Reading Out Loud: How I Got Into Audiobooks

It started with a long car trip, a short attention span, and this book:

Me Talk Pretty One Day

This was the beginning of my conversion, from audiobook skeptic to…well, someone who still doesn’t listen to audiobooks very often, but who can finally appreciate them in the right context.

I’ll be honest: I’m not a great listener, and the idea of reading a book solely by listening to it terrifies me. What if I miss a lot? It may be easy to do a 30-second rewind, but what if I need to revisit something that happened a few chapters ago? There are limitations to the audiobook that don’t exist on the printed page. For someone who has been reading physical books (and now e-books) for decades, it’s not so easy to go back in time and adapt to a more passive reading experience. I need to see the words, to interact with them on the page. With audiobooks, there is nothing to hold on to: readers must give themselves over to the experience, sacrificing control for the very different pleasure of having a story presented theatrically to them.

I like this idea in theory. It makes one think of families gathered around an old-timey radio (except, of course, in this case the large piece of furniture has been replaced by an electronic device that fits in the palm of a baby’s hand.) What could be more delightful than this act of togetherness? In actuality, though, many audiobooks are not that fun to listen to. They can be presented dully—or, worse yet, in improbable voices—by people who did not write the book, but were simply hired to read it.

Which brings me back to Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris. What I immediately liked about this audiobook was that it was read by the author. David Sedaris was telling his story to me, as if we were friends…or, at least, as if I had kidnapped him and forced him to entertain me for the duration of a long car ride (after which he was free to go). This actually heightened the reading experience for me, making it less about me interacting with the words themselves and more about the author speaking directly to me.

BossypantsI’ve discovered that this is type of audiobook I can appreciate. When another long car trip introduced me to Bossypants by Tina Fey, I was ready. Tina Fey is a talented performer, and she delivers her jokes better than any hired voice actor could. After all, it’s her story: there’s not going to be a better person to do her Lorne Michaels impression. Again, I felt that the reading experience was actually improved by listening to the author’s own voice. But it had me wondering, could I only respond favorably to authors telling me their life stories? What about fiction?

Beauty QueensLately, I’ve been listening to Beauty Queens, a YA book written and read by Libba Bray. My long car trips are behind me; now, I listen to the book while I knit. I think the two activities complement each other well, and it’s a habit I would like to keep up with in the future. My only worry is that I will never find another book as thrillingly well done as this one. For starters, Libba Bray may have the most charming multiple personality disorder ever. She juggles over a dozen characters, complete with different accents and linguistic quirks, flawlessly, and her energy level is always set to 11. The book is a satire about teenage beauty queens who get marooned on an island and must learn to survive, and it is just as hilarious as it sounds. I am finding that listening to an audiobook can actually be exhilarating…and I’m even pitying the people who only got a chance to read this in print. In short, it’s a far cry from my audiobook-hating days, when I assumed the only way I would listen to an audiobook was if I had just had laser eye surgery.

Of course, my first love will always be the printed word. It’s comfortable. It’s reliable. It won’t sway my taste too much in either direction, like a well-executed or terribly-executed audiobook might. Still, it can’t boast the engaging performance aspect of the audiobook—or, at least, not until I get better at funny voices. It’s always limited by my limitations—of imagination, of pronunciation, and, of course, of performing a Lorne Michaels impression. Sometimes the audiobook is just better. But the trick is finding the right one.


Top Ten Tuesday: Books That Are Even Better the Second Time

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish. Each week, the site posts a new Top Ten list topic that everyone is welcome to answer.

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday is blogger’s choice, so I thought I’d talk about some of my favorite books to reread. In general, I’m not big on rereading—with so many new books I want to read, it’s just not practical. I do, however, think the practice is important, both to maintain a familiarity with the books I’ve read and loved, as well as to see how my interpretation of those novels changes over time. I’ve broken this list into four categories as a sort of experiment. Mostly, I wanted to convey a few of my own reasons for rereading.

Books You Read in High School:


Remember all those classics you were forced to read in high school? Chances are, you weren’t in the right mindset to appreciate them then, either because you had no familiarity with the style or because you hated being told what to do. Maybe you’re still under the impression that you don’t like some of them. Maybe you’ve even told people you hate some of these books, based on an impression you formed when you were 15. Well…I ask you to reevaluate some other decisions you made at 15; do they all hold up? I think we owe it to ourselves to reread in adulthood some of the books we dismissed as teenagers. I have been pleasantly surprised, time and again, by some books I initially found boring, annoying, or just plain impossible. Here are some of my favorite books, which many teenagers don’t enjoy the first time around.

1. The Catcher in the Rye—J.D. Salinger

Yes, Holden Caulfield is whiny. Yes, his slang is dated, and if I never hear the word “phony” again it will be too soon. BUT, in spite of all this, he is actually a very engaging narrator, and he is dealing with some pretty serious issues. Maybe today’s teenagers think they can’t relate to Holden, but here’s a little secret: they totally can. When I reread The Catcher in the Rye as an adult, I couldn’t believe how much of my teenage self I found in him. I just wasn’t willing to admit it back then.

2. The Scarlet Letter—Nathaniel Hawthorne

No one understands The Scarlet Letter in high school, so I’m not even sure why we assign it. Nathaniel Hawthorne has a somewhat inscrutable literary style even for adults; forcing that on kids who have just graduated from reading books written specifically for their age group seems unfair. Add to that the 17th century time period and the subject matter, and it’s no wonder there aren’t a lot of high schoolers passing this book around their group of friends. They absolutely cannot relate to it, and they are probably not prepared to make the necessary connections to find out why it is still important. I’ve reread this book many times as an adult and even wrote my English Master’s thesis on it, so it’s safe to assume I’m a big fan. But did I even like this book in high school? No, I absolutely did not.

3. The Great Gatsby—F. Scott Fitzgerald

In 10th grade AP prep English classes in my high school, this book was notorious. Some students liked it, but it also had a reputation for being difficult, boring, and, weirdly enough, too long. It’s safe to say that no one quite got Fitzgerald’s writing style, and the themes of the book were a little beyond many of us. Those who liked it at the time were in it more for the parties, the glamor, and the sense of sophistication it imparted than for its actual literary merit. And even that was better than dismissing it outright. Although I remembering liking The Great Gatsby, there’s no way I absorbed very much of it the first time around. It has only been on repeated readings that I’ve truly been able to appreciate the exquisite writing and surprising simplicity of the plot. It’s also a lot shorter than I remembered, now that I’m more well-read. Rereading is a breeze: I can get through it in an afternoon.

4. Great Expectations—Charles Dickens

When it comes to reading for class, word count is a big issue, even for those kids who are willing to give the assigned reading a chance. Give students a short book, and it’s likely that at least some will read it, but assign a book that will require many pages of reading a night, and suddenly there’s no guarantee. When I was asked to read Great Expectations for my 9th grade English class, I gave it a try. I even thought the beginning was pretty good. But, ugh, if it wasn’t just so long, and the language so old and hard to understand. I quickly gave up, and faked my way through. It was only years later than I realized how great this book is from beginning to end. I wish my teacher hadn’t trusted that our class would be able to appreciate this text; on the whole, we couldn’t.

Favorites to Reread in Adulthood:


It’s difficult to consider a book a favorite when you are changing, perhaps imperceptibly, all the time. Many of my favorite books, however, are the ones I first read when I was in my teens, a time when I did nothing but change. Luckily, when I reread some of these books in adulthood, I realized I still loved them just as much as I had before, though perhaps in a different way. I’m glad I’ve been able to look at them through new eyes, and even happier that I haven’t found a reason to strip them of their title.

5. Jane Eyre—Charlotte Brontë

The first time I read Jane Eyre, I loved it; it immediately became my favorite book. I enjoyed the mystery, the atmosphere, and, most of all, Jane, who became my favorite literary heroine; in short, I was crazy about pretty much everything. I am, however, of the firm belief that a book cannot truly be a favorite until it has been read at least twice, so I was eager to reread it and thus solidify its status. I have since read Jane Eyre a few times, and each time I remember why I’m so passionate about it; I also find new things to love. It is a book that, thankfully, has not become less charming the older I get, but remains as appealing to me as it was the first time I read it.

6. I Capture the Castle—Dodie Smith

When I read I Capture the Castle for the first time, I knew it was something special. I loved the story, of course, but what really appealed to me was the narrator, Cassandra, who—perhaps because we were about the same age—felt so relatable to me. As I rushed through it, I became convinced that I would soon list it among my favorite books. And then…I came to the end. Although I still loved the book, when I would recommend it to friends my one caveat would be that the ending was a bit of a letdown. It was a perfect book until. A few years later, I bought the book and reread it, bracing myself for the inevitable disappointment. A strange thing happened: I wasn’t disappointed. In rereading it, I was finally able to appreciate the story exactly as Dodie Smith wrote it; better yet, when I recommend it now, I no longer have to temper my recommendation with a criticism.

7. The Bell Jar—Sylvia Plath

I loved The Bell Jar when I first read it at 16, but, in retrospect, it’s probably exactly the kind of book one would love at that age. I wasn’t sure if, once I read it when I was older than the protagonist, Esther, I would still be able to appreciate her viewpoint. I’ve read the book three or four times now, at different stages of my life, and I’ve enjoyed it each time. Esther is still as witty and insightful as I found her nearly a decade ago, and her struggles still feel real and vital to me. Maybe there are some things better left to our teenage selves, but this is not one of them.

Mysteries That Only Get More Intriguing:


Of all literary genres, the mystery is perhaps the one least likely to be reread, by virtue of the fact that its appeal lies in suspense and the incremental uncovering of its solution. Once a mystery has been solved, it may seem redundant to revisit the book; after all, it has already given up all its secrets. Still, there are some mysteries—truly great mysteries—that can continue to surprise and delight even after the final page has been turned. I have found that some mysteries even manage to get better the further they are examined, proof of a truly skilled writer.

8. Special Topics in Calamity Physics—Marisha Pessl

Why do I love Special Topics in Calamity Physics? Well, actually, it’s no mystery: I admire its flamboyance, its exuberance, and its impossibly cool world. Above all, though, I love its protagonist, Blue van Meer, who makes being smart look really awesome. Although the mystery in this novel is pretty enticing, it’s nothing without the vivid, quirky, and endlessly fascinating characters who flesh out the story. This book is so intricate, so labyrinthine, that no two readings could possibly be the same. There’s always something new to discover, to obsess over, to revel in.

9. The Big Sleep—Raymond Chandler

Philip Marlowe is the coolest of the classic hardboiled detectives, and I could hang out with him anytime. For me, The Big Sleep isn’t about solving any crime (probably a good thing, since even its author admitted that he failed to resolve one of the book’s key murders), but about Marlowe’s struggle to be a moral person in a world full of corruption. He’s got a delightfully wry sense of humor, but also a conscience, which means that justice matters. I like having the opportunity to see the world through his eyes, and that is true no matter how many times I read this book.

Books You Need to Reread to Understand:

Some books were not written for one reading; their puzzle pieces will only fit together once the totality of the novel has been revealed. These novels are usually willfully cryptic and misleading, but often for a good reason. These are stories you must work for, that you must study the text to unlock. While they will never be very popular with the reading masses, they make an important statement about the intricacies and possibilities of literature.

10. The Sound and the Fury—William Faulkner

When I first read The Sound and the Fury, without having any previous experience with William Faulkner, I had to drink just to get through certain passages. The novel is divided into four sections, and the first section is narrated by a 33-year-old man with the mind of a child. It is, seemingly, nonsense. His past and his present intermingle, and he doesn’t understand much of what’s going on in the world around him. As a result, neither does the reader. The novel gradually becomes more understandable, but many events are only hinted at, or are not revealed in whole by any one narrator. It’s impossible to put together the plot—let alone what’s going on behind the scenes—in one reading alone because the reader’s understanding is so constantly shifting. While the novel is a struggle the first time, it starts to make sense the second time around, which is a gratifying feeling. Still, that’s not to say the book gets easier—it just gets less infuriating.

Top Ten Tuesday: Books to Get In the Halloween Spirit

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish. Each week, the site posts a new Top Ten list topic that everyone is welcome to answer.

Although I don’t usually (read: never) participate in blog memes, I thought this topic seemed like a lot of fun. I really like the idea of Top Ten Tuesday, and I’m excited to check out the suggestions that others have generated for this week’s list. Maybe this will be a new thing for me! (Please do not check the status of past “new things for me,” including knitting, exercising, and cooking vegetables.) Regardless, please enjoy my painstakingly-crafted list, which I hope is sufficiently scary, atmospheric, and/or just plain weird. Keep in mind that I’m not exactly a horror connoisseur—the only Stephen King book I’ve read is the one he wrote about writing!

10. Chime — Franny Billingsley

Do you like witches, bog creatures, dead people and self-hating narrators? Striking, florid prose and magical scenarios? What about dreamy landscapes just on the edge of the Industrial Revolution? Chime is one of the most original YA books I have recently read, precisely because it combines all of those elements so weirdly and so wonderfully. It tells the story of a guilt-ridden young girl unable to come to terms with her magical powers, and the evil influences in her life who have poisoned her against her gifts. It’s a strange story, an acquired taste, but one that is wholly enchanting and memorable.

9. Black Hole — Charles Burns

Looking for a graphic novel that will haunt your dreams? Look no further than Black Hole, a visually-stunning (and nightmare-inducing) story about a sexually transmitted disease that turns its victims into literal monsters. The artwork for this comic is amazing, evoking the classic horror movies you like to watch every Halloween, but the story itself is quite dark and bizarre. Characters develop lesions, boils, and even tails, becoming horrifying mutants who must live as outcasts. The whole comic is disturbing, to say the least, but it makes for an unforgettable experience.

8. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children — Ransom Riggs

Old photographs can be spooky in general, but the pictures included in this YA book take that creepiness to a whole new level. Combining found photographs of magical children who hover, harness balls of energy, or simply aren’t there at all, with a story about a modern day teenager who travels back to the 1940s to meet these strange beings, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children offers a reading experience unlike any other. It is eerie, mysterious, and a lot of fun—just the right mix of light-hearted and terrifying to get in the Halloween spirit.

7. Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife — Mary Roach

It’s easy to get lost in a good horror story, but there’s no reason why Halloween has to be all about fiction. In Spook, science writer (and skeptic) Mary Roach takes a look at the afterlife, from ghostly apparitions and séances to reincarnation and soul-weighing, to find out whether claims of such occurrences could be for real. Along the way, she enrolls in medium school, travels to India to interview the family of a supposedly reincarnated child, and voluntarily subjects herself to electromagnetic fields in an attempt to see whether they can cause her to perceive (or hallucinate) ghosts. The book is great fun, and an amazing journey, but it also has a lot of interesting insights into our belief—or our desire to believe—in the supernatural.

6. A Monster’s Notes — Laurie Sheck 

There are a lot of Frankenstein stories out there, and relatively few of them have anything that touches upon the brilliance of the original. If you’ve read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, however, and are looking for a new take on the story, consider A Monster’s Notes by Laurie Sheck. Let me be upfront: this is certainly the most avant-garde book on the list. It has variously been described as being “bold,” “baroque,” and “oddly compelling.” (Yeah, oddly.) Nonetheless, it is one of the most moving and original works of contemporary literature I have recently read, and it is completely worth exploring if you are an adventurous reader. While you may not necessarily get scared, you will be enchanted; this is a poetic book that works a magic all its own.

5. The Historian — Elizabeth Kostova

I’m just assuming you’ve already read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but if you haven’t, start there first. Done yet?  Then you’re ready for this academic Dracula story, which makes research a thrill (and will have you thinking twice about digging too deep into the life of Vlad the Impaler). The Historian has all the elements of a good, creepy mystery: strange clues hidden in ancient books, secret tombs and old churches, and even an evil librarian! It’s the kind of book that will make you believe that Dracula is real, and still alive in the present day. Just try going to sleep with that worry weighing on you.

4. Northanger Abbey — Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey is technically a gothic novel parody, I guess, but that doesn’t mean it’s lacking in atmosphere. In satirizing popular books like Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, Austen conjures up a pretty good haunted house story, even if you know all the spookiness will have a reasonable explanation. It’s a good choice for anyone who eschews horror, prefers the lighthearted side of Halloween, or has just joined a Jane Austen book club. If you’re really adventurous, try reading it alongside the Radcliffe book.

3. Jane Eyre — Charlotte Brontë

I would argue that Jane Eyre is the perfect book to read at any time of the year, but it does seem to be a particularly good choice for Halloween, thanks to its gothic DNA. Thornfield Hall might as well be a haunted house, for all its things that go bump in the night. Many of the situations are quite harrowing, and, of course, the atmosphere is sufficiently spooky. If you haven’t read it yet, it’s about time. And, actually, I think it might be time for me to revisit it.

2. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell — Susanna Clarke

Okay, so there are shorter books to get you ready for Halloween. But this is one of my favorites, precisely because it is so sprawling, so imaginative, and, to put it simply, so magical. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is the story of two feuding magicians, but it also brings together a number of equally enchanting characters and subplots. Villains like the gentleman with thistle-down hair are as memorable as the main protagonists themselves, and the numerous footnotes may just contain some of the best fairy tales I have ever read. Worth the time, if you have it; worth making time for, if you don’t.

1. The Monk — Matthew Gregory Lewis

I’m guessing that if you’re not specifically into late eighteenth century literature, the gothic novel, or really, really weird literary curios, then you’ve never read this book. Probably you’ve never even heard of it. Well, The Monk defies any sort of tidy summarization, but suffice it to say that it takes every gothic trope popular in its day and magnifies it by a thousand. It features family secrets, a lusty monk, and, oh yeah, SATAN, who just shows up because…why not? It’s a wild ride, and one you won’t soon forget. Basically, this book is the Halloween spirit, and if you haven’t read it yet, you must.

If You Like That, Try This: YA Edition

1. If you like Thirteen Reasons Why, try Every Day.

Both books are all about taking a walk in someone else’s shoes: in Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher, the main character achieves this by listening to the confessional recordings of a classmate who has recently committed suicide; in Every Day, by David Levithan, the protagonist does this literally, by inhabiting different people’s bodiesIf you appreciated the way Thirteen Reasons Why made you think about the inner lives of those around you, you’ll enjoy the way Every Day places you inside a new person in every chapter. Every Day is an insightful, funny, and very moving meditation on what it means to be human, regardless of sex, gender, appearance and the other external factors that too often determine how we are perceived. It’s a welcome reminder that we must keep our judgment in check, but also a quirky love story that tests our definition of love and our notions of what it means to be in a relationship.


2. If you like King Dork, try The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To.

If you like your YA books humorous, but with an actual compelling story as well, look no further than D.C. Pierson’s The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To. Like Frank Portman’s King Dork, this book is about a teenage boy who isn’t very popular in school, even though he is a very amusing narrator. This story, though, is not a mystery; by the end, it’s straight-up science fiction. The plot hinges upon a new friendship between the protagonist, Darren, and a likeminded outcast named Eric. Early on, however, Darren discovers that his new friend is not only a little different…he’s downright strange. As the title suggests, the boy cannot sleep and has never had to. What’s more, he’s being pursued by a mysterious man whose motives seem undeniably sinister. The action is gripping, but what really makes the story memorable is the hilarious narrative voice. The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To is a fast read, and fun, too; it’s a great choice both for those who consume YA books voraciously and those who are more reluctant readers.

3. If you like The Book Thief, try Between Shades of Gray.

By now, almost everyone has read Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, a novel that rightfully stands on its own as being both an inventive and heartrending portrayal of Germany during World War II. It’s difficult to recommend any follow-up to such a beloved book, but for sheer narrative brilliance and beautiful writing, Ruta Sepetys’s Between Shades of Gray fits the bill nicely. The novel is set in the same time period, but focuses on a different area of the world. It chronicles a Lithuanian family’s forced relocation to Siberia and their struggle to survive the unforgiving conditions. Though both books are tough reads, emotionally draining and without tidy, happy resolutions, they are ultimately very rewarding. They highlight not only the dark side of human nature but also its strength; though the characters suffer unspeakable cruelty, they never lose their ability to love and care for one another.

4. If you like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, 

try Marcelo in the Real World.

Although it is becoming more prevalent in literature, particularly in YA books, autism is a subject that is still largely underrepresented. It is rarely portrayed as accurately and as fully as it is in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon, a mystery novel, of sorts, which is narrated by a 15-year-old autistic boy. One book, however, that does an equally impressive job with immersing its readers in an autistic teenager’s world is Marcelo in the Real World, by Francisco X. Stork. One of the things that is so great about the narrators in both of these stories is how different they are: they showcase the wide range of personalities, abilities, and interests that exist on the autism spectrum. These are not caricatures or textbook examples but rather compelling human beings who happen to see the world in a way that is so uniquely their own. If you enjoyed the way The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time used autism as a lens through which to tell a story, but not as a gimmick, then you’ll like how Marcelo in the Real World is equally committed to being respectful but also realistic. Both books strive to show that their main characters have legitimate perspectives, in spite of the fact that these perceptions are not what many would consider normal.

5. If  you like What I Saw and How I Lied, try The Girl is Murder.

Mysteries and detective fiction are rare in young adult literature, most likely because they are usually more career-based, and thus do not apply to teenage characters. Hard-boiled noir, in particular, is a genre that gets very little representation: this is one reason why Judy Blundell’s What I Saw and How I Lied is such a rare treat. The post-WWII setting may not appeal to all modern teenagers, but it is the perfect backdrop for stylish treachery, femmes fatales, and old Hollywood glamour. But what if you’ve already finished this book? What’s left to read? The Girl Is Murder, by Kathryn Miller Haines, may help to fill the void. Set in 1941, it tells the story of 15-year-old Iris Anderson, who takes over for her private detective father when his war injuries prevent him from sleuthing the way he used to. The style in this novel is sharp, with the boys dressed in zoot suits and everyone using the hippest slang of the ’40s. So, if you’re looking to time-travel—and solve a mystery in the process, consider The Girl Is Murder. As Iris would say, it’s a gas!

On Recommendations and Top 5 Lists

Is it normal to watch “Phineas and Ferb” even when you’re at least 15 years older than its intended audience and not on any psychotropic drugs? I’m asking for a friend…who posed the question to me…in reference to me. But I think it’s something we all want to know. Is anyone’s taste completely “normal,” “acceptable,” and “genuinely not embarrassing at all”? Don’t we all have those little quirks, those differences in taste that, depending on how unshakeable our confidence is, make either us or our dissenters seem like the weird ones?

When it comes to talking about what I like—the movies, the TV shows, the defining songs of the summer—I don’t mind being an individual (or, okay, trailblazer if you must), but I tend to play it a little safe. It’s okay to say you enjoy something that has only a small cult following, or even something that is knowingly not very good, but it’s tough to stand up and admit that your addiction to ABC Family isn’t a passing fad, or an exception to any rule…that it defines who you are. I like to play off my stranger interests as if they are a lesser part of me, but the truth is that if I really were to give an honest recommendation or to compose an accurate top multiple-of-five list, I’d have to include a lot of stuff that doesn’t come with a “critically acclaimed” label. (Note to self: Start sewing “critically acclaimed” labels into all my pairs of underwear. Sounds hilarious and not lame at all.)

I don’t like being dishonest or misrepresenting myself, but it’s a delicate dance between forging a stronger connection with someone (I assume this is what engaging in a Ron Swanson quote-a-thon is called) and opening yourself up to ridicule (also known as admitting in public that you even know what “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” is). Usually I tend to freeze up, caught in that purgatory between what I perceive to be the expected answer and what I feel to be the truth. This is why, when it comes to recommending pretty much anything, I am completely terrified. Will this be the time that I am finally reprimanded for liking all the wrong things? (Or, worse yet, all the obvious things?)

I worry that I’m never equipped with the right tools for evaluation. Am I not sophisticated enough to notice how jejune that movie is? Am I too pretentious to realize that book has no substance? (And, on a side note, am I even pronouncing jejune correctly? Kind of French-y and with utter contempt?) Don’t get me wrong: I’m comfortable with the things I like when I’m by myself or surrounded by the people who revere me…but I tend to panic when I have to share an actual opinion with people who haven’t formed an actual opinion of me yet.

Say, for example, I work at a library. (I do, so this should be easy.) Say someone walks in and asks me to recommend a book to read this summer. (This never happens. No one cares.) I’m not one of those people who can confidently say, “Well, gosh, stranger, I just read the new James Patterson and it was pretty swell.” (Or, if the person walks in wearing a beret or playing a ukulele or something, “Hey there, how about the new Dave Eggers?”) I need more information on this individual before I can even consider sharing something about me. Does she look smart? Is she wearing glasses? I had better not mention that I sometimes like to read The Lying Game books. Does he look like he wandered in here on a dare from his fraternity brothers? I’m going to look like an ass if I spend any time extolling the virtues of that Nathaniel Hawthorne biography. (Is a bro-ography a thing? I would recommend that.) I’ve witnessed real people (not holograms—that’s something you need to check for these days) offer real opinions as if it were nothing. I have no idea how they do it.

Real, for me, tends to be a fluid concept. (See: seven of my past nine boyfriends.) Sometimes what I think is real is actually just what I am willing to reveal of myself in a given context. Conversely, sometimes such limitations are not based on how “Cathy”-cartoon neurotic I am, but rather how thoughtfully I want to respond to another person’s needs. (Okay, this is still neurotic, I guess. Ack!) I hate to recommend books that I liked when I’m not so sure that the person I am recommending them to will like them as well. It’s not always easy to see where tastes overlap and where they diverge; seemingly similar people may like some of the same things for very different reasons. Thus, if someone asks me for the best book I read recently, I can’t necessarily give the most honest answer. …Can I? Is that really what people want when they ask for a recommendation? Even if it would mean their slogging through, say, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which is either an amazing book or just a handy weapon depending on your taste?

Despite my skepticism, I actually read a lot of lists with “Top,” “Best of,” and “That Will Change Your Life” in the title. (I also read a lot of lists with “Bottom,” “Worst of,” and “That Are Killing You” in the title because I am kind of a pessimist.) Although I don’t always agree with these lists, I usually don’t feel betrayed or think less of the person who wrote them. That is, I can recognize and accept differences of opinion when it comes to someone else. I sometimes try to think of the lists I would create given the same criteria to fulfill. I’m never 100% honest. I wonder why I even assume honesty should be the goal.

When I reflect on it, I realize that nobody considers me an authority on anything, so I shouldn’t stress too much about how well I’m recommending things. I’m sure my own mother would take my report on the weather outside with a grain of salt, so I can’t really stress if my top five best YA books are a confusing muddle of what I really really like and what I think is most likely to endure.* And honesty—complete honesty—isn’t necessarily the best tool in an evaluation. (In some ways it’s lazy, ignoring so many other factors in order to privilege the half-formed opinions of a girl still wary of using the oven). I can still always hold back when I want to impress.

So that just leaves one final question, one conundrum to resolve: Seriously, is it okay that I’m watching “Phineas and Ferb” at 25 years old?

*My list includes Feed by M.T. Anderson; Going Bovine by Libba Bray; Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork; Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King; and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, if you were wondering.

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