Ilana Masad is an Israeli-American writer, reader, editor and (somewhat predictably) cat-lover. She is a columnist for McSweeney’s, has published her fiction and non-fiction in a variety of venues ranging from Tin House to The Artist Catalogue, and received the Rex Warner Literary Prize from the University of Oxford. You can follow her on Twitter, peruse her fiction, drool over books with her on Tumblr, or catch her reading tonight at KGB Bar in New York City.
Since acknowledging to myself fully that I am a writer, I’ve begun to read differently. If you’re a writer too, you know how much hedging (“Well, I want to be a writer” and “I write, but I don’t know if I’d call myself a writer, really” and “I mean, it doesn’t really count, I just like writing”) happens before you fully embrace that label. But once you do, or at least, once I did, I began to think of reading as an active participant in my writing, and this affected my reading habits.
In my teens, when I was still a starry-eyed actress-wannabe and math geek with a dying father, the books that were usually next to my pillow when I turned my light off at night were, in essence, storybooks. They were books that told good, developed, well-plotted and well-written stories: Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet (and all her other books – I own them all and have read them many times); Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart and its sequels (I read those too young and boy oh boy did they teach me a thing or two about sex); Sarah Dessen’s This Lullaby (and all her other books, which I still buy when they come out in paperback, because they provide a sense of simplicity in problem solving that I don’t find in real life); Jacqueline Wilson’s Girls Under Pressure which for some reason I read every time I was sick or had a migraine because there was something alluring about Ellie’s bulimia (little did I know it would be even more of a solace to me later when I developed my own eating disorder). I’d endlessly reread my comfort books: Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted, The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot, and, of course, the Harry Potter books, which were what got me started on this whole reading gig (it was pretty awesome to be 17 when the seventh book came out – I felt like I had literally grown up with Harry, aging along with him almost precisely).
Comfort books were and still are immensely important to me. One I bring with me wherever I move now is Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I don’t care if people say she hated writing it – I refuse to believe that. There is so much love, nostalgia, and wisdom in that book that it seems to travel through the years with me, like some fine wine that I get to drink over and over without destroying its aging process.
But now that I’m a writer, now that I admit I am one and consider myself one (though still with that sheepish artist shrug that conveys the “I know I’m never going to make any money” sentiment), I read for my writing as well as for the sheer joy of story.
Ulysses by James Joyce, a novel that terrified me for years and that I was basically conned into reading by a writing tutor at Oxford, was beside and in my bed for about four months. Reading it spawned my latest manuscript. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway has curled up with me on cold winter nights. But it’s not only the dusty classics that have taught me how to write. I’ve had a steamy love affair with each of Zadie Smith’s books, from White Teeth to On Beauty to Autograph Man to NW (with some time along the way devoted to Changing My Mind, her book of essays) because of her gorgeous writing, her uncanny truth-telling, and her ability to create poignant, pathetic characters who are also unintentionally uproariously funny. I’ve cradled The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Telegraph Avenue, both by Michael Chabon, beside me and fallen asleep on them repeatedly, having read some of his sentences over and over, with my mouth hanging open, trying to figure out how he made them so crisp, clear and yet full of metaphor. I spent a solid year, two months and one day with Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace alternating spots between the kitchen table and my bed, adoring his run-on sentences, his ability to be funny and tragic and irreverent and soulful all at once.
Most recently, I’ve fallen in love with Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, and with Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go and have embarked on Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique. Each of these women has a distinctive voice and point of view, and their writing sweeps me away, each very differently, and makes me want to write, write, write like the wind. I still do read for story (I’ve read all of Terry Pratchett, I love Neil Gaiman, and I recently swallowed whole Paolo Bacigalupi’s exhilarating and depressing The Windup Girl) and if I had my way, I’d spend most of my time doing nothing but reading. But I also want to keep learning how to write, which is a process that never ends, and so increasingly I challenge myself with writers who show me something new, who spin their yarns with a great deal of sentence by sentence thought, and who care about language for its own beautiful, dripping-off-the-tongue, clacking-in-the-teeth, echoing-in-the-mouth qualities.
What are your comfort books? What prompts you to return to them?