I Found My Way Back to Reading Joy and My Path Was Backlist

For years now, I’ve been reading only bang-up-to-date, of-the-moment books. I’ve been writing for Book Riot since 2015, and listening to the podcasts since long before that, and this community gets excited about new books. That excitement was, and is, infectious. 

Because I realised I didn’t know anything about what was happening in the world of books back home, I started the Brit Lit Blog in 2016 and then the Brit Lit Podcast in 2017. And I was, inevitably, drawn to the buzzy books: novels like Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman and The Lido by Libby Page (known in the UK as Mornings with Rosemary) were all over my Twitter feed. Both of those I read, and both were excellent and have become favourites. But those are the examples I remember, and here’s why: around that time, I also read, or bought and never read, lots of buzzy books that I haven’t thought about since.

When I first started seriously reading again, more than a decade ago, my book discovery was more organic. I was learning to write and reading books about the craft, and they would point me to books from recent years or long ago. I was walking around bookshops, seeing what took my fancy. I was obsessively reading books about Washington, D.C., where I dreamed of living one day, and those with themes related to the novel I was writing. 

It wasn’t that I wasn’t reading new books. It was just that they weren’t all I read. I read what I wanted to read, voraciously. I read books I’d never heard of and recommendations from friends and forums, no matter how offbeat or random and regardless of whether I’d heard about them on a podcast.

Then, in 2012, I moved to D.C. (yes, dreams do come true!) to study for an MFA, and over the next few years, my reading life started to shift a little. Our Visiting Writers series at American University focused on new books, like How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid and We the Animals by Justin Torres and All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu. I lived a bus ride away from Politics and Prose, one of Washington’s oldest and best established independent bookshops. I felt like I lived there in the summer of 2013, meeting Maggie Shipstead and Curtis Sittenfeld and Courtney Sullivan among many others. When I headed to Politics and Prose in February 2013 to hear Karin Tanabe talk about her fun new book The List, based on her time working for Politico, it was partly because I needed a break from Crime and Punishment.

In 2015, though, I graduated, and nobody was making me read anything anymore. By this time, because I wrote for Book Riot, publicists were sending me ARCs and even free finished copies of books. It was exhilarating to feel part of the cool literary scene. In 2017, I got to go to BookExpo, to hear editors talk about their lead titles, to snag so many ARCs that I had to ship some home because I couldn’t possibly carry them all. 

In 2019, a further dream came true: I got a job at East City Bookshop on Capitol Hill, and with it, even more access to ARCs and to news and chatter about brand new and upcoming books. At staff meetings, our fabulous book buyer would come armed with a pile of the big upcoming books. Any resolve I had to remember the books I already had, and the books I’d wanted to read for a long time, was left in the dust. 

But then, 2020 happened. I wasn’t in the shop, constantly looking at new books. I was having to hustle hard for work, and when I did have time to read, I found I couldn’t concentrate unless a book really grabbed me. It became impossible to focus on certain kinds of literary language, no matter how much a previous iteration of me would have loved it. And I had no patience, time, or emotional energy for books that didn’t immediately grab me – books that I felt like I should read, or books that I only wanted to want to read. 

Life felt joyless. I needed joy, and I found it in backlist books. In 2021, I officially gave myself permission to read whatever I wanted to. Because of how immersed I am in the book world, a lot of that is still new releases. Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau, for example, was an utter delight. But for the first time in years, I allowed myself a re-read: One Day, by David Nicholls, which thankfully was as wonderful as I’d remembered it. I read the only Taylor Jenkins Reid novel I hadn’t yet got to, for no other reason than it came out in 2017 and I didn’t read it then and so once it wasn’t 2017 anymore it hadn’t, in my buzz-obsessed book mind, felt as urgent. That book was The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, and my goodness, it was incredible. I read The Idea of You by Robinne Lee, and it blew me away; it felt like a book that was written just for me. I read He Will Be Mine by Kirsty Greenwood, another book I loved and that totally got me. Of my top ten reads of the first half of 2021, only three were published this year.

And so, as a result of reading what I actually want to read, and what, in some cases, I’ve been wanting to read for a long time, I feel like my reading life has exponentially improved. If you’re feeling like you’re in a reading slump, my advice would be: look at your shelves; peruse your TBR list from 2018. What grabs you? What calls out to you? Read that. Chances are, you’ll be glad you did.