Book Club

Reading + Permissions.

By: Jen Shoop
"You can change who you are at any time, and with nobody's permission."

I am a moody reader, or perhaps a “seasonal” one?, in the sense that sometimes I will slowly read one book over a few weeks, and other times, I will stay up late reading for nights on end, tearing through novels one after the other. I have thoughts on this. First: like any habit, reading requires some amount of discipline. You must will yourself to find the time, to displace other hobbies and interests, in order to accommodate it. This is often facilitated by finding times of day in which reading comfortably fits — just before bed, while walking the dog, while commuting. When I am not a period of readerly devotion, I am usually invested in other priorities — for example, the couple of weeks during which my husband and I watched a string of erotic 80s thrillers while this podcast explained them to us from a gender theory lens (absolutely fascinating and brilliant, once you get over the narrator’s vocal affectations), or when I am sleeping poorly and need to get myself to bed by 9. It has taken me a nontrivial amount of time and effort to make peace with my fairweatheredness as a reader. I carried guilt — actual, iron-weight guilt — over it because I love to read, pursued an advanced degree in literature, and feel in some ways that reading defines me. I felt particularly stricken by the period in my mid-20s in which I could not bring myself to read anything outside of my scholastic undertakings. I had grad school classmates who seemed to glide through the latest highbrow lit alongside the academic ballast of Yeats, and Derrida, and Woolf, and I would cringe when admitting “I was between books at the moment.” But grad school had temporarily sucked much of the joy out of reading for me. I found irritating apparatuses separating me from the page. Instead of letting the novel wash over me, my mind would roll up its sleeves and begin to pick the text apart, just as I would for class. Time has mercifully eroded these competencies. I am now capable of sitting in a kind of pleasant, empty stupor as a novel unfolds around me. I am perhaps strangely grateful for my own intellectual atrophy, because it has enabled me to rediscover lost joy. (Perhaps another sign that I was never “meant” for academia?)

But also, a moment to address the issue of my readerliness defining me. In my youth and teen years, I did almost nothing outside of academics. I was not an athlete, I was barely a pianist, and the only extracurriculars I enjoyed were writing classes and various creative writing competitions. I earned top marks and every highest achievement award for which I was eligible, and though I always loved to read, I learned that people expected me to be an avid reader, as though the only way to be “smart” was to be “readerly.” For this reason, I would strategically read “the classics” while tearing through The Baby Sitter’s Club and Nancy Drew under my covers at night. My instinct to perform my own readership persisted until my mid-20s, when, as mentioned above, I temporarily ran out of energy and interest. I don’t think I read a book “on my own,” outside of my role as a grad student, for a good two years. I think about this and I want to tell myself, gently: “Stop worrying so much about what other people think.” And also: “You can choose to change who you are at any time, and with nobody’s permission.” And also: “You are not a project. You are not designed for consumption. You are not beholden to someone’s expectations or opinions of you.”

Amen, amen!

Even now, far more comfortable in my own skin, a small shudder of joy moves through my body when I read those words.

You can change who you are at any time, and with nobody’s permission.

My Fall Reading List.

Several of these books were recommendations from Magpies, whom I polled via Instagram! I’m asterisking the four that got a high volume of votes.

+Yellowface*, R. F. Kuang. A top rec from Magpies — a lot of us are reading this. The premise: a white author steals a manuscript from her just-deceased Asian friend and becomes a bestselling sensation. Per the book jacket: “This novel grapples with questions of diversity, racism, and cultural appropriation, as well as the terrifying alienation of social media.”

+Bright Young Women*, Jessica Knoll. A dark hybrid of psychological suspense and true crime in which murder descends on a Florida sorority house. “Two women from opposite sides of the country are brought together by violent acts of the same man, and become allies and sisters in arms as they pursue the justice that would otherwise elude them.”

+A Writer’s Diary, Virginia Woolf. Leslie Stephens mentioned she was reading this set of Woolf’s personal journal entries, which include reflections on her writing and the books she was reading, and I was immediately intrigued.

+Hello, Beautiful*, Ann Napolitano. A boy with a dark, difficult childhood meets and falls in love with a family of four vibrant sisters — only to have his past trouble them all. Tones of Little Women in this one!

+Tom Lake*, Ann Patchett. I already read and adored this book; full review here. But including it in this list in case you’ve not yet read.

+Foster Dade Explores the Cosmos, Nash Jenkins. “A searing debut novel about a tragic scandal at an American prep school, told in the form of a literary investigation through a distinctly millennial lens.”

+Mother-Daughter Murder Night, Nina Simon. How amazing is this blurb: “A lighthearted whodunnit about a grandmother-mother-daughter trio of amateur sleuths. Think: Gilmore Girls, but with murder.” Sign me up! (I started rewatching Gilmore Girls from episode one a few weeks ago — it is so charming.)

+The Golden Couple, Greer Hendricks. My mom (fellow thriller lover) recommended this to me.
“Wealthy Washington suburbanites Marissa and Matthew Bishop seem to have it all—until Marissa is unfaithful. Beneath their veneer of perfection is a relationship riven by work and a lack of intimacy. She wants to repair things for the sake of their eight-year-old son and because she loves her husband. Enter Avery Chambers.”

+None of This Is True, Lisa Jewell. Currently enjoying on audiobook. “A scintillating psychological thriller about a woman who finds herself the subject of her own popular true crime podcast.”

+Lessons in Chemistry, Bonnie Garmus. I’m so late to the game on this one (I know many of you loved this, including my mother and sister!), but hoping to read it before the Apple TV adaptation goes live this month. “A gifted research chemist, absurdly self-assured and immune to social convention” in 1960s California whose career takes a detour when she becomes the unlikely star of a beloved TV cooking show.”

+The Idea of You, Robinne Lee. I occasionally dabble in the romance genre, and so many of my girlfriends have raved about this one in particular. It is steamy and explicit — you’ve been warned; this is a true “beach read after dark” (BRAD) to use Beach Reads and Bubbly’s term! — but tells the story of a 40 year old art gallerist who unexpectedly turns the head of a 20-year-old boy band pop star (clearly intended to be Harry Styles).

What else would you add? Any strong opinions on this list?

Shopping Break.

+Ordered myself this chocolate brown fleece. Can’t stop with all things chocolate! Also eyeing these faux leather leggings. (Upgrade pick: these from SPRWMN.)

+Have heard such good things about Anthro’s colette pants over the years. I think I’m going to order a pair in corduroy to test.

+Schutz just restocked / added new colors to its wildly popular Arissa flats (under $100!). I own these in two colors. They are supremely comfortable — some of the most comfortable right-out-of-the-box shoes I’ve ever owned!

+I do a lot of drafting by hand and I’m kind of dying to to buy one of these classic Kaweco fountain pens? So writerly, with cartridges and everything. When I studied abroad in France, I used fountain pens like this! The French have such beautiful paper/pen options, and entire boutiques dedicated to them. It was so fun.

+Speaking of desktop accoutrements: these notebooks remain my absolute favorite. I keep a whole stack next to me! The best, most inviting covers and great quality paper. You can get 15% off with code MAGPIEBYJENSHOOP.

+Love the patterns/colors of this Figue dress.

+Eyeing this blazer. LOVE the colors and fit, and price is better than some of the others I’ve been eyeing this season.

+Big splurge, but drooling over this wool plaid bustier

+Target has a cute preppy house brand out, and I love this Repp-tie-inspired throw blanket for fall outdoor hangs (thinking of pumpkin patches, marshmallow roasts, etc). These iron-on letter patches and striped reusable straws are also fun.

+This croc-effect phone sling is so chic! Love it in the brown.

+People rave about these goldtoe ribbed socks from Amazon.

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26 thoughts on “Reading + Permissions.

  1. I so love this musing on reading habits — I identify with much of how you wrote about yourself, and I got chills when I read the affirmation (because it’s truly an affirmation!) that “You can choose to change who you are at any time, and with nobody’s permission.” I MEAN! This is so good, and so liberating for me personally, as a recovering perfectionist who has had a Iifelong struggle with (sometimes unreasonably) high self-expectations. Thank you, SO MUCH, for framing this thought in that way! It’s a new mantra 🙂

    I also loved reading your fall reading list — Yellowface and Hello, Beautiful are both on mine, too. Although I generally tend to favor fiction over nonfiction, I have been in a nonfiction spell this past month! I’ve read Glossy, Marissa Meltzer’s juicy look into the founding and first decade of Glossier; My Pinup, Hilton Als’ mini book on Prince (I love both Als and Prince!); and Extremely Online by Taylor Lorenz, which was such a fun read that covers many of the major tech companies, personalities, and trends that have been born from the last 25 years of the internet. It’s really smart and definitely worth a read if you’re even a little bit curious about 21st century online culture. I had a 9-hour flight last weekend and pretty much the only thing I did was read this book cover to cover! Honestly, have to recommend it (both the book + the practice of devoting a long-haul flight to one book!)

    Next up for me is Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow (I was thrilled to snag the international paperback edition in Germany and I actually have your review from February flagged in my inbox so I can read it after I finish!!) This will probably be followed by Emi Nietfeld’s Acceptance (a memoir about fleeing a dysfunctional and sometimes houseless family to attend Harvard) and Speak, Okinawa by Elizabeth Miki Brina (a memoir in which Brina grapples with her identity and being the daughter of a Vietnam vet and an Okinawan woman). Oh, and I am in the middle of Hope by Andrew Ridker, which is a novel set in 2013 that centers on a family in Brookline, Massachusetts. I was pretty ‘meh’ at first but have gotten sucked in!


  2. Just finished “Hello, Beautiful” — I hated the first 60% – almost gave up! – and then absolutely adored the last 40%. And the ending, oh my god…the ending. I couldn’t put the book (kindle) down and had tears pouring down my face at 1am while my fiance slept soundly next to me – ha! Napolitano captures sisterhood and its intricacies – particularly for those of us with multiple sisters – so beautifully. Really interested to hear your take on this one, Jen. Please do share if you give it a read.

  3. I feel that same guilt over being known as a “reader” but being a fairweather reader in reality! I’m currently in my third and final year of law school and I’m only just coming back around to reading literature — all of my days are consumed with reading cases or law review articles and my eyes are tired by the end of the day! I used to force myself to read classics/new buzzy literary fiction/heady non-fiction because I thought that is what “readers” read. But now I’ve adapted my reading habits to fit my lifestyle: reading purely what I want and what won’t put a strain on my brain (mostly thrillers). Can’t wait to get my hands on Yellowface and Bright Young Women!

    1. Love this perspective. I also think this shows maturity, and an ability to lean into what you love / lean into joy, which is so important! Life is short — read what you want!


  4. I consider myself a “seasonal” reader too. I’m currently in a dry spell due to other pressing family priorities, but I’ve learned to let go of “book FOMO”.

    But Yellowface is at the top of my list too! Such an intriguing plot.

    1. I am SO loving The Golden Couple on your rec — fellow Washingtonians will also enjoy! So fun to read a book set in your hometown!


    1. Hi! This is “The Idea of You,” the steamy romance I reference further down in the post!! Probably not to be read in public, haha!


  5. Love this. I go through fits and starts with reading too- sometimes pounding through book after book and sometimes going to a fallow period. During the fallow periods, I like to return to my favorite couple books and reread favorite chapters, like some might read scripture. It’s a nice warm and familiar place to rest before I find my next selection.

    1. I love this practice! So smart. I can imagine that would scratch the itch while feeling a bit lower stakes than diving into something new. Thank you for sharing!


    2. Love this idea, Anna! I realize I do this (re-read parts of old books) sometimes too, but probably without the intentionality you had. “A warm and familiar place to rest” is the most comforting description for an old favorite.

  6. Just put the Mother Daughter Murder and the Lisa Jewell on my library holds list – thanks! I recently listened to Jewell’s The Family Upstairs and enjoyed it – but wouldn’t say it’s my favorite of hers.

    I am a seasonal reader in a very literal way, in that I like to read books set in the season of the year that I’m in – especially in fall/holidays/winter, not so much in summer. Although I did just happen to read Last Train to Key West during Labor Day weekend, which was a fun coincidence! I’ve also come to realize that the books themselves can really impact my reading momentum. If I’m powering through a book that I’m not that into, I can tell it’s going to slow me down – even if the next book is a better fit. You’d think this self knowledge would empower me to quit more books but I’m still almost always a serial finisher.

    1. Hi Stephanie! Yay! So fun to have good thrillers on deck / on tap for later in the month.

      I completely relate to your note about books impacting momentum. I’ve for sure had books completely stall my progress for weeks on end. I’ve come around to quitting books if I just can’t get through them after 100 pages, but I still feel a sense of unease/guilt/unfinished business!!


  7. Kaweco fountain pens are GREAT! You can get the cartridges, but you can also go down the rabbit hole of buying ink….and there are so very many amazing shades of ink! Lamy fountain pens are really nice as well. Enjoy!

    1. Oo love this! I was seeing on Amazon that for the ink, you need to buy syringes and that scared me off haha! But now I’m intrigued!! Do you have a favorite boutique to buy from, or do you get most on Amazon?


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