of it, Anne.
ANNE: Oh, this makes me so happy. She has written books like The Perfect Horse and The Eighty-Dollar Champion. If you have heard of her that may be why, although she's written novels as well. This is a 300 page ... That's over your 250 that you're struggling with right now but this is not a long book.
HANNAH: Still approachable.
ANNE: This is a real life, truth is stranger than fiction adventure story. You said that you didn't like characters that were boring or superficial. That is not what you're going to get here. Your protagonist is Jackass Annie, this is her actual nickname. The story is set in the 1950s when Annie is in her early 60s. She is told that she only has a couple of years to live, and so she decides that she knows what she's going to do with it. She's going to go on a journey on horseback from the middle of America to the California coast, and she has her reasons and everybody thinks she's crazy. [LAUGHS] Commentary in the book is a man might be seen as adventurous or bold or brave, and no, nobody thinks Annie is any of those things, but she is determined.
So in actual life, she did interviews with journalists before she got started. Some in the world at the time read about her story, but there are newspaper clippings along the way that were used to write this book. Annie kept a journal, which is fascinating, and she happens to be in historic places at historic times in a way that you truly can't make up, like she was in Kansas between Beavercreek and St. Francis when a road crew had just finished a road and she gets to be the first person to test drive the highway because she just happened to be in town.
The writing style is I think what it needs to be to tell a story that doesn't need a lot of embellishment to be really fascinating and I think the edition of the animals that you love in nonfiction, nothing terrible is going to happen, I think is just an extra little bonus here. How does that sound to you?
HANNAH: That sounds terrific.
ANNE: That is The Ride of Her Life: The True Story of a Woman, Her Horse and Their Last Chance Journey Across America by Elizabeth Letts. Hannah, there's so many directions we could go here. Something that we haven't talked much is series, but I just want to point out that if you want that epic feel from a book that has lots of time and space to unspool quite a story, like a good trilogy could really do it for you.
HANNAH: It's been a long time since I've invested in a series, but I'd be up for it.
ANNE: Have you read The Lost Queen by Signe Pike?
HANNAH: I have not, but it sounds familiar. I think a friend may have brought this up at some point recently.
ANNE: Okay. I like it. Now the good news and bad news is this is a planned trilogy, but only two books are out so far, and I'm imagining that the next book is coming out in 2022 or 2023 based on the pace. It's not a complete trilogy right now. I don't know what your friends told you, but this is often described – actually, the thing that kinda sold me on it before I picked it up is that it is Outlander meets Camelot. Fantasy novel but also thoroughly historical as Signe Pike rifts on real history to create her fictional story.
You listen to audiobooks. Maybe not as much as you did when you could listen eight hours a day as a lab tech, but I listened to this one an audio. Toni Frutin was the narrator. I so appreciated hearing her skillful pronunciation of the ancient Scottish names and places which I'm quite certain I would not have gotten right in my own head just looking at the words on the page.
The Lost Queen of the story is Languoreth. She is a real 6th century Scottish Queen whose twin brother inspired the Legend of Merlin. There's so much history and magic and when you were talking about American Gods by Neil Gaiman and the mythology there, it was really giving me The Lost Queen vibes. The setting and tone just make for a really moody and escapist read. This is a story you can really immerse yourself into that has ancient magic, complex politics, tribes and villages clashing like you have in Pillars of the Earth and also clashing religions. They all conspire to create a really intriguing story, and this definitely will remind you of the ancient Arthurian legend.
HANNAH: Ah, that sounds right up my alley. Very excited for that one.
ANNE: Kay. The Lost Queen and The Forgotten Kingdom are out. Book three will not be too much longer, I hope. But that's going to run you about a thousand pages so that's probably enough for the time being.
ANNE: That was The Lost Queen, and subsequent books, by Signe Pike. Now I have what might be a little bit of a stretch book. Have you read any Isabel Allende?
HANNAH: No, I don't think so.
ANNE: Okay. I think – I think the talking about historical fiction and magical realism and sweeping multigenerational stories and also maybe because a reader was just telling me there's going to be a Netflix series about not just based on one of her novels, but about Allende's life that is in production right now, coming soon. I mean, she is prolific. She starts a book every year on January 8th, her catalog is full and full of various genres that she's written in various languages. The one I'm tempted to go with for you is The House of the Spirits, which was published ... Actually it was published about the time The Pillars of the Earth, not to like keep hammering that, but …
HANNAH: Oh, right. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: So we're going to say The House of the Spirits, which is actually her debut novel. The background here is fascinating. She began writing this as a letter to a family member to talk about her history as I have heard, and she is actually present in this story because especially the last section is precisely autobiographical, but she does draw a lot on her own history and I didn't realize when I read the book the first time, when I was in college, there was someone in my freshman English seminar, which was Writers on Writing – maybe we can talk about that some time – who was obsessed with Isabel Allende and was reading all her novels in order. She'd have a lot more to read if she were starting that today instead when I was a freshman at William & Mary.
But I never heard of her and was so intrigued and started finding out more, but I didn't realize when I read it the first time that she is the goddaughter of Chile's first socialist president, who was her father's cousin. That familial connection might just be like a little bit of interesting background, but The House of the Spirits is a multigenerational family saga about the Trueba family. Esteban is a big deal in his country. You know, he's wealthy. He's respected, and then their children and their children, and so across these generations you go to the family estate in the Chilean countryside. You have romance and politics and clashing ideologies and [LAUGHS] what wealth and a lack thereof and what that does in the family and the community.
Allende is known in her mostly earlier works, though that's not categorically true, for a thread of magical realism that isn't an enormous part of the story, but it is definitely present and you mentioned that that is an element you really liked. I think you may enjoy reading her work, and I think this could be a good place to start. Although certainly her ... She has a memoir that just came out last year, or more contemporary fiction that some of it is even set in the States. I think that is worth it as well, but I do like the sound of this generational epic for you. That is The House of the Spirits. How does that sound?
HANNAH: That sounds great, and I think you were right that I would probably have overlooked it on my own, but knowing some details about how it's constructed, that sounds really appealing to me.
ANNE: I'm happy to hear it. Okay, Hannah, of the books we talked about today, they were The Ride of Her Life by Elizabeth Letts, The Lost Queen and the rest of the trilogy by Signe Pike, and The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. Of those books, what do you think you'll read next?
HANNAH: I think I'll probably start with The Lost Queen, but I'll definitely look into all of them. They sound really great.
ANNE: Well I'm happy to hear it, and I hope you enjoy them. And I wish you well on your adventures in both reading and building that reading stamina.
HANNAH: Thank you so much, Anne.
ANNE: Hannah, this has been a pleasure. Thank you so much for talking books with me today.
HANNAH: Thank you. I had such a good time.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Hannah, and I’d love to hear what YOU think she should read next. Visit our show notes page at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/318 for the full list of the titles we talked about today.
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Thanks to the people who make this show happen! What Should I Read Next is produced by Brenna Frederick, with sound design by Kellen Pechacek.
Readers, that’s it for this episode. Thanks so much for listening.
And as Rainer Maria Rilke said, “ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading.” Happy reading, everyone.
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• Sy Montgomery (try The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness)
• Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
• The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis
❤ Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
❤ The Stand by Stephen King (audio version)
• On Writing by Stephen King
❤ American Gods by Neil Gaiman
• Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
△ Atonement by Ian McEwan
• Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (audio version)
• Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley
• Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019: edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain
• Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman
• The Ride of Her Life: The True Story of a Woman, Her Horse, and Their Last-Chance Journey Across America by Elizabeth Letts
• The Perfect Horse: The Daring U.S. Mission to Rescue the Priceless Stallions Kidnapped by the Nazis by Elizabeth Letts
• The Eighty-Dollar Champion by Elizabeth Letts
• The Lost Queen by Signe Pike (audio version narrated by Toni Fruten)
• The Forgotten Kingdom by Signe Pike
• The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
• The Soul of a Woman by Isabel Allende