WSIRN Ep 327: Brilliant books that ask big questions

Anne Bogel talks to Gary Robinaugh about the way language affects what we think and the books that make us ask big questions.

tall bookshelves in a corner full of colorful books

Readers, today’s guest is a professional word nerd who shares some favorites with more than a few of our WSIRN team members!

Gary Robinaugh has always been fascinated with language and how it works. In his work life, he studies the ways language and the brain work together to help us communicate, and what happens when these pathways get interrupted.

Language also plays a big role in Gary’s leisure pursuits: he turns to books for both the enjoyment and the introspection they offer. He’s constantly looking for titles that will open doors and compel him to see familiar ideas from a fresh perspective. 

Given his search for the unknown in his reading life, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Gary loves science fiction for its unique ability to ask “what if?”, but he doesn’t limit his reading to this genre, and he’d love my help finding some new paths to follow in his reading selections.

I loved my conversation with Gary, and today I recommend some books that are right up his reading alley, as well as a few that will definitely take him in some new directions. If you have a suggestion for Gary, let us know in the comments section below!

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


What Should I Read Next #327: Brilliant books that ask big questions, with Gary Robinaugh

ANNE: This was a Valentine’s Day book? [GARY LAUGHS] Wow. Okay.

GARY: That is kinda funny now that I think about it. We definitely don’t choose the books based on like how well they fit with Valentine’s Day. [ANNE LAUGHS]

[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]

ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 327.

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, we are just one month away from the most wonderful time of the year: it’s almost Summer Reading Guide time!

One month from today, on May 19, our patreon community gets a first look at the 2022 guide. We host our annual live unboxing event, and it all happens before the Summer Reading Guide releases to the public the following week.

Early access to the Summer Reading Guide is just one way we say thank you to our patrons for their support of the show: it’s an event we all look forward to as the start to summer reading season! Unboxing is like a big book party where we talk about the books in the guide, why they might be right for YOU, why I love them so much, and what old and new titles we’re all excited to read this season. We have a BLAST with the community of readers that join us to kickoff summer reading!

Mark your calendars for May 19th, become a patron at patreon.com/whatshouldireadnext, and get ready for a great book party to kick off a great reading season.

Readers, today’s guest is a professional word nerd. When his submission came in and our team saw his book selections, several of our team members said, ugh, I have found my book twin and we couldn’t wait to hear what he and I would talk about today.

Gary Robinaugh has always been fascinated with language and how it works. He’s built a career researching how communication skills are impacted by brain damage, specifically by a condition called Aphasia.

When Gary’s not at work, he’s still asking questions about how language affects the way we think, and this theme, as you’ll hear, shows up in his reading life: he’s constantly looking for titles that will open doors and compel him to see familiar ideas from a fresh perspective.

Growing up in a family that loved science-fiction, it’s not surprising that Gary still enjoys this genre today—but he’s not here searching for aliens or space opera. What Gary REALLY loves is the power of quietly introspective books that ask “what if?” and explore the big questions of human nature.

Today I serve up some suggestions that are exactly what he’s looking for, and—as you’ll hear—some he wasn’t expecting AT ALL.

I loved my conversation with Gary today about a genre we don’t discuss as frequently here on the podcast, and I share titles that will offer any reader an invitation to explore new ideas and reconsider how they think about the world around them.

Let’s get to it.

Gary, welcome to the show.

[00:03:08]

GARY: Thank you.

ANNE: I’m so excited to talk this morning and get into your reading life. Gary, what brings you to What Should I Read Next right now?

[00:03:15]

GARY: I think I decided to fill out the form not because I thought you would actually choose me [LAUGHS] but I thought it would be an interesting like reflection on, you know, what are the three books that I would choose and what I have to say that might be interesting to someone. I’m just always so impressed at how it just seems like there’s no way you’ll have the right books at the top of your mind, but then you always come up with something.

ANNE: Wow. No pressure, Gary.

GARY: [LAUGHS] I’m just 100% trust.

ANNE: [LAUGHS] I am fascinated by personality typing systems and it hadn’t occurred to me that we had put like a self-reflection tool onto the Internet. [GARY LAUGHS] I thought it was a submission form but readers, you can gain some insight into your own self and your reading life by doing this.

GARY: Yeah.

ANNE: Okay, now Gary, now I’m actually looking at it because we did get your submission and actually it was my husband who was like this is good, and then Brenna and Holly said yes, we need to talk to him. In fact, both of them were saying I think he might be my book twin.

GARY: Yeah. Yeah. I talked to Brenna yesterday and I got two book conversations out of this, so.

ANNE: I am so glad to hear it. Gary, where are you in the world this morning?

GARY: So I’m in Austin, Texas. I came to Austin to do a doctoral program at the University of Texas. I’m a speech pathologist and I’m doing a doctorate in speech language pathology as part of the aphasia research and treatment lab at UT. We study how communication skills are impacted when someone has a stroke or dementia that damages the brain, and so we research how speech language therapy can help those people.

ANNE: Tell me about deciding to make that your life’s work.

GARY: So I studied linguistics, deciding what I wanted to do in my undergraduate, I was looking at English and ended up going into linguistics just cause I’m really fascinated with language and how it works and specifically got really interested in how our brain processes and how we produce language, which kinda led me into - into the field of speech pathology I guess. I took an intro course in speech pathology and they showed a video of someone with aphasia and a clinician working with them and it was just like one of those moments, you know. I just knew that’s what I wanted to do.

[00:05:49]

ANNE: Gary, for those who don’t know, would you tell us a little bit about what aphasia is and what your role will be in research, treatment, whatever direction you’re looking to take this with your doctoral degree?

GARY: So aphasia is a language disorder caused by damage to the left-side of the brain, typically due to a traumatic brain injury or stroke or disease, and aphasia can affect understanding of language and spoken language, as well as reading and writing in a variety of ways, depending on what areas of the brain are affected. So one person with aphasia might have no trouble understanding speech, but have difficulty thinking of the right words to say, and another person with aphasia may speak in sentences that don’t quite make sense to people or struggle to understand when others speak.

The research lab I’m a part of actually does a lot of work with people who have a disorder called Primary Progressive Aphasia or PPA, which is when someone gradually loses communication abilities due to a neurodegenerative disease. While cognitive functions like memory may be affected as the disorder progresses, aphasia is, you know, the first and most prominent symptom. So the research we do focuses on understanding aphasia and finding ways to support communication for those people with aphasia and their families.

ANNE: Okay. So you are a word nerd by profession is what I’m hearing.

GARY: Definitely a word nerd, yes.

ANNE: Does that exist alongside your reading life or does it color everything about it?

GARY: That’s a really interesting question. I think that it probably does color my reading interests, but I’m not sure exactly how.

ANNE: Okay, interesting. I hope that we hear more about that as we keep talking today. Gary, what were your origins as a reader? Have you always loved books and reading?

GARY: Yes. As a kid, I loved science fiction. I think that was kinda my first love in the reading world. I remember reading Dinotopia with my mom. She would read the books to me. The original books by James Gurney have these illustrations of this world where dinosaurs live alongside humans and I just remember being completely captivated by those illustrations. They’re like seared into my memory. So I think as far back as I can remember I’ve loved science fiction and fantasy and definitely was part of my family culture. We had bookshelves full of science fiction books. My dad is a big sci-fi reader, and so always had options there.

[00:08:27]

ANNE: So you grew up in a household surrounded by science fiction books. After your early start with Dinotopia, what did you move into next? How did you begin exploring other worlds?

GARY: Isaac Asimov I think is one of the earliest authors that I remember reading on my own, which is kinda a weird start for a third or fourth grader, but …

ANNE: Oh wow. I was picturing a teenage Gary with that Asimov book, yes.

GARY: Yeah, so I guess that was available, you know, on the bookshelves so that’s what I …

ANNE: [LAUGHS] Pay attention, parents.

GARY: [LAUGHS] Like I remember one book in particular, Nightfall by Isaac Asimov. It’s like this world with five suns or something like that and every thousand years or so there’s a night because of an eclipse or something and people just freak out [ANNE LAUGHS] because they don’t know what darkness is. The power that science fiction has to explore an idea, you know, explore like our psychology in a way that you wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.

ANNE: What is it that you find so compelling about that? Is that something you’re able to articulate?

GARY: I don’t know. I think I kinda have an interest in psychology and philosophy and theology, and so science fiction to me kinda feels like a playground where you can play with different ideas and different contexts.

ANNE: So it sounds like you find it just very intellectually compelling, like that’s a lot of fun for you to go exploring in these other worlds.

GARY: That’s definitely the kind of science fiction that I gravitate to. The more intellectual exploring ideas rather than like more action side of science fiction.

[00:10:05]

ANNE: The ones that say like what if, and what would that mean for humanity.

GARY: That’s the perfect way to describe it, yeah.

ANNE: Yeah. Okay. Books that ask what if. So you said that’s the kind of science fiction you like. Which authors do you think are really emblematic of that approach?

GARY: Some authors that come to mind are Ursula K. Le Guin. I think she is like a master of the what if question, like what if there was this world that, you know, actually has a socialist system that worked really well? Or what if there was this world where gender was fluid and what if there was a world where the whole world was a forest? You know, so she’s an author that comes to mind. So another author that comes to mind is Cixin Liu, and I’m probably pronouncing that wrong, but the author of The Three-Body Problem.

ANNE: Uh huh. We’ll put it in show notes, readers, so you can find it.

GARY: Reading his books, it really feels like he has all these what if questions that he just wants to play around with, you know, a lot of them are kinda like beyond my understanding of physics, but he’ll just have all these weird scenarios that he plays out in his books. So I guess Ursula K. Le Guin and Cixin Liu are a couple that come to mind.

ANNE: Okay, well I’m interested in hearing more about the kind of science fiction and other books that really works for you, Gary. Are you ready to talk about your books that you brought today?

GARY: Yeah.

ANNE: I feel like I’m inviting you to the circle for show and tell. You were talking about the playground so maybe that’s not a bad metaphor to run with. [GARY LAUGHS]

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

GARY: I couldn’t decide if I wanted to do three books that represented the range of what I read, you know, not just science fiction. I ended up going with three science fiction or at least science fiction-adjacent books because I thought it kinda represented really well where my like literary home is, like where I feel most comfortable and where I’m most likely to really love a book.

[00:12:16]

ANNE: Tell me about the first book you love.

GARY: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. This one was recommended to me as a teenager I think by my best friend growing up from back in kindergarten. Like as a side note I noticed with all these books that they all have a connection to like people who are close to me in my life so I think that’s maybe part of, you know, what makes a book really meaningful to me is just the connection it has to other people and discussing the books with other people.

So The Sparrow is a first contact story. So the earth receives this signal from a nearby solar system. They’re able to determine that there’s this planet with intelligent life sending out the signal. For some reason that I can’t totally remember [LAUGHS] the Jesuits, like the Roman Catholic order of priests, are able to put together an expedition first before anyone else to send to this planet, and the main character of the book is a Jesuit priest who’s also a linguist, so I of course like ideally connected with him.

ANNE: [GASPS] Oh. Of course.

GARY: The book actually has two timelines and one Emilio is the sole survivor of this mission. So it’s kinda after the mission that has gone horribly wrong but we don’t know exactly how traumatized and has completely lost his faith, then in the other timeline we’re following the expedition as it, you know, travels to lands on the planet and makes contact with this alien species.

I connected with the main character as a linguist, but also a person of faith. Someone who’s really introspective about their faith. I connected with that and have noticed a pattern in my reading life that a lot of my favorite books feature characters that are, you know, a priest or someone of faith who is really introspective about their faith or who goes through some kind of challenge to their faith, like Emilio does in this story.

ANNE: Okay, so even in these fictional stories set in space.

GARY: I think especially in these fictional stories. It kinda removes it, puts it in this completely different context. It could be different if we were talking about a story of a Jesuit priest just in whatever everyday situation. Like that might be interesting to me too, but I think it’s especially interesting when you put it in this completely new context and give people a new way of exploring, you know, what it means to believe in God.

[00:14:59]

ANNE: Because then you could be in the playground of ideas and not …

GARY: Definitely.

ANNE: Grounded in the exact particular, like you might be tempted to do were it say a memoir. And I believe you enjoy reading those as well.

GARY: I do, yeah.

ANNE: Now I’m remembering when the book came out, the reviews that [LAUGHS] had headlines like Jesuits in space! [GARY LAUGHS] So you are really drawn to a book like this that speculative, you know, sci-fi with these deep philosophical questions. Have you read the sequel Children of God?

GARY: Yeah, it was good. I don’t know that it had quite the same impact on me. I don’t think this is too much of a spoiler to say that in the sequel Emilio goes back to the planet, works through some of the trauma and faith crises that he had, and I also found that really compelling.

ANNE: Mmhm. And actually I’m glad you used the word trauma because lots of readers feel really blindsided by some of the very hard things that happen pretty late in that book. That’s – that’s all the detail I’m going to give you readers.

GARY: Yes.

ANNE: But it might be nice for them to know that that is processed more in the second book. Okay, that’s The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. Gary, tell me about the second book you love.

GARY: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. I don’t feel like I can actually summarize this book. To give any of the summary would spoil it I think.

ANNE: Yes, I agree.

GARY: It is kinda a coming-of-age story. It’s written from the perspective of Kathy, who’s one of three friends and she’s telling this story kinda looking back, and one thing you kinda notice early on is that she’s not an entirely reliable narrator, or at least her perspective you can tell is like there’s something odd about it. So I’ve read three books by Kazuo Ishiguro and all of them kinda have this in common. He uses this narrator that you can’t entirely trust to slowly unravel the mystery at the center of the story, and he does it in just the most masterful way. Actually my wife Annalie and I have this Valentine’s Day tradition. We’ll recommend a book to each other a couple months ahead of time.

[00:17:15]

ANNE: Uh huh.

GARY: And then on Valentine’s Day we go out to dinner and we discuss the two books that we recommended to each other.

ANNE: This was a Valentine’s Day book? [GARY LAUGHS] Wow. Okay.

GARY: Um. [LAUGHS] That is kinda funny now that I think about it. We definitely don’t choose the books based on like how well they fit with Valentine’s Day. [ANNE LAUGHS] More about you know what we think they like, what would make a good discussion. We had read The Buried Giant together so I knew she would like it, and I really needed someone to talk about [LAUGHS] the book to.

ANNE: You know, it’s interesting that we’ve discussed your background in linguistics because one of the things that’s so odd when you’re reading deliberately odd in Never Let Me Go is the way Ishiguro uses words that you are very familiar with in ways that deliberately obfuscate what he’s talking about.

GARY: Yes.

ANNE: Words you know, meanings you don’t. As the meanings become clearer, the story does as well. I’m not surprised that you were really drawn to that.

GARY: So I think that’s really what gives that quality of feeling, you can tell something’s a little bit off, but you don’t know quite what’s going on. Even though most of his stories are really slow burns, like they take awhile for things to actually happen, they’re just so compelling because you just want to know what’s going on, like why is this so odd or mysterious and you just want to keep reading until you find out.

ANNE: I love it. I love that you have someone to talk about books and these deep, philosophical questions with.

GARY: [LAUGHS] Me too.

ANNE: Do you find when reading these books that what happens after is as important to your reading experience as what happens during?

[00:18:50]

GARY: Absolutely. Yeah, I think all of these books are ones that the conversations that I had about the books were just as meaningful as the reading experience.

ANNE: Gary, what did you choose to complete your favorites list?

GARY: So the last book that I chose was The Story of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang.

ANNE: Uh huh.

GARY: I would say as my like current favorite author to read. I’ve read both of his short story collections a couple times in the last couple of years. I picked up this book originally because I loved the movie Arrival. The first contact story which is another story about a linguist. The movie is based on the title story of this book, The Story of Your Life. I loved the movie. I loved the story more.

In this story, The Story of Your Life, aliens have arrived. The government brings in this linguist Louise Banks to figure out what they’re trying to communicate, figure out their language and as she’s learning this alien language, it really changes the way that she thinks and so again you have this like really fascinating way of exploring this question that linguists talk about all the time, how does the language we learn and the words that we use, how does that affect the way we think? And so this story takes that and kinda extends it I guess.

Specifically I don’t know if this is a spoiler or not, but this language is nonlinear unlike any human language, and so that completely changes the way that this linguist is able to think about the world. So that story felt like it was just tailor-made for me. [LAUGHS] Science fiction and linguists aspects and Ted Chiang really dives into the story more than the movie, into like the specifics of how she breaks down this alien language. But that wasn’t even my favorite story in the collection.

The first story in the book is about a man who’s … So he’s working on building the tower of Babel and they’ve kinda reached heaven at the beginning of the story, which is really fascinating and then there’s another story called “Hell is the Absence of God” set in this world where everyone knows that God and Hell exist and who goes where and there’s actually occasional angel visitations. The main character in this story, his wife dies during an angel visitation and so he develops this hatred for God. But also he knows that his wife went to Heaven and the only way that he can get to her is to love God. I just think Ted Chiang is the master at like setting up these scenarios to explore human psychology and faith and you know, those big what if questions.

[00:21:58]

ANNE: Yeah, I can really see why you’re drawn to his stories and that viewpoint he’s writing from. Okay, Gary, tell me about a book that was not right for you.

GARY: The reason I chose this book is not that I hated it or anything. I actually liked a lot of things about this book. It was just that it had a lot of the elements that I look for in science fiction, but it just didn’t come together for me. So the book was Appleseed by Matt Bell. Published pretty recently I think. Just in the last year. This book had like magical elements as well as science fiction elements. It had multiple timelines, which is actually something I usually enjoy when you have like woven stories together.

But one of the timelines is like 1800s Frontier America. One of them is in like a near future climate related apocalypse. One is very far future. And this book actually, it reminded me a little bit of The Overstory weirdly by Richard Powers, which also has climate change themes that focus on ecology and has the weaving narratives, but where I really loved The Overstory, Appleseed just wasn’t for me. I was confused a lot of the time about what was going on in the story and it was a little heavy handed I thought with the message sometimes and I just didn’t feel like all of those different elements were tied together very well by the end.

ANNE: So I’m not familiar with Appleseed, but we’ve talked about how you do love science fiction books that ask deep philosophical questions, but you don’t necessarily want them answered in words that are very explicitly articulated but answered in the story. Posing the question is important but also what is and isn’t left up to the reader, the answer, and how they interpret it and feel about it, like that really matters to your reading experience.

GARY: Yeah, I would definitely agree about that. I think that’s what really leads to those meaningful conversations that for me are part of the reading experience when a book leaves the questions a little bit open for interpretation, yeah.

ANNE: Okay, ‘cause then you have something to talk about.

GARY: Exactly.

ANNE: What have you been reading lately, Gary?

GARY: I had a pretty good start to the year. I’ve read a few recently that I really liked. A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers. A story about a monk and a robot becoming friends, so you can’t really go wrong there, like [ANNE LAUGHS] just a fun, thoughtful story about finding meaning in life. Other books that I’ve read Matrix by Lauren Groff, was one that surprised me. I picked it up just because I had heard several people recommend it. The writing in that book was just phenomenal. It’s about 12th century nuns, which is not, you know, my typical topic for a book, but it was just a really compelling read. I read it in a couple days.

Another book I read was All Systems Red by Martha Wells. I feel like I lean more towards the deeper, philosophical sci-fi. This one was more of an action sci-fi. It was a fun short read, but I didn’t love it I guess. It wasn’t one that I thought a lot about since. I’m currently starting Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr. I really enjoyed All The Light We Cannot See and kinda the complex storyline weaving together that the author does so I trust the author and I’m kinda along for the ride. Yeah, enjoying it so far.

[00:25:48]

ANNE: Gary, what are you looking for in your reading life right now?

GARY: I read a lot of research these days, which makes it hard to enjoy sitting down and reading a book. At least for me and so these days I read primarily audiobooks. And when I do sit down with a book, it’s usually a graphic novel. I have a hard time finding graphic novels that I really love. I’ll read and enjoy them but they don’t stick with me and I would love to find a graphic novel that I really connect with in the same way that, you know, I connected with those three books that I chose today. I read a few graphic novels. I would still say I’m kinda a beginner in that genre. It’s really tricky to find one where the art and the story and the dialogue come together for me. One science fiction graphic novel that I read that did that for me was Slaughterhouse-Five, an adaptation of the Kurt Vonnegut book by Ryan North.

ANNE: I’ve heard great things about that.

GARY: It was really excellent, like in its own right, not just as an adaptation of the original. But otherwise, you know, there are other graphic novels in other genres that I’ve enjoyed, but would really love to find some science fiction that I could connect with.

ANNE: Gary, you’ve mentioned that while you chose your favorites from the science fiction genre, you do read a fair amount of other genres and fiction and also a fair amount of nonfiction. I’d love to hear a little bit more about what that looks like.

GARY: So specifically in nonfiction I do enjoy memoirs and books about faith. I like reading about faith traditions other than my own. So I am LDS and have in the last decade or so had some kinda shifts in the way I think about and relate to my own religion. I really enjoy reading different perspectives from other faith and wisdom traditions as well as books about people who’ve gone through transitions in the way that they think about their faith. So authors that come to mind there are Pete Enns, Rachel Held Evans. So authors that take a look at their own faith journeys to use a cliche and how the way they think about their own religion has changed.

I’ve also been trying recently to get into more like nature essay writing without much luck. When I can get into those essays, I really enjoy them. It kinda feels like a little bit of work. I feel similarly about essays and nature writing in particular that I do about poems in that when I can take the time to really spend time with the writing, I get a lot out of it and I feel like it’s good for my soul I guess, but it’s sometimes hard to put in the work.

[00:28:51]

ANNE: Interesting. Is there a book in that genre that you’ve especially enjoyed lately?

GARY: I have read and enjoyed recently Wendell Berry and enjoyed his essays and poems about an agrarian lifestyle and …

ANNE: And he does not write science fiction, although I imagine that he sets his stories in worlds that are different from your own, but he also likes to ask those deep philosophical questions in his stories.

GARY: Yeah, I haven’t read any of his fiction. I don’t know if you’d recommend those or not.

ANNE: Based on the kinda works you’re drawn to, I absolutely would. The feel of the stories I think has a lot in common with the works you’re really drawn to in the science fiction realm. I’d give it a try. And you don’t need to read his stories in order necessarily. He has some really slim volumes. It would be easy to pick up and just dip in, see what you think.

GARY: Yeah, that sounds good.

ANNE: When I heard people complain about Berry’s fiction, it’s often about it being quiet. I don’t think that’s going to be an issue for you at all.

GARY: Yeah, I like quiet.

ANNE: Alright, I’m glad to hear it, and I’m glad to hear that you, you know, you know that about yourself as a reader and you have a good idea about what that means as you’re choosing books to pick up.

Now we’re eyeing some graphic novels to pick up, and I – those … Mm, it’s not a quiet genre in my experience, which I don’t think is as broad as yours, but does that ring true?

[00:30:13]

GARY: It does and maybe that’s why I have a hard time. Like I have picked up some graphic novels that I might describe as quiet.

ANNE: Uh huh.

GARY: That I’ve enjoyed, so I haven’t thought about that as a criteria but I think – I think you’re right that there tends to be a lot of violence in the more sci-fi stories, which kinda turns me off and so maybe that’s part of what’s making it trickier.

ANNE: Well as we move forward here, looking for some graphic novels you may love, there’s one book that we have to talk about and maybe looking for some nature writing, like what I’m definitely keeping in mind as some of our favorite reading experiences are. Sometimes things that we feel like oh, this book was like customized assembled for me based on my like specific reading preferences and criteria, but sometimes it’s a work we didn’t see coming, you know we didn’t even know to ask for it or look for it, but we ended up reading it and we’re like ah, this is exactly what I wanted. I think we talked about that surprise and delight factor. Books that surprise us are not necessarily the ones that have all the characteristics we typically enjoy. So those are definitely two things I’m keeping in mind.

So based on your loves, they were The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang, and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, and then not for you was Appleseed by Matt Bell. You wanted more – more open ended questions even though it did have a lot of the elements you really do enjoy. We’re going to choose some books for your TBR that might fit right in there.

GARY: Sounds good.

ANNE: What I want to do is I want to give you some options of series that may be worth exploring. You’re not looking for like 42 book series ideally, correct? Like short sci would be good or even standalones?

GARY: The more contained storytelling, yeah.

ANNE: Okay. So I’m just going to suggest several that I think may be a fun pick for you in the graphic novel realm, but you’re looking for a graphic novel right now. That is really working in your reading life if you’re reading in print and I’d love for you to have some promising leads to investigate, to see if it may hit that magical blend of art plus story plus dialogue that really would characterize your favorite graphic novel or graphic novel series.

[00:32:28]

GARY: I think you’re really onto something with preferring quieter books ‘cause a lot of my favorite graphic novels are much quieter and not in that science fiction genre.

ANNE: Brian K. Vaughn has a series called Paper Girls. It’s six volumes. It’s illustrated by Cliff Chiang. It’s got this major nostalgia vibe because it’s set in the ‘80s and there’s four girls on the same paper route in the Cleveland area and you know, one day they come across something scary in the neighborhood and they have to fight to save their town, but I mean, that is not quiet, philosophical sci-fi, like that is an action story and I wanted to make sure that you had at least seen and had the opportunity to judge for yourself like some of the like big really well, no, really formative series for the genre, like Planetary and Saga.

GARY: I have checked out Saga. I have not heard of Planetary.

ANNE: It’s older. I mean like now it is – it is complete and has been for years. I think it premiered like in the late ‘90s, but definitely like really influential in the genre. Total critical darling, but that does not mean like lots of readers have read it, even though it has like a massive cult following. You know, check it out for yourself. See what you think.

GARY: Yeah, yeah, I’ll check that one out. I’ve also seen the Paper Girls. I think I would like the art in those ones. From the little that I’ve seen, it kinda has a Stranger Things kinda vibe to it.

ANNE: Yes, that comparison gets drawn a lot.

GARY: That definitely seems like one worth checking out.

ANNE: For a sci-fi series We3 by Grant Morrison is a series that is now finished in one collective volume if you’d like to get it that way, but it is also thoughtful and sweet and introspective. It features really adorable animals. There’s three innocent little pets. There’s a dog, a cat, and a rabbit. They have been converted into deadly cyborgs by the bad guys, by a military weapons program. That could - that’s definitely more in the sci-fi realm.

Sea of Stars by Jason Aaron is a series featuring space truckers. which sounds like really big and brash, but the protagonist tells you like no, the reality is it can be boring as anything, but it’s set very much in that world. But I’m also wondering about going again like more introspective, something by like say Tillie Walden, On a Sunbeam is a space story but the focus here is really on the relationships as much as it’s set in this like really imaginative world. But she has really beautiful art and while there’s definitely like forward drive momentum in her stories, but the emotions, the feelings, the big questions are very much what’s at the heart of the story.

[00:35:17]

GARY: That sounds good.

ANNE: I feel like there’s so much we could talk about. We could talk about spiritual memoir and stories featuring characters that are deconstructing and reconstructing and there’s a lot to explore there, and we could talk about nature writing, which I think we’re really going to do, but first we need to talk about a book that directly addresses primary progressive aphasia in the plot.

GARY: That’s surprising yeah, surprising that I haven’t heard about it.

ANNE: You know that’s not the kinda thing like you can search for super easily.

GARY: Yeah, I guess not.

ANNE: I guess you have to talk about it in a place like this. [GARY LAUGHS] So this is contemporary fiction and it was published in 2016. The book is called The Forgetting Time. It’s by Sharon Guskin and at the beginning of the story we have a mother, she’s in New York. Her son is four years old and she just knows that he is not like other kids. She became pregnant while on vacation in Trinidad, like didn’t know the father well. Has never seen him since, but now her child is four and she’s a single parent to him. She’s never been a parent before but she knows that her son is not like other kids. He’s terrified of the water, which is like okay, she can go with that, but he’s always asking for his other mother. At night, he always wants to go home, even when she’s like putting him to bed at night.

One night she has this late night bourbon fueled internet session and she stumbles upon the work of an eccentric scientist and starts to think that maybe like it’s not all in her head and maybe her kid is mentally okay, but maybe he has lived a previous life. And actually she thinks not only has he lived a previous life, but maybe he’s actually died in a previous life. That sounds a little far fetched and you kinda have to like suspend your belief and go for it.

[00:36:58]

GARY: Sure.

ANNE: If you’re going to dive into this book, but the plot does really resist like simplistic solution and easy answers as you like dig further and further into this story. Where the aphasia comes in is that she connects with this eccentric scientist who very quickly becomes her only hope because he is the only one who doesn’t think she is out of her mind to be thinking the things she’s thinking about her son and what might be going on here and she talks to this doctor who for many years has been studying kids like her son who seem to recall details from lives previously lived. This doctor is having troubles of his own. He has been diagnosed with aphasia. He has primary progressive aphasia.

GARY: Huh.

ANNE: You may be able to imagine that even before the diagnosis and the resulting difficulties that are impacting his work every day and just he knows are getting worse, like he definitely feels like he’s in a race against time and you will come to that story and specifically his story with a very different perspective than the vast majority of readers of this book and I’d be very interested in hearing what you think as it does become a race against time, but he’s written this book for the general public. He’s hoping it would preserve his legacy and he just needs one more case study, and of course he thinks oh, this little boy could be his case study so they could become each other’s salvation, but only if he’s able to keep doing the work before the aphasia encroaches more. And I’m wondering as you hear this premise, does that sound interesting to you?

GARY: That sounds fascinating. Particularly the part about the doctor who is like you said in a race against time and that all sounds really fascinating.

ANNE: I think you might be the right audience for that book, but not for a way that Sharon Guskin ever foresaw I imagine and it’s called The Forgetting Time. And now I wanna take you into a nature writing direction. You’re intrigued by the idea. You’ve tried some and it doesn’t work. I want to recommend the book that is a little on the long side. The book I have in mind is called Underland: A Deep Time Journey and it’s by the British author Robert Macfarlane. I read one review who said something like he has basically single handedly revived the fine British tradition of literary natural history writing.

GARY: That name sounds familiar.

ANNE: He’s written quite a few books and usually he is above the ground. He’s writing about mountaintops, like Mountains of the Mind which could also be a good pick for you, The Lost Words — oh, which might actually have your name on it. The Wild Places, but there’s something that sounds really compelling for you about going below the ground because we’re still very much on the earth and he’s still writing about the natural world and yet it feels very other worldly as he describes like in great detail a system of caves he tunnels through to write one section of the book that still has me like kinda cringing and ducking [LAUGHS] as I’m describing it to you cause I don’t think I have claustrophobia until I read something like this.

But he goes all over the world writing about these really interesting places under the ground and he says that he wants to write about — that he wants to explore — what lies beneath the surface of the earth, yes, but also what tends to lie beneath the surface of our minds.

And he has this very interesting approach, like almost twofold where he’s definitely writing about the physical things he sees and their history and their province and their origins. The actual caves, the actual fungi, and yet he’s also writing about what it means for humans. Not just like its effect on our natural world and our continuing as a species but also like philosophically, what does it mean to know these things exist and how should we be thinking about them? And what does it mean for how we move forward? I think he’s writing again in a different genre, but he’s asking the kinds of big questions that you’ve really enjoyed and writing in a style that really works for you. How does that sound?

[00:41:03]

GARY: Tell me if I’m wrong, but it sounds a little bit like the nonfiction version of The Overstory or like a similar vibe.

ANNE: Yes and no. I feel like Powers is like a little more clever and a little zippier, and Robert Macfarlane’s style is to just like really sink in.

GARY: I see.

ANNE: And then sink some more.

GARY: That sounds great.

ANNE: Okay, so we hit on several graphic novel series and standalones. We talked about On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden, the We3 comic series by Grant Morrison. We talked about the old series Planetary and Saga. We talked about Paper Girls by Brian K. Vaughn. It’s possible I’m leaving one out there, but we talked about those graphic novels. We hit The Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin and then we ended with Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane. Gary, of all the ground we covered, what do you think you may pick up next?

[00:41:55]

GARY: I can’t not read Forgetting Time right away. [ANNE LAUGHS] It seems like very specifically up my alley, so I feel like I need to check that one out.

ANNE: Well I’m so curious to hear what, you know, what given your course of study, your actual life’s work, I’m so curious to hear what you think. Gary, this has been so wonderful. Thank you so much for talking books with me today.

GARY: Thank you.

[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]

ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Gary, and I’d love to hear what YOU think he should read next. For the full list of the titles we discussed today, visit our show notes page at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/327 (that’s 327).

Don’t forget to sign up for our weekly newsletter and make sure you’re on the list when the 2022 Summer Reading Guide releases next month. That’s at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/newsletter.

We’re active on Instagram at whatshouldireadnext, and I have my personal account at annebogel. That’s Anne with an E, B as in books, O-G-E-L. Connect with us and tag us in your reading-related posts so we can see what you’re reading lately.

Make sure you’re following in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast and more. And tune in next week, when I’ll be talking with a lifelong reader who turned books into her vocation as her city’s Friendly Neighborhood Bookseller.

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:

Dinotopia by James Gurney
Nightfall and Other Stories by Isaac Asimov
• Ursula K. LeGuin (try The Left Hand of Darkness)
The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
Children of God by Mary Doria Russell
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
Appleseed by Matt Bell
The Overstory by Richard Powers
A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers
Matrix by Lauren Groff
All Systems Red by Martha Wells (The Murderbot Diaries #1)
Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Slaughterhouse Five: The Graphic Novel by Kurt Vonnegut, Ryan North (story) and Albert Monteys (illustration)
• Peter Enns (try The Evolution of Adam)
• Rachel Held Evans (try Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church)
• Wendell Berry (try Jayber Crow)
Dragon Hoops by Gene Luen Yang
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
Paper Girls: The Complete Story by Brian K. Vaughan (story) and Cliff Chiang (illustration)
Saga by Brian K. Vaughan (story) and Fiona Staples (illustration)
The Planetary Omnibus by Warren Ellis (story) and John Cassaday (illustration)
We3  by Grant Morrison (story) and Frank Quitely (illustration) 
• Sea of Stars series by Jason Aaron (story), Dennis Hallum (story) and Stephen Green (illustration) (#1: Lost in the Wild Heavens)
On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden
The Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin
Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert MacFarlane
Mountains of the Mind by Robert MacFarlane
The Lost Words by Robert MacFarlane (story) and Jackie Morris (illustration)
The Wild Places by Robert MacFarlane

37 comments

Leave A Comment
  1. Susie Mea says:

    I would like to recommend “The Great Good Thing” by Andrew Klavan to Gary. It is about a secular Jew from Long Island’s journey to the Christian faith. He found his way to the Christian faith through literature and by reading the classics. I have read this book three times, and each time see things from a different angle. The book has an astounding depth and gives one much to think about.

  2. Melissa Ried says:

    I would like to recommend “Reforesting Faith” by Dr. Matthew Sleeth. Nature + faith, so good! Also, “Girl in Ice” by Erica Ferencik for a linguistic connection. Sooo good!

  3. Rebekah in SoCal says:

    Gary might enjoy Michel Faber’s “The Book of Strange New Things.” It has a sci-fi setting and is about a pastor who is hired by a corporation to travel to a far-away planet to serve as a liaison between the humans and the planet’s inhabitants. It touches on themes of faith, how to love one’s family what it means to be human…

  4. Ashley says:

    While Gary was describing The Sparrow, I wondered if he had ever read C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy. The first two books I think you be right up his alley.

  5. BarbN says:

    Interesting episode! I think Gary might enjoy Good Talk by Mira Jacob. It’s a graphic memoir that is really beautifully done. Also A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (her new one is also interesting but I didn’t think it was good as the first one). Also I’ll put in a plug for continuing with Murderbot. I had the same reaction to the first one- fun, liked it, didn’t love it. But I had no attention span during lockdown and they were short so I kept going. Now they are some of my all-time favorites. Thank you, Gary, for reminding me about “Stories of Your Life,” I’ve had it sitting on a shelf for several years now and haven’t read it yet.

  6. So my husband and Gary have a LOT in common in their reading. His favorite books are the Three-Body Problem ones, and he’s definitely read all the favorites and most of the reading now books. His recommendation is Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky.

    • KT says:

      Ken Liu did the translation for the Three Body Problem trilogy and I would highly recommend his short story collection The Paper Menagerie that sits at that intersection of sci-fi and deep thinking. One of my favorite episodes so far!

  7. Rachel says:

    Listening to the episode made me think of the book I am currently reading, This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. Definitely on the quiet side of Science Fiction and asking a lot of big questions.

  8. Erin says:

    As you are a speech therapist and fan of the graphic novel, I must recommend Stitches: A Memoir by David Small. When David was 14 years old and growing up in Detroit, a botched surgery cut a vocal chord and rendered him mute overnight. The novel works through the way the surgery, and his family of origin, rendered him voiceless, and how he found a voice again through drawing. This is an award winning and gripping graphic novel.

    You may also enjoy Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. The narrator, who is called Piranesi, lives in a house that is an infinite labyrinth with oceans imprisoned inside. As the story goes on, Piranesi and the reader will learn more about why he is there. The story is beautiful and luminous, and also a gripping mystery revealed a little at a time.

  9. Elizabeth Webb says:

    I think Gary would enjoy Brian Doyle books, especially Mink River. One Long River of Song, a book of essays, also deals with deep themes.

  10. I haven’t revisited it as an adult, but I remember being fascinated/deeply moved by Flowers for Algernon, which Gary might enjoy for the language/cognition elements.

    And in a totally different vein, Firekeeper’s Daughter has a interesting tidbits about Ashinaabe language & how it affects the speaker’s understanding of the natural world.

    Finally, I’ve always loved Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi and recommend this short story as a sample:
    https://www.openculture.com/2014/10/stephen-colbert-reads-ray-bradbury-classic-sci-fi-story-the-veldt.html

  11. Candy says:

    I am so glad you recommended Robert Macfarlane and would like to especially point out his book Landmarks. Such a celebration of words and landscape in which you get to explore the writing of some of his favorite authors. The audiobook was lovely with a gentle recitation of the collection of geologic terms of the British Isles between the chapters like some spell or blessing being spoken over the land.
    https://www.amazon.com/Landmarks-Landscapes-Robert-Macfarlane/dp/0241967872

    Others:
    Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
    Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

  12. Mariandrea says:

    Loved the episode! I could relate with Gary and would like to share my appreciation for the following books:. 1- Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, 2- One Man’s Meat essays by E.B. White (there’s wonderful descriptions of nature and time here), 3- Deaf Republic, poems by Ilyan Kaminsky . Happy reading!

  13. Jennifer says:

    Thank you for this episode. We have overlapping interests, The Sparrow is a favorite. Go for it on Wendell Berry (try audio). Try Doug Tallamy for nonfiction nature writing. Try Lauren Redniss for environmental/science graphic nonfiction. I second the other comment on Macfarlane’s other books on language. Outside the box books that may cover some of your likes: The Salt Path and East of Eden and Signature of All Things.

  14. laura shook says:

    Just want to give the readerly community a heads up about The Sparrow. Anne did mention during the episode that there are some upsetting things that happen in the later part of the book. I was stunned when I got to that part of the book (put it down and didn’t finish), and still find myself horrified by the images. So, if you’re at all sensitive, I would stay away from The Sparrow.
    That said, Anne – it’s been awhile since you’ve had a sci-fi fan on your show! I loved your discussion with Gary. I love how you bring in different perspectives from different readers.

  15. Elise says:

    This is a great episode. I have also found Ted Chiang’s short fiction and Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go to be some of the most thought-provoking fiction I’ve read in the past few years.
    I also wanted to recommend C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy, if you’ve never read it. It has a very different tone from the books on your list, but it is great fiction — with a main character inspired by the author’s friend J.R.R. Tolkien.
    Have you ever read Gene Wolfe or R.A. Lafferty? Both were 20th century speculative fiction writers writing from a Catholic perspective. Both are … weird — they will definitely make you think and want to discuss what you’ve read.

  16. Erin says:

    If you have not read the classics Foundation by Asimov I highly recommend it as a more philosophical read. Also Ender’s Game and subsequent in that series. Ancillary Justice was a slow build and I enjoyed it. I have not read the rest in the series yet. Wool, or the Silo series, by Hugh Howey is really good. More dystopian that sci fi but I still really liked it. The Passage by Justin Cronin to me was a slow treatise on what would you do if, combine with zombie apocalypse with some magical realism thrown in. Chaos walking would probably interest you given the linguistic angle, everything men think women can see. Lastly the Miles Vorkosigan saga by Bujold is amazing. Maybe more action than you’d prefer but the world-building and different societies are fascinating.
    I loved the Christian authors you mentioned. In that vein I’d highly recommend The Divine Dance by Richard Rohr, a New Kind of Christian by Brian McLaren, and What is the Bible by Rob Bell.

  17. Kandi West says:

    For nature writing, I recommend Margaret Renkl’s Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss. These are short essays that really pack a punch relative to the number of words. I love her sparse writing; no word wasted.

  18. Katy Kenney says:

    I know Gary was looking for some graphic novels, and one with a non-chronological structure that is also very contemplative/reflective is Here, by Richard McGuire. It focuses the “camera” on one small geographical place and then shows what happened/is happening/will happen in that place over the course of tens, hundreds, thousands of years.

  19. Jessica says:

    Hands down my FAVORITE episode so far, and that is saying a lot for one of my favorite podcasts.
    At only 44 minutes I wanted more! Please do a part two!
    Like a lot of science fiction fans, I find a hard time finding like-minded readers, so it’s such a thrill to listen to someone who just absolutely gets it.

  20. Deirdre says:

    Wonderful episode!

    I am guessing Gary has already tried this, but if not, Braiding Sweetgrass meets his nature, faith, and language interests and is also a quiet book. It’s been a good one for discussing with family.

  21. Shari Ayers says:

    I have a couple of titles to toss into the mix for Gary. First, I thought of Project Hail Mary as a Sci-Fi book with some deeper issues and some linguistic ones. Also, I found that an excellent read on audio which he might also find helpful. I would also add Richard Power’s newest book, Bewilderment which is short and has a neurological “discovery” theme. Finally, I’d add Finding the Mother Tree as a nature writing recommendation.

  22. Meghan says:

    I really enjoyed this episode!

    I also wanted to report that the link in Apple podcasts to this page is mistyped with a t that makes it what should it read next rather than what should I read next

  23. Cameron says:

    What a fun episode. I’m encouraged to pick up Ted Chiang after Gary’s recommendation. I wanted to recommend for nature writing Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s books. They are on the easier side of nature writing and focus on urban nature. I’ve loved Crow Planet and Urban Bestiary. I second Anne’s recommendation of Robert McFarland’s The Underlands. It did ring The Overstory bell for me although they are stylistically a little different. Also second Braiding Sweet grass. Finally, if you have read Becky Chambers Wayfarer series I think that’s a great one to pick up. But I think everyone should read it…

  24. Sheila Ray says:

    Hi Gary,
    I’m also an SLP living in Austin! I love Ted Chiang’s writing too, and Arrival is one of my favorite movies; I love the linguistic elements to that story. I want to recommend a book that, as a lover of language and linguistics, I really enjoyed and think you will too. It’s The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code by Margalit Fox. It’s a fascinating true story about discovery and deciphering of an ancient text of a lost language. I think this is one that you will want to read the print version since it includes the symbols found in the ancient text.

  25. Stephanie in Humboldt County says:

    I can only recommend one graphic novel: The Adventures of Alexander Von Humboldt
    By Andrea Wulf, Illustrated by Lillian Melcher. Based upon the bestselling nonfiction work, The Invention of Nature, by the same author. (Fun fact: There is a statue of Humboldt just outside of Central Park in NYC, across the street from the Museum of Natural History.) The reviews of both of these books are effusive and glorious, and I kept thinking during Gary’s interview that these would both be really wonderful for a person of his interests.

  26. Nancy Dwyer says:

    An older book with themes of faith, nature, and language is “Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith “ by Kathleen Norris

    Also harder to find because it’s by a very small press is “Sharing the Journey” by Lon Emerick. The author was a stutterer as a young boy/teenager, and became a speech therapist!

    Best to you as you work with aphasia patients!

  27. Cliff says:

    Just getting to this episode. Gary, I know you didn’t mention horror as a genre you read, but I wonder if you’ve read the Exorcist? It explores a lot of the themes you talked about, struggling with your own faith and belief (or not) in the supernatural. I found it to be a very moving and impactful story. Lots of content warnings, but if you can handle it, it’s a pretty incredible read.

  28. Julie McLaughlin says:

    Getting to this late but for anyone still visiting this page for the comments section, I felt compelled to second Annie Dillard. I think she would hit Gary’s sweet spot of nature writing in the form of essays that are quiet, intelligent, and beautifully constructed. I picked up her collection “The Abundance” and the first story “Total Eclipse” is astonishing, a masterpiece. The whole collection, spanning her career, is a great intro to Dillard’s writing. She actually reminds me of Ted Chiang, but this is narrative non-fiction. I thought of it right away when hearing about Gary’s favorites and the kind of thing he’s looking for.

  29. Candace Carter says:

    While listening to this thing all I could think of is that The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber is 100% for Gary! A story about a missionary that goes to a new planet and encounters the native people.

  30. Denise says:

    “The Star” by Arthur C. Clarke…short story I read in college that made me gasp. I’m sure Gary has read it, but worth a re-read.

  31. Sue Brown says:

    This might be my favorite episode! Gary is a guest with whom I’d really like to have a conversation about books. Thank you Anne and Gary!

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