I Quit My Goodreads Challenge And Never Looked Back

Don’t check, don’t check. You’ll just make yourself crazy.

My thumb hovers over “Reading Challenge” in my Goodreads menu.

I have to know.

This battle between my mind (don’t do it) and heart (c’mon, do it) happens every time I open my Goodreads app. My heart wins every time.

Goodreads dropdown menu

My reaction is always instant and visceral. If I’m on track or ahead, it’s a mental yessss. If I’m behind, I start to panic: What’s the shortest book on my “Want to read” list? Can I knock it out this week?

All of this started with a notification that my friend Nici had started a Goodreads challenge. I perked up: A challenge for reading books? I didn’t need to think twice—I wanted in. Because if there’s one thing I can do, it’s put down some books.

At first, I hardly remembered I was in a challenge. I was just doing what I always do—reading with the urgency of “so many books, so little time.”

But then, one day last fall, I suddenly felt a craving to reread Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep. I tried to ignore it—I couldn’t spare the time if I was going to hit my Goodreads Challenge by year end. I tried to read one page to satisfy my urge, but like with a bag of chips, I couldn’t stop at just one. Nor, as it turns out, could I stop at just one reread. I found myself craving and rereading even more books.

By the time December rolled around, I was behind in my challenge with less than a month to go. That’s when I pulled out all my tricks. I got an audiobook so I could multitask. I read the shortest books I could find—turns out single short stories count as whole books. I even finished reading a book I wasn’t enjoying because it would be faster to do that than start a whole new book—and that was when a little part of me died. When did I start prioritizing hitting a number over blissfully wandering inside a story—new or old—that I love?

I ended up meeting my goal, but the victory felt cheap. So when it came time to set my goal for 2018, I cut way back: Two books per month seemed doable. But it turns out I had opened a can of worms with the rereading. I missed the days when I used to read what I wanted, when I wanted. Even with a more attainable goal, I found myself making reading decisions based on a number rather than based on my heart, which was a surprisingly sad realization.

So I did it: I quit my Goodreads challenge and got back to the business of loving books. For me, it’s not “so many books, so little time”—rather, it’s “so many books I could fall in love with, so little time to meet and re-meet them.”

These days when I open my Goodreads app, I skip right over the menu and get right to good stuff: hunting for and discovering potential gems and keeping track of my journey through pages—new and old alike.

Goodreads Year in Review

Have you quit a reading challenge? If you’re feeling anxious about it, take a deep breath and check out this Book Riot post immediately: Why It’s Okay to Fail Your Reading Challenge.

My WILD Trip to Toronto: From Codependent to Emotionally Detoxed

My solo trip to Toronto in October 2018 mirrored Cheryl Strayed’s Wild trip: long walks, lack of drinking water, and a suspicious man. Sure, my walks were 0.5 km strolls to the grocery store to buy Smart Water bottles for my sensitive stomach, and the suspicious man was an awkward neighbor who scampered away as soon as I glared at him. Mostly, what my Toronto trip had in common with Strayed’s is that it led me back to my independence.

wild cheryl strayedI’ve lived with my family for a few years, and sought a place to myself. Thankfully, an acquaintance had invited me to visit her in Toronto. In August, my intuition told me to ask her if I could visit in October. Happily as always, she replied that she was out of town but I was welcome to stay at her place anyway. An empty apartment to myself? Jackpot! I could also satisfy my curiosity about life in Canada.

We always want what we can’t have. Of course, as soon as I got there, I started missing my family in Southern California, and mostly missing their help. I had to buy my own groceries, clean up the place, and take out the trash. Who else would do it? I’d lived on my own before, but had been helping out at home for so long that I’d become part of the cozy yet codependent unit. This time, breaking away was harder. I hesitated to accept help from my new friend in Toronto, and called and texted my family constantly, who were of course busy with work and kids. One day I actually cried, as I felt the familiar emotional attachment sever, and I allowed new and mature relationships to enter my life. Eventually, I called home less as I grew comfortable with my own company.

In Toronto, I got the quiet I desired. At first, Toronto was a bit too quiet for me, coming from bubbly Southern California. Except for the occasional sorry if they bump into you, people in Toronto pretty much politely keep to themselves. After complaining for a week about the solitude I had asked for, I embraced it. The warm, empty apartment wrapped me in a cocoon and allowed me to process the thoughts I had hidden amongst the comfortable chatter back home. Besides the quiet, Toronto’s inclusivity made it the perfect place for a solo, hijab-clad female traveler like myself.

Like Strayed, I began the trip with too much weight on my shoulders, but I lifted it off me as I traveled. I overpacked my carry-on for the departure flight, and it was hard for me to carry through customs. For the trip home, I packed more in my checked luggage, so I could handle the weight of my carry-on. As I breathlessly lugged water bottles back to my apartment—because I was too lazy to get a bus pass and too cheap to use Uber—I remembered Strayed’s words: perhaps the physical suffering would fade away some of my emotional suffering. Alas, by walking daily for one hour, I shed some of the midsection weight I’d gained the past few years, mostly from shared guilt.

A loner by choice, I’ve taken many solo trips in the past: New York, Grenada, Northern California, etc. But this one filled me with anxiety, perhaps because I felt it was a catalyst for major change. A new country to coincide with the new me. Although it was a new me I’d been wanting for years, it was still difficult to fathom. For a while now, I knew in the back of my mind it was time to move out, get a full-time job, and get married. The day before I left, I met a potential mate, and soon as I arrived in Toronto I got a job offer back in California. Traveling away from home provided the space I needed for new things to enter my life.

My Toronto trip was more than a vacation: it was a tool for emotional detachment. The new scenery, attractions and people distracted me while I pushed myself to accept change. Also, it showed me I could take care of myself, no matter how hard it is. Now that I have been able to rely on myself when I was completely alone, I could do it when I was home surrounded by friends and family. I’m glad I had Wild to guide me through the tumultuous journey of walking towards independence.

The Book Quotes That Helped Me Through My Father’s Death

Content note: this post discusses death and dying. Please proceed with caution, and take care of your heart and mental health.

I got the call on a Wednesday. My father had a stroke. There was no chance he’d survive. Could I come?

He was in San Miguel de Allende. I was in Los Angeles with no passport. I made a phone call. I got an emergency appointment the next morning. I booked a flight. I had my picture taken, red-cheeked from tears and walking fast. I went to Staples three times to print and copy the different forms I needed. On Thursday I took a Lyft to the Federal building and sat in the gardens with the migrating butterflies, reading a zine called Hope in this Timeline from Fireside Magazine and the Mexicanx Initiative.

I got on the plane on Friday, passport in hand. All the way to Guanajuato I thought about Laura Ingalls Wilder, remembering the biography I’d read of her as a young adult. It was the first time I’d realized that her books were not the whole truth. Written in the 1970s, it is far from a perfect biography, but the brief passage describing Laura desperately trying to get back to De Smet before Pa died stuck with me all these years.

But in the spring of 1902 came a change that Laura did not expect. From the far-off prairies of Dakota came a message she did not want to hear. Pa was sick. Pa was going to die.

Laura left Rocky Ridge in a rush. She made her way from one train to another across Kansas and Nebraska and Dakota to De Smet. It was a long way to go, and she didn’t have much time. Now she hurried, she hurried home, as though across the prairie she could hear—ever so faintly—the last fading song of a honey-brown fiddle, a word, a bright whistle in the night.

—from Laura by Donald Zochert

Laura made it to De Smet before Pa died, and I made it to San Miguel before my Poppy died.

I sat with him for about six hours on Saturday. His partner played his favorite Vivaldi and I read to him from a book of his favorite poet, Emily Dickinson.

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain

With ease—and You—beside—

The Brain is deeper than the sea—

For—hold them—Blue to Blue—

The one the other will absorb—

As Sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—

For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—

And they will differ—if they do—

As Syllable from Sound—

—Poem #632 from The Essential Emily Dickinson

I felt surprisingly okay after he went. I think being with him helped tremendously, but I also thought of all the times I had imagined losing him—it has been my biggest dread for as long as I can remember—and I thought of Lillian Moller Gilbreth, who raised 11 children after her husband’s sudden and unexpected death.

While Dad lived, Mother was afraid of fast driving, of airplanes, of walking alone at night. When there was lightning, she went in a dark closet and held her ears. When things went wrong at dinner, she sometimes burst into tears and had to leave the table. She made public speeches, but she dreaded them.

Now, suddenly, she wasn’t afraid anymore, because there was nothing to be afraid of. Now nothing could upset her, because the thing that mattered most had been upset.

—from Cheaper by the Dozen by Ernestine Gilbreth Carey and Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr.

Gilbreth’s children wrote a second memoir, Belles on Their Toes, that is largely about Mother, while Cheaper By The Dozen is about Dad. (And in case you are wondering, they did have 12 children; the second, Mary, died of diphtheria in 1912.)

I stayed in Mexico for eight days after his death, spending time with his partner and going through his things. I had trouble sleeping, and when I couldn’t sleep I read the only book I’d brought with me (unless everything else on my Kindle counts), Figuring by Maria Popova. It is a book that is almost impossible to describe; it is a book that is about what it is that makes us human, and it answers that question through the lives of scientists and poets. It is 545 pages long in hard cover, not including the index (which is why I bought the Kindle version at the last minute), and I am only perhaps a quarter of the way through; it’s the most beautiful book I’ve ever read. Rather than attempting to choose a passage to quote, I will leave you with this bit from a W.H. Auden poem that is the epigraph:

How should we like it were the stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

HIGH RISE MYSTERY: The First Young Black UK Detective Duo Is Here!

High Rise Mystery by Sharna Jackson is the first black UK detective duo for readers ages 9–12 in the UK. It takes place during a record-breaking heatwave in London.

High Rise MysteryThere’s been a murder in the TRI, the high-rise building where two sisters Nik (age 11) and Norva (age 13) live. One of the building’s most favourite residents, Hugh Knightley-Webb, a dealer of antiques, has been found dead, and Nik and Norva are on the case.

They are smart, they are stubborn and they know how to follow the evidence. In the wake of a lackluster police effort, Nik & Norva will get to the bottom of the case no matter what it takes.

Author Sharna Jackson is also Artistic Director of The Site Gallery, an international contemporary art space in Sheffield, UK. High Rise Mystery is a new series and I’m delighted to see it hitting the shelves in the past few weeks.

High Rise Mystery is published by Knights Of, a new, inclusive publisher based in London. I’ve written before about Knights Of. I took a group of students to meet co-founder David Stevens, who, along with business partner Aimée Felone, started Knights Of because of a study which revealed that in the UK only 1% of children’s books published contained a BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) main character.

As a School Librarian, I know the importance of ensuring students see themselves reflected back at them in the books that they read. The damage done by seeing only white, straight characters as the protagonists in novels is undeniable. It tells students from diverse backgrounds in a very direct way that they are not good enough to be the hero or to come out the winner in the stories that help develop their teenage brains.

Knights Of have also successfully remained permanent in their Brixton location, opening Round Table Books in May of 2019—check it out!

What I’ve Learned About History From Reading Fiction

I didn’t enjoy learning about history in school, not even in college. I took classes, of course, but they were boring and seemed totally disconnected from my life—just a series of world leaders (always men), wars, and dates to memorize. There was definitely no hot Indiana Jones professor to ignite my love of learning about history. The classes were a dull but necessary step along my liberal arts path.

But I always adored reading, and I loved fiction best of all. While I thoroughly enjoy a wider range of genres now, my first true love was, and still is, realistic fiction. I become completely invested in the characters, and I truly care what happens to them. I long to be immersed in their world. It is through reading fiction and being exposed to more and more stories that I found myself learning all kinds of history that I’d never picked up in school.

I remember several years ago reading Snow Falling on Cedars. I was mesmerized by the gorgeous writing, the riveting courtroom drama, and the beautiful love story. But I was blindsided to learn about the Japanese Americans that were exiled to internment camps during WWII. I was an adult and embarrassed that I did not know about this piece of my country’s history. I did not remember ever hearing about this in school.

Of course, much of our nation’s history is not adequately covered in classrooms, especially when it comes to ugly truths about discrimination, oppression, and poverty. There is a powerful passage in the book Homegoing by Yaa Gyassi that speaks to this:

“We believe the one who has power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there you get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.”

Fiction gives voice to the voiceless and enables a broader view of history by portraying those suppressed stories. Books like Homegoing and Beloved taught me about the personal devastation wrought by slavery, and The Things They Carried gave me a glimpse of what Vietnam soldiers endured. Last year’s insightful There There helped me consider the lives of Native Americans in urban America. Americanah and The Buddha in the Attic allowed me to imagine what it might be like to be an immigrant making their way in a new country.

I’ve learned about the broader world as well. Khaled Hosseini’s brutal and breathtaking novels have given me a view of Afghanistan and broadened my compassion for the people there. I began to grasp the horrors of war-ravaged Chechnya in the late 1990s in A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan taught me about the limited opportunities for women in 19th-century China and made me appreciate the tenacity and courage they must have possessed. The Orphan Master’s Son made me curious about the lives of people living in mysterious North Korea.

I know these books are fiction. They are made up stories, not to be confused with nonfiction. But there is truth to be found in the lives of the characters and in the actual history surrounding the settings of these novels. I have found that reading fiction begets more reading. I find a story that sparks my interest, and I look for more—for nonfiction and memoirs, personal essays and biographies. I stumble onto the reality within the fantasy and dig deeper to extract the lessons that history leaves us. For me, fiction is often a gateway to learning about the real world.

More importantly, though, I am reading in a way that broadens my worldview and cultivates compassion for the people around me. The initial emotional connections I feel to the characters and their circumstances make me care, make me curious, and make me want to investigate further. I want to learn not just the facts but how particular historical events affected the people and communities who lived through them. I want to imagine what they may have felt and experienced.

There is plenty of nonfiction that does this as well. I am not advocating an either/or approach here. I’m happy to read all kinds of books. But there are so many perspectives that have not been shown in our history books. And when I hear other readers say, “Why do you waste your time on fiction when there are real stories to read?” this is my answer. I feel that reading fiction has made me a more well-rounded, informed, empathetic, caring person. My world and my heart have grown. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Ready to read some amazing historical fiction? Try this great list of  50 Must-Read Historical Fiction Books.

Why All of My Best Relationships Involve Books

The only serious romantic relationship I’ve ever had was built on a strong foundation of book recommendations. I can trace a through line from the development of our friendship to an innocent flirtation to falling in love with the books that we shared. To this day, I still sometimes think of him when I’m reading something new that reaches deep inside of me and tugs at my sense of familiarity and truth.

books couple date happy feature 470x248

We met at work and initially bonded over casual conversations about books and art at lunchtime. The first present he ever gave me was a book, Texts from Jane Eyre. A light, silly book but one that was already tied to an inside joke we had. On one of our first real dates, we went to his favorite local bookstore. I remember reading many love stories during this time. I’d inevitably find a way to relate my budding feelings to those of the characters in the novel. When I was finished, I’d then pass the books along,  kind of novel-length love letter.

There was something so special about being able to share these internal worlds with another person. It also didn’t hurt that we had similar but different tastes in books, so that we could keep it interesting. It felt comforting that even when we couldn’t be together, we were connected by the lives of these other characters. And then when we did hang out, we would debate the content of the novels, vigorously sharing our opinions on everything from the writing style to the main characters’ choices to the final conclusion.

While this relationship stands out most clearly as one that was built partially on our mutual love of books, it is certainly not the only one. Many of my formative friendships growing up were with fellow bookworms. We’d spend hours hanging out in the local library or bookstore, trading books back and forth and joining competitive book reading teams. Reading was also something I share with my dad, one of the few things we have in common. While he tends to read biographies and true crime books, and I’ve always been more dedicated to fiction of all kinds, we have always enjoyed telling each other about the books we are currently reading.

There’s a strength to these book-based relationships that I struggle to find with friends who don’t share this passion with me. You can learn so much about someone based on the types of books they read and how they connect to them. It’s why I can never see myself dating someone who doesn’t love to read. Not only because it’s something I love, and that brings me joy and I can’t comprehend why anyone wouldn’t love to read, but because I think that reading is one of my love languages. It allows you to share not just one life with someone, not just one world, but a never-ending series of worlds that spill out before you. They live on the page, but also within you and between you. You can create a totally different kind of intimacy, one that grows and expands with each new addition.

I’ve started cultivating this more in my adult friendships as well. While I have plenty of great friends who don’t share my avaricious passion for reading and recommending books, there’s nothing quite like my book friends.

I Don’t Read the Introductions in Books

One of the best things about graduating with my BA in English was that I no longer had to read the introductions in books. In high school I hadn’t done so, and it took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out that the context other students were getting that I had missed out on was from reading the introduction and not some inherent knowledge they had about the period during which the book was published. With syllabi aplenty in college, our reading calendars were filled out specifically to include the Roman numeral–bearing sections of the texts we read. I started slogging through the introductions before reading whatever book we studied: Middlemarch, Villette, Frankenstein, and others (and, frankly, any other number of books by white women). So goes academia.

The drawback of reading introductions—besides frequently being bored by them—was that the plots were often spoiled. Naturally, much of the literary analysis or criticism that happens in an introduction relies on the central events of the novel. So it was revealed to me that so-and-so was actually so-and-so all along, that what’s-her-face dies in a later chapter, and the love interest for the heroine was actually this other guy all along. Oh.

I realize we don’t read fiction in academic settings for entertainment, and so the spoilers shouldn’t matter. Still, I protest—I went into studying English because I am entertained by and enjoy reading because of their surprises. Reading, for me, is sort of like a game some of the time—does the author have the skill to throw me off their trail and surprise me?

And yes, much what I read had been around for a hundred-odd years. Surely I couldn’t expect not to be spoiled. Yet I did. And I do. I’d gone a couple of decades without knowing the particulars of Northanger Abbey and The Merchant of Venice—why should I let a handful of pages of preamble ruin such a beautiful streak? (In pursuit of knowledge, of course.) There are enough “classic” works out there that I could reasonably read a number of them without even knowing what they are about, let alone detailed spoilers.

When I graduated but continued reading, I went back to ignoring the introductions and any other forewords. I find now that I’m still suffering from a lack of background on a lot of the older material I read. That’s a natural consequence, but there’s nothing saying I can’t go back and read the introduction after I finish the novel. I often don’t, but that’s not the point. Some books include afterwords as well as introductions or forewords. This is especially great because it seems obvious to me that an explanation or analysis of the book—which introductions, in my experience, often end up being—should come after the main text. Spoilers aside, it’s difficult to get much out of an analysis if you don’t have the context.

Sure, it’s also challenging to get some things out of a book without historical and other context. But these are things that can usually make sense after the fact. After you understand the context, it’s easy enough to go back to the text in your head and reframe it as an allegory for whatever major war was happening at the time.

I don’t worry too much about misunderstanding particular uses of words of the time or references to items or people that I never knew existed. Sometimes, footnotes explain these bits. Other times, you might go for an annotated edition (especially useful for things like Shakespeare, where the language is unusual, to an extent, even for its own time in the pursuit of things like meter and rhyme). And if I run into things that don’t make sense, this marvelous thing called “the internet” helps me out.

Despite otherwise being a completionist, I give myself leeway with introductions. They aren’t, typically, a part of the original text. Sometimes, the content is debatable. And too often, I run into spoilers. Those alone are reason enough for me to skip them. If I’m intrigued enough to revisit the introduction after finishing the book, all the better.

Do you read the introduction?

Essay Collections Keep Saving Me

Between October 2001 and November 2002, a drought befell New Jersey, my home state. The summer of 2002 was a big reading season for me, as we were unable to fill the backyard pool. I read Harry Potter for the first time, and so began my adolescent infatuation with all things fantasy, my bookshelves prominently featuring the spines of J.K. Rowling, Garth Nix, and Brian Jacques.

Not coincidentally, around this time I wrote my first story. Shortly thereafter, I wrote my second, and my third. They were all simple, and as half-realized as you might expect the writing of a 10-year-old to be, but they were mine. I loved those stories of dragons and wizards that I scrawled out in spiral-bound notebooks. When I wrote them, in conjunction with devouring The Seventh Tower and Redwall, it occurred to me, for the first time, that I wanted to be a writer.

For all of middle school, my consumption of YA fantasy kept up at a steady clip. It took me through all the landmarks of a young reader of my time: Artemis Fowl, Eragon, and even the earliest folly of an attempt at reading Lord of the Rings.

By high school, though, I was exhausted. I did not want to read another book about magic, dragons, or grand adventure, and because this was the vast majority of the reading material available to me at the time, I stopped reading as a hobby. I became involved in other things, like high school theatre, the first awkward milestones of high school dating, and a burning desire to distance myself from all things that marked my prepubescent life.

For the next few years, a drought of a different kind overtook my life: I no longer enjoyed reading. Reading slumps are exceedingly common, but mine was epic. For six years, I did not have any intense or thoughtful connection to anything I read, most of which was course material that I either skimmed or never finished.

Magic Hours by Tom Bissell coverThis changed when I first encountered Tom Bissell’s Magic Hours. Like when you first meet a person who later indelibly changes your life, I remember the first moment I saw Magic Hours perfectly. It was at the Wexner Center bookstore in Columbus, Ohio. Spring break of sophomore year. I was there seeing an exhibit with my then-partner and her mom, and my knees hurt from walking. A brief respite in the bookstore allowed me to sit for a while, in a comfortable blue chair that happened to put me at eye level with this essay collection.

In these essays, Bissell examines the creative processes of artists as disparate as Chuck Lorrie, Emily Dickinson, and Tommy Wiseau; he describes the minutia of media as different as video games, film shoots, and how-to-write books. His voice is sharp, direct, and unfailing in its commitment to small details.

The collection contains “essays on creators and creation.” I did not know it at the time I first picked it up, but this was the exact sort of reading material I needed when I was 19 years old, partway through my sophomore year of getting a BFA in theatre. I needed perspective on what the hell exactly I and my peers were striving toward.

And then, without my noticing, I suddenly loved to read again. Beyond actually reading most of my course materials in full, I found time to read for pleasure. Suddenly, the fantasy novels of my youth had soul again. I became deeply enamored of Paula Vogel, August Wilson, and Sam Shepard. I read David Sedaris for the first time, whose When You Are Engulfed in Flames and Me Talk Pretty One Day tore my soul into shreds through episodes of laughter and sobbing. Though I’ve still yet to do a full read of Lord of the Rings, I crawled my way into first attempts at other older, denser material, like the works of Dostoevsky and Virginia Woolf.

This phase of my reading life was nothing short of revelatory. Although Bissell’s writing covers the exact subject matter I needed to read at the time, there was something beyond the power of his individual book at work. Ever since this first encounter with creative nonfiction, essay collections have continued to be reliable ways for me to break my reading slumps.

This is Running for Your Life by Michelle OrangeA few years later, I had a similar experience with Michelle Orange’s This Is Running for Your Life. Like Bissell, Orange’s writing is concerned with media, but less with those who create it and more with those who consume it. She examines the ways in which images, celebrity culture, and popular psychology influence our interpersonal relationships, with a voice that expertly rides the line between critical and personal.

It was around the time I read This Is Running for Your Life that my perspective about the kind of writer I wanted to be also shifted. My writing for much of my late teens and early 20s was entirely concerned with being Good Fiction. I am grateful now to see the fallacy of the idea that fiction, particularly literary fiction, is somehow inherently better than other types of writing, especially nonfiction, for which I have developed such a passion. I began writing my own essays, mostly about music and other pop culture, and building my muscle for analyzing my media and culture experiences in a way that writing fiction had not allowed me to do. (Funnily enough, it was only when I shed some of the snobbery around other genres that I began noticing my fiction writing getting better.)

They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib coverFinally, and most recently, I have fallen in love with They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us. Hanif Abdurraqib writes with such singularity and precision that each of his essays is like a magic trick. I absorb his vivid, yet conversational descriptions of times and places, and within small spans, sometimes as short as only two or three pages, am transported by the insights—on race, on poverty, on drugs, on creativity, on loneliness—he draws from seemingly frivolous topics like metalcore bands, famous moments in basketball, and long drives through the Midwest to see hip-hop concerts. To read Abdurraqib’s writing is to learn new ways in which to see.

I could write a thousand more words about the other essay collections that have saved my life as a reader and a writer. Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. The list is long, and I endeavor to keep lengthening it so long as I read.

In the author’s note of Magic Hours, Tom Bissell describes an episode early in his career in which he doubts his ability to write a magazine assignment:

Shortly before the trip … I had second thoughts and called the editor. “You’re aware,” I said, “that I’m not actually a journalist?” … The editor was undeterred. “Look,” he said, “just go up there and write about what you see.”

To engage with an essay collection is to agree to listen to someone describe what they’ve seen, what they’ve thought, what they’ve felt. It is a genre of book that can surprise you with its depth and diversity, and allow you permission to see the world in different ways, often when you need it most.

Fantasy Book Covers Intimidate Me—Here’s Why

I consider myself a casual fan of speculative fiction. Twilight came out when I was 13 and, by then, I had already been reading Harry Potter for a while, so my interests grew into other fantasy novels with the occasional piece of science fiction. Then the dystopian boom came along, which generally incorporated pieces of science fiction or fantasy, so I read a bit of that, too. The more I read, the more interested I was in the origins of speculative—particularly fantasy—fiction. And then I started seeing older fantasy book covers.

Hoo boy. There’s a lot going on with them, isn’t there?

Into the Labyrinth by Margaret Weis and Tracy HickmanThe problem is, I find them entirely intimidating. Head on over to Google and try an image search for “90s fantasy,” “80s fantasy,” “70s fantasy,” or even “60s fantasy” and you’ll get a pretty quick idea of what I’m talking about. Highly-stylized art on covers with loads of detail. They all seem like an awfully big commitment. I see this and ask myself, oh boy, am I going to have to sit through excessive scenery and war depictions? Is the bulk of the plot detailed political discussions set in ornate castles? Will there be feasts that list every bite of food on the table? (Sorry, J.R.R.)

These covers always seem to scream “high fantasy” to me. (While high fantasy technically refers to books that take place entirely in a fantasy world, I also use it to describe fantasy fiction that is just a lot—dense prose, overly-detailed descriptions, highly-political plots, you get the idea.) I can’t say exactly why that is. Maybe, early on, I had exposure to high fantasy with these covers and it created an association. Maybe there’s something to be said about something like internalized misogyny in me, and that the complex covers indicate complex interiors which is intended for men because of the myth that science fiction and fantasy are for men (and when women write it, it’s for young adults). Maybe there’s just something about the intricate covers that turn me off, like detailed illustrations in graphic novels have.

The Eye of the World by Robert JordanWhatever the cause, these kinds of covers have long intimidated me and kept me from truly diving into even fantasy that I might have enjoyed. When a book’s cover suggests high fantasy and I know I’m not ready for that kind of commitment, I’m going to disregard it out of hand as a reading option. Book covers aren’t always a great gauge for the content of a book, but they do inform potential readers about the book. So I use what limited information I have to decide not to read a lot of these books and probably miss out on some great stuff as a result.

At used book sales, I typically totally disregard the fantasy mass market paperbacks. Pretty inevitably, most of the books in those collections have these kinds of covers. With precious little time to shop (you have to leave time to read!), I don’t waste my time digging through these covers to find blurbs or jacket copy that might otherwise entice me. I just generally assume these books are not for me. And that’s a shame.

Is this a me problem or a publishers problem? Both? I’m certain I need to get over myself to some degree, but I also figure publishers are doing something like gate keeping. Those highly detailed and stylized covers do feel, for whatever, very masculine to me. And maybe someone smarter than I can articulate why that is. Whatever the case, if publishers continue to publish in this style, I have a feeling they’re alienating a good chunk of a potential market.

Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen KushnerThere’s a good chance many people will respond to this with something along the lines of “feminists want to ruin publishing/book covers” and “not everything has to be for you.” But all I’m saying here is that publishers are probably missing out on lots of consumers because their covers do not accurately represent the contents of their books. For those intimidating fantasy book covers that are accurately representing their interiors, I say well done! But for the rest, I’m sorry—it’s not you, it’s me. (Maybe.)

Has a book cover ever turned you off from even picking a book up to find out what it’s about? Is there a whole category of book covers that are automatic deal breakers for you? Tell us in the comments.

Highlighting Hugo Finalists and Fandom Communities Quick Sip Reviews and A03

Asimov has a story about how often he’d present for Hugo Awards but was never chosen for one. This was the 1930s when he started publishing short stories professionally while seeking out his PhD. He went up on stage and started riffing about his jealousy about peers winning an award, and then he opened the envelope and learned he won a Hugo that year.

I don’t know if I’ll ever win a Hugo; my ego can hope. With that said, I’m proud that one of my friends online received a nomination: Charles Payseur of Quick Sip Reviews. He has been nominated for Best Fan Writer, and his review website QSR received a nomination for Best Fanzine!

Even better, Archive of Our Own also received a nomination! This is a huge win for fandom, for reasons I’ll explain below.

Quick Sips and Fanzines

Charles Payseur is a good friend of mine. We met when he reviewed one of my short stories published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and I thanked him for his lovely words. I found his cats adorable, and we shared a passion for speculative fantasy with people of color and LGBTQ+representation. He also writes remarkable fiction, with heroes and villains, and Toons in dystopia. I look forward to his Patreon updates, especially when he reviews Goosebumps and points out with love how the stories could have gone better.

Charles’s reviews focus on the power of speculative short stories, novellas and novels.  He digs deep into analysis, to figure out the authors’ intentions and the impact of the written word on the reader. He also wants to promote debut authors in this realm so they can find an audience. I’ve certainly learned to take care when he talks about horror stories, because the ones he reviews tend to make me shudder, the way a good story should.

In addition, he also tags spoilers and mentions useful keywords for potential readers, in case of triggers and for people who would rather have a snippet of the tales. This helps especially with the horror, and when fiction features problematic tropes such as “bury your gays.” Charles is kind and honest, and honesty pays off.

Charles will be attending WorldCon 2019 in Dublin, and he usually goes to WisCon as well in May. I hope readers attending either convention will take the time to look him up. Be sure to support him on Patreon as well, if you can!

Being an A03 Member

For those wondering, Archive Of Our Own serves as a fan space that resists purges from litigious authors that can’t appreciate their fandom. (Come at me, Anne Rice.) The website has a team of lawyers on hand, programmers on staff to assist with technical difficulties, and reassurance that they won’t delete fanfic that displeases readers who want “purity culture” and nevertheless seek out the stories above the PG-13 reading.

For the record, writing fanfic is legal. You cannot sell or mass-distribute it, however, unless the work is in the public domain, has a creative commons license, or has given you permission to write the intellectual property (IP). So you can sell your Sherlock Holmes fic as long as it doesn’t feature modern incarnations of Sherlock, as an example, but do not sell any Harry Potter fan fiction. We all remember DickSoapGate, where the fanfic being sold with the other contents in the fan merchandise box was the least of our problem with that controversy.

A03 is a fandom space, that is centered around protecting an art form that mainly cis woman write. I cannot speak for trans women, but A03 also focuses on creating an LGBTQ+ friendly space. One of my nonbinary friends posts there regularly, with confidence.

One benefit of A03 is the sense of freedom. You can find the material you like, in any fandom and crossover. Fanfiction.net is good for when you’re starting out and testing the waters for feedback. The risk is that fanfiction.net can do purges on “adult” content; A03 never will, as they detail on the site.

I joined A03 relatively recently. Most of my fan fiction was posted to ff.net when I was a teen, and I went on hiatus. High school does that to a person. No, I’m not going to tell you what my username was. I was an amateurish, embarrassing writer. Mainly I go on now to support my fanfic writer fans. Learning to upload on A03 is a relatively small learning curve, all things considered.

Plus, thanks to this nomination, I can put it in my Twitter Bio that I’m part of a Hugo-nominated community! How is that for cool cred?