Some books become an experience. You pick them up expecting a few hours commitment, and then suddenly what’s contained in those pages has left you with a long list of more books to read–or places to travel, or recipes to try, or any number of tangentially-related projects.
I once somehow ended up in a reading binge all about graffiti–the history, the culture, the art. It was fascinating! But what was a month-long interest of mine ended up encouraging a life-long passion for my partner at the time. They picked up one of the books I had checked out at the library, Yarn Bombing, and ended up discovering an enduring love for crochet. Who knew that picking up that book on a whim could change how they spent their spare time for years to come?
Here are some of the books that sent us down the rabbit hole!
When I read Inseparable: Desire Between Women In Literature by Emma Donoghue, it blew my baby queer mind. I’d long been a fan of sapphic literature, but I had no idea how many queer books had been written more than a century ago that I’d never heard of! I finished the book with it stuffed full of notebook pages of hastily-scribbled quotes, titles, and authors. It took me weeks just to type everything up, never mind start digging into the long list of reading material! It also helped inspire my Lesbian Literature 101 series that I’m working on now–a project that’s still going many years after reading Inseparable.
I had been working on my own book for awhile—had even had an agent shop it around and then had put it aside, giving it up for dead—when I read Emily Nagoski’s Come As You Are. My own book was about how I had become a sex writer as a means of shock therapy, to fix the things I felt were broken inside of me. When I read Nagoski’s research-grounded book—about female sexual arousal and desire—I realized I had never been broken. The entire angle of my book shifted. In fact, the entire angle of my writing career shifted. I began learning more about the pharmaceutical industry. I began learning more about the FDA approval process and the process behind the creation of medical diagnoses. I began learning more about the overall medicalization of female sexuality. And I began writing about it. Today, it’s sort of my thing. And I still recommend Nagoski’s book all over the damn place. Anyone who worries that they’re not normal (in bed) should pick up a copy now.
I’ve always loved books about extremist religions (specifically cults) and the people who have struggled to escape. But it had been awhile since I had picked one up. Until I came across Leah Remini’s Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology. For the next six months, I took a deep dive into the well that is L. Ron Hubbard, David Miscavige, Suppressive Persons (SPs), and e-meters. At one point, my husband expected to come home to me reading Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health in front of an altar to LRH. And it didn’t end with books. I consumed anything and everything I could about The “Church” of Scientology- podcasts, videos, the HBO Going Clear documentary. It was an obsession. Then it moved on to become more inclusive–all extremist religions. I found myself devouring books about FLDS and Jonestown. It’s been awhile now and I can’t say I’ve crawled entirely out of the rabbit hole. And I’m sure the return of Remini’s A&E show “Scientology and the Aftermath” will not curtail my love of reading on this topic any time soon. No regrets!
I’ve tried a couple of audiobooks and liked them so much that I ended up checking Audible’s Daily Deal religiously. Finding non-fiction easier to listen than fiction, I stumbled upon Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick and from then on I jumped at any chance of putting my hands on a biography. It doesn’t even have to be about people I like; knowing about other people’s lives has made me realise I sometimes have a completely different idea about a celebrity, so I got a lot of good surprises–and good books, in the meantime.
Listening to Born A Crime by Trevor Noah had me watching stand-up comedy much more often, which ended up with me coming up with, and writing down, my own stand up routines, which no one will ever get to read or hear, but it is still fun to do.
Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen, has created another fan of The Boss, and I own now a set of vinyls, CDs and DVDs that I would probably never have by now, hadn’t I read the biography.
I read Escape from Camp 14 back in 2013, and that led to a slight obsession with North Korea. I previously new very little about the country, and that book led me to a new fascination. I’ve since read a lot more books about North Korea, both fiction and non-fiction, and I’m always on the lookout for more. I actually wrote a North Korea reading list last year, but of course there have been more books since then. I feel like this was a useful rabbit hole to have fallen down, since North Korea seems to be in the news almost every second day now.
I love falling down rabbit holes, so it’s a good thing it happens to me often. Two that came to mind–which aren’t related but I couldn’t pick just one–happened after I read Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson and Florynce “Flo” Kennedy: The Life of a Black Feminist Radical by Sherie M. Randolph. Samuelsson’s memoir was a great read as he tells the story of being a child from Ethiopia who was adopted and raised in Sweden and how his grandmother’s kitchen created the love of cooking that led to his career. The memoir actually sent me down a path of searching for his reality show appearance to looking for some of his recipes to try. I ended up with his cookbook Marcus Off Duty and I made (and ate most importantly) Swedish meatballs for the first time. And ohmygod they were amazing! My kitchen looked like it had lost a war afterwards but totally worth how delicious that meal was. Also thanks to Samuelsson I finally learned to pickle and have continued pickling all the things! Flo Kennedy’s biography was fascinating in all the things she was able to accomplish in her life and how interesting it was–both of which sent me constantly researching for more information including into Billie Holiday (Flo was her lawyer) to Valerie Solanas (the woman who shot Andy Warhol) AND Flo was a lawyer, and very influential, in the case that preceded Roe vs Wade. I literally spent as much time falling down rabbit holes as I did reading this biography–also cursing the education system that I hadn’t learned most of this.
I have a morbid, unhealthy fascination with the bubonic plague. Yeah, I know. So when I read The Great Mortality by John Kelly, I made my way through a hefty portion of the books he referenced. Then I went back through A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman. All the medieval things, folks. And then I lost about two months reading everything I could get my hands on about the plague and other diseases. I ended up plowing through When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi and Pandemic by Sonia Shah and Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Yeah. I can’t help it. Fascinating.
— Kristen McQuinn
When I was in college, during a women’s history course, I read a book by author Josephine Johnson. Almost unknown–the Feminist Press rereleased her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Now in November in 1991, but the rest of her books are out of print–she was immensely talented and dealt quite openly with issues of mental illness in her works, as well as environmental concerns. I became quite obsessed with her, with Johnson herself, and began to research and dive into as many corners of her life as I could (from what mental illness meant in popular culture and understanding during her early life to the poems she published when she was eight years old). I still have some of the oddest sources I’ve ever pursued, and I hope to continue studying her (and her possible Communist leanings?! Probably socialist, though) now that I’m in grad school.
As a writer and a reader, I’ve always understood that many people’s experiences of the world differ vastly from my own, but no book has caused such a seismic shift in the way I see the world quite like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. Coates’s book length letter to his son illuminates what it’s like to live as a black man in present-day America. After I read it, I knew I was just getting started: to be the best reader, writer, teacher–to be the best human I could be–I knew I had to educate myself on the injustices of race and privilege. I read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi, Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, The Sellout by Paul Beatty, and the list goes on…I’m currently reading Native Son by Richard Wright. I feel like I’m just scraping the surface on this self-education list, and I’m more than okay with that. Each one of these books has brought something new to the table. They’re interesting, well-written, and most of all: they matter.
I was the kind of kid that couldn’t get enough historical fiction. Really and truly, I plowed through anything set in the 19th century or earlier. A school librarian got me to pick up Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and it blew my mind. It sent me on a binge of Taylor’s books, of course, but also anything about the American south in the period just before the modern Civil Rights movement. I’ve written elsewhere on Book Riot about how that book opened my eyes to structural racism— more than that, though, it just got me thinking outside of the narrow, white, suburban world where I grew up.
Let us know in the comments if you’ve read anything that’s inspired a project or sent you down a rabbit hole in some way!
(Interestingly, I think Alice In Wonderland did send me down a rabbit hole–I read the annotated version as a kid and it inspired an enduring love for annotated editions. Huh.)