How do you write a column about reading that publishes right at the moment when you’ve stopped reading?
It’s confusing, humiliating, and exactly the situation I find myself in—an odd one for someone who considers themselves a habitual, obsessive reader. My lone detention happened because I was reading during math class. (Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH was riveting, OK?) I’ve also chosen a job where books are part of the deal; I get galleys and review copies, a professional courtesy that is so viscerally exciting I still can hardly believe I’m extended it, and can almost always justify spending time or money on a new book with the idea that maaaaaaybe it might turn into a story.
Yet here we are.
Two months ago I started a new job at this miraculous website and my brain promptly and instantaneously melted into a puddle of ooze. Almost everyone who works here had warned me going in that it takes a while to get used to The Pace. That’s always the phrasing: THE PACE, THE PACE. As a grizzled media veteran I took the cautioning as placation; Reader, I am humbled. My colleague Anna Merlan called it the feeling of “squirrels on a live wire,” an image that is useful if not comforting. Consequently, my deliriously high hopes at what joining this place would do for the breadth of my reading have been owned. (Another thing I own, The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde, a compendium that I took out from the library intending to re-read, which instead sat, untouched, on my coffee table for so long the library charged me for it. It’s still there, still unopened, still haunting me.)
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But I drew June, and as a person who abides by her deadlines, here we are. I have nothing to share except the blunt realities of what I am reading. The opposite of aspirational, it’s an assortment of things that bond together to form the literary equivalent of a life raft. They fall roughly into two categories: books that help me do my job—not big philosophical works on gender and culture, but dreaded prescriptive treatises on management—and soft-landing books, stories that sooth my addled mind at the end of the day, namely cozy mysteries.
Business books are so stupid, but I’ve been swallowing them like the medicine that they are. That they come from the architects of a fractured, exploitive system, I am well aware. Yet at a certain point you look around and there are a group of people—writers and editors and bosses—who are talented and capable and relying on you, not just for word-smithing and story selection, but for direction and vision and structure. That the best editors help you understand your capabilities, and chart your future, is a cliche that nevertheless conveys a truth. I think I received three unsolicited copies of Radical Candor: Be a Kick Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity, when Kim Scott was doing her publicity push last year, but I hadn’t opened it until now. Scott, who worked with Sheryl Sandberg at Google, wrote the book like a genderless cousin of LeanIn, a tone that’s pretty off-putting, but right in line with leadership book speak. There is an axis of communication, a system where workers are classified with embarrassing names (you have your Rock Stars and your Super Stars) and catch phrases, like “Challenge DirectlyTM.”
But Scott’s basic point—that feedback is the most critical tool of working with someone, and that how and why you do it matters deeply—is important. Like anyone who is hammering out a career in media in the year of our lord 2019, I’ve had my share of crushing, inept bosses and wonderful ones, and a big part of the gap between the two is how well they tell you what you need to hear.
I also got a copy of Jim Collins’s Good to Great, a classic book of organizational psychology with a title that makes me shudder involuntarily, but I’m hoping it will help me shift my mind to thinking long term strategy, aside from the daily emergencies. I’d love to read a book that’s more specifically about allocating time—both my own and others—that does not have a title like The Thirty Five Second Work Week How to Synergize For Mega Profit Money. Any ideas? I’m taking suggestions.
Beyond that, what I mostly need are books that calm my emptied brain at the end of the day, without insulting it. For this task, I’ve turned to cozy mysteries, in particular Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisy Dobbs series, which is basically valium in book form. Set in the years after the first World War, Maisy Dobbs is a psychologist who uses Sherlock Holmesian skills of deduction, applied to behavior, to solve creative and convoluted mysteries, which are almost always a product of the socio-political upheaval in Europe. Like business books, it took me a while to accept my love of cozy mysteries, a genre that’s been feminized and dismissed—predominately, I think, for its lack of psychological terror. Which is exactly what’s so wonderful about the cozies: They capture a complicated world where everyone is good, and everyone trying, despite the fact that shit continues to go down. It’s both realistic, and deeply comforting.
That said, I breezed through the first 12 books of Maisy in roughly a month. Now there are only a few more books left in the series, and I’m worried, so I’m stocking up in the genre. I reserved a bunch of books from Louise Penny’s mainstay Inspector Armand Gamache series (I can’t believe I’ve never read any Penny, it’s an embarrassing omission) and Aunty Lee’s Delights, the first book in a series by Ovidia Yu which sounds like it’s extremely my shit. (It follows a rich widowed woman who runs a popular restaurant in Singapore and also uses her propensity for gossip to solve mysteries. Sign. Me. Up.) On the other end of the spectrum, I read Out, a classic gruesome thriller that’s also somehow a searing critique of masculine identity in ‘90s Japan. It is not at all cozy, but I’m anxious to read more by Natsuo Kirino, so I have Grotesque and Real World on hold too.
What else, what else! I toy every few years with writing a book on the concept of child prodigy, so I breezed through Ann Hulbert’s Off The Charts, a surprising, and refreshingly measured, historical investigation of the concept of childhood genius. Like lots of other people around here, I’m desperately excited for Rachel Monroe’s first book Savage Appetites. But mostly, I’m looking forward to a time in the hopefully near future, when I’m able to think expansively and read critically again. I’m beginning to see the contours of what that might feel like. I hope that means I’m getting used to The Pace.
This story has been updated