To Read Or Not To Read: There Is No Question

Lynn Lobash
Dec 17, 2018 · 7 min read

By Lynn Lobash, Assistant Director, Reader Services, The New York Public Library

There are many who would describe what I do every day as a “dream job.”

I am the librarian in charge of “readers advisory” for The New York Public Library. In this role, I get to read (a lot — and then, after I’ve read for hours, I read some more) and then help connect members of the public with the books that get them excited. The books that spark a lifelong love of reading. The books that makes them keep turning pages and then check out (literally and figuratively) more and more material.

I deal in a love of reading. It’s great work if you can get it.

And that’s why I’m talking to you right now. We’re about to start a new year, and if you haven’t read for a while, may I suggest 2019 is the perfect time to get yourself a library card and start a new chapter? I could quote you stats galore about the benefits of reading for pleasure (for kids, teens, and adults); there are many, but let’s keep this less about stats and more about real life.

There are many, many reasons to read. Learning about the world and people around you is certainly a big one. Being informed is a responsibility we all share, and reading is a way to get there. Reading can be an escape. We live in a world where we are constantly bombarded with news, responsibility, obligations, and information. Reading can take you to places far away from all that, and for just a little while, you can immerse yourself in new worlds, exciting adventures, or love stories. But tops on my list: reading is fun. It’s just plain fun. Because there is a book out there for you — one that will allow you to get totally absorbed into whatever you like. That’s the key — whatever you like.

We have a saying in my line of work: the right book, for the right reader, at the right time. There’s no such thing as an objectively “good” book — a good book for you is one that resonates, draws you in, teaches you something, makes you feel understood, makes you feel less alone, or just makes you feel plain happy. I believe that book exists for you, and it’s my job to help you find it.

For me, the book was Holes by Louis Sachar. Wrongly accused, Stanley Yelnats is sentenced to a juvenile detention camp where the boys dig holes, five feet deep and five feet across, in the arid Texas heat. When a fellow inmate, Zero, runs off into the desert Stanley impulsively sets out to save him. On this almost mythical journey, the friends lay a family curse to rest, discover buried treasure, survive the yellow-spotted lizards, and put an end to the reign of the evil Camp Green Lake overlords. What is special about this book is the intricate plotting. It all comes together in the end with the satisfying snap of laying down the last jigsaw puzzle piece. The characters are all so well drawn and distinctive and dialogue is well-crafted and relatable for a middle school reader. I was hooked.

The Library just released its top 10 checkouts of 2018. These are the books that got New Yorkers most excited about reading, the way Holes (and countless other books) got me excited. As I look at the list, it highlights so many different reasons why people read in the first place, and it serves as a little microcosm of the whole picture. Speaking of that picture, here are my reasons why reading is lit (get it?):

1. Reading connects you to others, and to the cultural zeitgeist.

This year’s list contains several award-winners from the past few years. Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan (№1) won the Carnegie Award last year; Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (№4) won National Book last year; Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (№10) won the 2017 Booker Prize. The Underground Railroad (№9) by Colson Whitehead won both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award in 2016. Winning a prestigious award is a sign of quality, and this indicates to readers that their time will be well spent — the median number of books read per year is four, so choice really matters.

New Yorkers who read these books might want to engage with the other readers’ whose interest is piqued by artful literature, discuss them in book clubs or with friends, and get in on the literary zeitgeist and cultural discussion. It’s the same motivation that gets us to the Met, MOMA, and the Whitney to see the biggest shows of the year.

2. Reading is fun.

In the №2 spot this year is Origin, the fifth installment of the Robert Langdon series by Dan Brown. In his latest adventure Robert Langdon, a professor of iconology and symbology, has been invited to the Guggenheim by Edmond Kirsch, a billionaire futurist and former student. Kirsch plans to unveil a discovery he believes will forever change the way humankind views religion. Kirsch is killed before the his secret announcement, and Langdon is thrown into a world of ancient enigmas and shadow organizations.

Coming in at №6 is Celeste Ng’s sophomore novel Little Fires Everywhere. The book is set in an affluent suburb of Ohio called Shaker Heights. Told backwards from multiple perspectives, this story of suburban malaise and family secrets is exceptionally compelling.

Why did more New Yorkers wanted these books from the Library than any others! Maybe because they’re classic page-turners: exciting, intricately plotted, and full of intrigue. They engage your mind and keep you on the edge of your seat. You can’t put them down. They keep you up far too late reading.

In other words, they are really fun.

3. Reading transports you.

Three works of historical fiction made the top 10 this year: Manhattan Beach, The Underground Railroad, and A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. Historical fiction is appealing to readers for its ability to take a reader to another time and place. Manhattan Beach is set in Manhattan in the ’30s and ’40’s so for New Yorkers it is particularly immersive. The Underground Railroad is set in pre-Civil War Georgia — a place that might provide insight into the persistent, structural racism of our present day, luckily, the resilience of the lead character is hopeful. A Gentleman in Moscow is an unforgettable portrait of 1922 Russia, a place and time that feels impossibly distant to many of us, and takes readers into the world of an aristocrat sentenced by the Bolsheviks to house arrest in a hotel across the street from the Kremlin.

One of the best things about reading fiction is the ability to live vicariously through the characters and with historical fiction, readers can live in a completely different time and place.

4. Reading gives you a break from reality.

Two of the books in the top 10 contain bits of magical realism. These books take place in real-world settings but contain fantastical elements. Sing, Unburied, Sing tells the story of three generations of a struggling Mississippi family, and the gifted characters see no no separation between their world and the spirit world. Exit West tells the story of a young couple as their country falls into civil unrest and they are forced to flee — but they find magical doorways through which immigrants can travel. There’s something comforting about feeling like the people we lost are still with us, or that safe harbors can magically appear.

5. Reading teaches you about the world you live in.

The two nonfiction titles in the top 10 both fall under the “society and culture” heading, and reading these kinds of books offers a way to make sense of the world we live in today. Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance is part memoir and part sociological study. It is the story of growing up poor in Appalachia and the damage poverty inflicts. Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff is a tell-all inside the Trump White House.

And the last book in the top 10, coming in at number two, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, is dystopian fiction about a repressive society in which women are kept as servants and forced to bear children — but this book too tells us something important about society and culture, if only to offer a frightening glimpse of what could be.

Of course, these five reasons for reading are just a tiny snapshot, and there are a million more — a slightly different one for everyone who picks up a book. You can be a different reader at different times of the year, different stages of your life, and the Library is proud to make that possible for millions of New Yorkers.

So, this holiday season, we hope you to read for whatever reason you choose… even if it’s just to make your subway ride a little less painful.

To get recommendations from Lynn and her team, check out nypl.org/recommends. To get a library card and start reading, visit your local public library (New Yorkers can also get started at nypl.org/librarycard)

NYPL’s Top 10 Checkouts of 2018

  1. Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
  2. Origin: A Novel by Dan Brown
  3. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  4. Sing, Unburied, Sing: A Novel by Jesmyn Ward
  5. Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff
  6. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
  7. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
  8. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance
  9. The Underground Railroad: A Novel by Colson Whitehead
  10. Exit West: A Novel by Mohsin Hamid

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Lynn Lobash

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I get to read (a lot — and then, when I’ve read for hours, I read some more) and then help connect members of the public with the books that get them excited.