Well-Read is a monthly book recommendations column by book critic and novelist Catie Disabato.
Every month, publishers release dozens of amazing books, their gorgeously rendered covers winking at us from bookstore shelves and #bookstagram. As I scroll through the social media feeds of my best literary friends and favorite bookstores, it seems like everyone I know is constantly devouring dozens of books. At the same time, there’s a low, sourceless murmur online, whispering that no one reads books anymore. In the last Pew Research Center survey on reading, they found that 24% of American adults don’t read any books at all.
Presentation is important; the same piece of information can make you feel radically different things depending on how it’s fed to you. For example, here’s CNBC’s reporting on that 2018 Pew survey:
Reading has been shown to improve your physical and mental health. Research from professors at UC Berkeley have found that the more children read, the greater their vocabulary growth and cognitive skills…But according to Pew Research Center, roughly a quarter of American adults don’t read books at all. In fact in 2018, the research group released figures suggesting that 24 percent of American adults say they have not read a book — in part or whole, in print or electronically or audibly — in the past year.
Put like that, 24% feels big, doesn’t it? A whole quarter of us are willfully denying themselves the glory and pleasure of the written word!!
But of course, 24% nonreaders means that 76% of Americans have consumed at least one book (in physical, e-, or audio format) in the year Pew researched. (And when they published their results, Pew made it clear that biggest nonreading demographics are adults with yearly income under $30K. This means reading should be thought of as tied to economic privilege, which is important to say but also something I don’t have the space to properly tease out.)
76% is actually the big number; America is a nation of readers. We post pictures of our books on Instagram, yes, but we do it because people smash the like button. And people double tap because they also have a book open on their nightstand, bookmark shoved in or a corner dog-eared, maybe a few notes in the margins or passages underlined, a cataloguing of the words and moments we love.
Well-Read is a column for both the 76 percent and anyone from the 24 percent who wants to start a reading practice. I love independent bookstores, but also the public libraries that offer us the same books for free. I listen to audiobooks, read e-books on my phone, buy hardcovers at author events, and pick up used paperbacks for a discount — any format that works for you is perfect. And even if you don’t finish a book that you pick up, the reading you did still counts.
Recommended reading for June:
Once More We Saw Stars by Jayson Greene
Pub. Date: May 14, 2019
In my personal reading, I tend to avoid books that everyone, everywhere recommends. Expectation clouds my experience; either the influence of the praise elevates a fine but not-great book in my estimation , or else the deafening applause drowns out the book’s best qualities. Either way, my reading experience suffers as a result. Once More We Saw Stars is a memoir that was recommended by everyone, everywhere but it’s also the rare book that’s so good that no outside influence could mire its quality.
Greene’s memoir begins with an accident. A stray brick falls from a windowsill and strikes his two-year-old daughter, Greta, in the head. She dies, but not instantly. This is something that the reader knows going in, but nevertheless Greene’s engaging prose style keeps the reader present in the medical aftermath of the accident, with his daughter hospitalized, scanned, and operated on, moments of great uncertainty and even greater tension. By page three, my mouth was open; by page four, my thumb was in my mouth and I was biting down on it, softly.
Though Once More We Saw Stars will probably make you cry (especially if you’re a water sign, like me), its overarching narrative is one of reconciliation, recovery, and hope. Greene and his wife, Stacy, work through their grief using both conventional methods, such as grief workshops, and less conventional ones, like visiting a ceremonialist in New Mexico. (The couple lives in Brooklyn, if they lived in Los Angeles, both of these methods would be conventional.) hen Stacy gets pregnant again, Greene invites us to join their fears, wonderment, and hope.
The Paper Wasp by Lauren Acampora
Pub. Date: June 11, 2019
Lauren Acampora’s debut novel features elements you’ll probably see a lot in the books I recommend: female best friends, realistic renderings of the celebrity industrial complex (one of the bestie pair, Elise Van Dijk, is a rising Hollywood star), and inappropriate obsessing.
28-year-old Abby Graven was once a promising artist, but now she hides her art, languishes in a job as a supermarket cashier, obsesses about Elise (her former bestie), and never talks about her unsettling, hyperrealistic, and fantastical dreams. At her high school reunion, Abby is thrilled to reunite with Elise, who offhandedly offers Abby a place to stay, should she ever visit LA. A few months later, Abby shows up on her doorstep.
From there, Acampora reveals the loneliness and uncertainty in Elise’s seemingly glamorous LA scene, while Abby’s haunted inner world takes on a nefarious life of its own. I’m recommending this novel for its silky-smooth beautiful language, its realistic-but-heightened version of Los Angeles, and because, frankly, it’s the only time I’ve ever loved a novel that was written in the second person.
Tell Me How You Really Feel by Aminah Mae Safi
Pub. Date: June 11, 2019
In the deepest part of my heart, where I keep my most precious things, there’s a disembodied voice lustily whispering, “teenage romance, enemies to lovers.” Aminah Mae Safi’s second YA novel, Tell Me How You Really Feel, feeds this bottomless well of desire that I’ll probably carry with me forever and ever amen.
Freshman year, Sana — a South Asian–Persian Muslim, high-achieving cheerleader, and sweet lil baby dyke — mustered up all her courage to ask out Rachel,a Jewish-Mexican aspiring filmmaker with her heckles up so high she can’t see over them. Rachel assumed Sana noted her otherness, her queerness and was playing a prank. Sana assumed Rachel’s harsh rebuttal was a declaration of hate. Sana nursed her crush for four years, until Rachel, under pressure from her film teacher, cast Sana as the lead in her all-important final project. As the teens spend more time together, feelings changed, emotions grew, and my squeaky little heart thump-thumped to it’s familiar beat: enemies to lovers, enemies to lovers, enemies to lovers.
Safi chose the best structure for this kind of love story, the shifting first person, so we can see the misunderstandings from inside both girls’ heads, and watch them separately change and grow from the most intimate perspective.