Genre Kryptonite: Writers on Reading

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Dana Staves

Staff Writer

Going through life with an apron tied on and a pen in her hand, Dana Staves writes about books and food. She also writes a little fiction. She lives in Maryland with her wife, their son, and their cat.

I love reading books about people’s reading lives. It’s why I love sneaking peeks at the covers of the books people read on transit, in coffee shops, etc. It’s also one of the reasons that the Reading Lives podcast appeals to me so much. Even if I’m not previously familiar with the author being interviewed, I want to know about their reading lives: how they fell in love with reading, and why, and what authors were influential. And lucky for me, there is a niche subgenre of nonfiction that addresses just this thing:  writers on reading, books by writers discussing the influence of reading on their lives.


Ira Glass made a great video about the gap between taste and ability: we get into creative work, he says, because we have great taste. But because we have great taste, we can see that our own work is not so good. It needs time and practice, which is what Glass advocates. (As it happens, Megan Mayhew Bergman spoke about this on a Reading Lives podcast as well.)

The great thing about the writers on reading subgenre is that these are books written by people who have closed that gap. They’re great practitioners of their craft, and they’re also great readers.

So here are a few of my favorites from this subgenre, as well as a few of the books that are on my to-be-read list, by writers on reading.

How to Be a Heroine CoverHow to Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis

Samantha Ellis found herself debating the relative values of Cathy Earnshaw and Jane Eyre. In her opinion, Jane was the obvious choice, but her friend made a compelling argument. Had Ellis been siding with the wrong heroine all these years? And what implications did this have for the rest of her reading life, on the whole slew of other heroines she had looked up to? Borrowing stories from her own life, growing up in a tight-knit Iraqi-Jewish community in London, and blending them with the stories of her favorite literary heroines, Ellis compiles a nostalgic, clear-eyed, critical study of her allegiances, how they may have shifted, and what has become of her reading life.


reading lolitaReading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

This (by now) classic is at once a gripping memoir and an academic study. Nafisi walks us through her experiences reading and teaching classic works of literature, from Austen to Fitzgerald to Nabokov, all amid the backdrop of the Islamic revolution in Iran. Her experiences move from the public space – the classroom – to the private, leading a group of young women, former students, through discussions of these books inside her home. This book is challenging, occasionally uncomfortable, deeply felt and thoroughly researched.



Spinster-  A Life of One’s OwnSpinster: Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick

Bolick’s book, which will be released in April 2015 from Crown, is her study of spinsterhood – her own, and that of the general female public. What is a spinster? Where did this word come from? And how has her reading life – particularly the five most influential female authors to her – shaped her decisions regarding her romantic attachments, as well as her professional, familial, and literary life? This book opened me up to Edna St. Vincent Millay (for which I am grateful), and while spinsterhood is the topic on the table, what arises is more a consideration of the choices we make as women, how we build our lives, and with what level of hope, gentleness, and optimism we do so.

And on my to-be-read shelf?

My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead

A Jane Austen Education:  How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter by William Deresiewicz

The Republic of Imagination by Azar Nafisi


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