What place do books have in our current climate? Where do we have space for them at this moment wherein life’s poignancy has changed every day, overnight, while we weren’t watching? Some would say the pandemic certainly cleared some room in our schedules. Others now have less time—having to work jobs from home while still making sure their families are fed and their children have gone to bed having learned something new that day.
And when life goes back to its normal pace, assuming it will, praying that it will, where do books fit into that new life? Will we be picking up where we left off, or will we be returning to new structures, new lifestyles, new ways of assuming a work and life balance?
A 2018 article from Forbes stated that studies have shown Americans work longer hours and have more stress-related illnesses than their European and Japanese counterparts, more than any country in the entire “developed world”. That’s a great place to start this conversation—a time when there wasn’t enough time, when we raced from one thing to the next, putting out fires and solving problems during our downtime, which wasn’t really downtime; it was just the time that passed in between our engagements, power-walking or driving from one appointment to the next, our faces buried in our phones, our earpieces constantly being improved. Everything was made with the intention of never shutting ourselves down.
Actually, scratch that, everything still is. Before Zoom, we had Skype and Facetime. Before Tik Tok, we had Facebook stories and Insta stories. We have apps to track our daily steps, our daily caloric intake, how much REM sleep we get per night. Our phones are programmed to report the ups and downs of our weekly usage.
Where do books fit into that world?
For 2018 me, who at the time was a celebrity-publicist juggling dozens of clients at a time, books were my wind-down. They were my gradient to a lowered heart rate, a detachment from the stress of my day, a time to reattach myself to the world outside of work and media. They were a door to lives lived by other people, historically significant moments; genders, races, circumstances that I would never come close to fully understanding or experiencing; stories and lives which I could experience for a few days through a book. And yes, sometimes they were just a light, fun read—but who doesn’t need that too?
At the end of each year, I would post to social media a list of My Top 18 Books of the Year. This always received incredibly positive feedback—everything from, “Thanks for my new reading list,” to “God, how do you have the time?” When it comes to books, there are a few consistent statements I have heard time and again:
- “I don’t have time to read books.”
- “Gosh, it takes me all year to finish a book.”
- “I read so much during the day that when I come home, the last thing I want is to read more.”
Let’s just address the great big fallacy in the room: everyone has time to read, and everyone has the capability of reading an entire book, even if it takes all year—although, if you are reading the right book, something that you like, that actually holds your attention—you will never let it take a year. You will find the time to read it.
Reading, just like most tasks or pursuits, is essentially a muscle. A muscle that gets stronger and easier as you use it. For a lot of people, the last time they read books on a regular basis was probably high school or maybe college. I was the kid in high school who coasted by with a solid B+/A- average just by listening to the teacher, reading CliffsNotes, and regurgitating it all into an essay that had basically been written for me. I didn’t go home to read after school; and on a few occasions, my wonderful mother actually took the time to read books with me, alternating reading chapters out loud so that I would make it through the homework. I was a teenager, and I had other interests.
But had I been encouraged to read outside of our curriculum—books that I had chosen for myself, that I could connect to personally—those interests may have included books.
In college I chose a minor in English. I took classes on British Literature, Hemingway, and authors of the Harlem Renaissance. All classes I had curated for myself. So while I may not have gotten to choose the exact books we were reading, they all fit into the world of my interests in some capacity. To this day, Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and William Trevor’s The Story of Lucy Gault remain two of my favorite novels. Both are books that kept my attention, but more importantly, impassioned me. They made me want to learn more about the time periods in which they took place, the people they referenced, and more about what was happening in the world that created their circumstances. In short, they lit a spark.
I believe everyone has the capability of reading books, because I believe everyone has the capability of connecting with a story. Everyone has a moment when their brain says, “I want to know more about that”. And nearly without fail, there will be a book, either fiction or non-fiction, that can hand you that knowledge on a silver platter. The right book will bring you to that moment—that spark.
A quick anecdote that I think properly illustrates a “literary journey” for me: towards the end of last year, I was feeling mentally fatigued given that my job entails reading almost all the time. I wanted to read something light, a “beach book,” if you will. Catherine Steadman’s Mr. Nobody not only fit that description but it, in fact, had a beach on its cover! The book was a whodunit mystery novel and I plowed through it, allowing my reading muscle to coast for a few days while still enjoying the ride.
There, among the pages, was an obscure reference to a woman named Marni Nixon. This struck me as odd, that a book I considered fluff would reference a name I didn’t recognize. I asked a number of friends if they had heard of this woman; maybe I had just missed something. Across the board, nobody had. So I did a little digging and looked her up on Wikipedia, as one does. A slight mention of a woman, which I could have just as well glossed over on my way to Catherine Steadman’s next mystery clue, led me down a rabbit hole of learning about the long-lived Hollywood culture of vocal dubbing. As well as, more importantly, the life story of a woman who should be a household name—having served as a vocal double for everyone from Deborah Kerr in The King and I, Natalie Wood in West Side Story, Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, and reportedly Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
I ended up buying on Amazon (bad, I know) one of the last copies of her autobiography, I Could Have Sung All Night, which was last published in the early ’80s; and further learned that not only had this incredibly talented woman done everything she was credited for—rare indeed—but she had never received credit for her performances in any of her film credits or soundtracks. She had barely even made royalties for singing roles that in some cases garnered these actresses an Oscar.
This is the beauty of books. It is very hard to definitively carve out a list of what you are looking for in a book, sort of like trying to answer someone when they ask you what your type is. There is so much gray area in the nuances of what makes us connect to something. But the more you read, the more you explore things that you think might fit into your “type”. And the more you follow the common thread that you will find in reading your books—favorite authors, genres, topics, and so on—the more likely you are to develop a habit of reading and continue to do so because it’s something that becomes YOURS.
Here’s to a hopeful new year, full of stories, spark, and connection.
Jeffrey Chassen is the VP of Development and Production at ILL Kippers Production @bicoastalbookclub