Saturday, May 2, 2020

Why books matter right now, and which ones you should read


Books are a good thing to think about right now. Of course, I am biased because it is my job to think about books, but every time I turn my eyes away from one of my screens and the endless, frictionless scroll of despair, and pick up a physical book instead, I feel better. It’s as though I’m looking through a window into a different world, and it reminds me that together, we can build a reality that is better and stronger than the one in which we find ourselves trapped right now.

Personally, I’ve been reading Emma this week. It feels very comforting to wrap myself up in the concerns of the book’s tiny, claustrophobic little village, in which the central points of concern are who bought whom a pianoforte and whether it might be quite the thing to hold a ball in an inn rather than in a private home. And Jane Austen’s sentences are so precisely and carefully polished that there is an extra joy to reading them right now: They are at least one thing that is under perfect control in this world of chaos.

But that is my mood! You are quite possibly in an entirely different mood. So let’s find you something to read, too.

The recommendation requests below, submitted to me via email and on Twitter, have been edited for length and clarity.

Mood: utterly spent but still wanting to feel at least a little bit smart. I’m looking for genre fiction that goes down easy without making me feel dumb.

A mood I know well! Your email says you like mysteries, so give the author Tana French a try if you haven’t already — her last book, The Witch Elm, stands totally alone and is super accessible and very absorbing: it’s about a guy who lives a charmed life until (a) he’s mugged and (b) he finds a dead body in the tree in his uncle’s backyard. Maybe also throw in a little Lyndsay Faye — I’m a fan of Jane Steele, which reimagines Jane Eyre as a serial killer. For fantasy, try Sunshine by Robin McKinley (vampires, baking, romance; the food in that one!) and Gideon the Ninth, which is about lesbian necromancers in space.


Gideon the Ninth is about lesbian necromancers in space. Obviously, it’s perfect.
I’m a writing student, and I’m interested in learning more about second person. Recommend me something that best capitalizes on its second person POV?
Second person is so tricky! If you don’t have it under perfect control, it can come off as gimmicky, but when you use it well, you can make it deliver a gut punch that no other point of view can.

The two books I’ve seen do a nice job with second person recently are both memoirs: Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman’s Sounds Like Titanic, and Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House. Both of them explore past traumas, and both of them place those traumas in the second person. In certain ways, this approach reads as an act of dissociation by the narrator, as though the narrative voice of the memoir has to distance itself from the trauma by assigning it to you rather than I.