Welcome to Advice in The Stacks, a bookish advice column from me, Traci Thomas, the host and creator of The Stacks podcast. My show is all about books and the people who read them, with new episodes out every Wednesday on your favorite podcast platform. Due to the nature of the show I am constantly asked for advice on all things books, so I’m making it formal and bringing my advice to all of you with my monthly column here at SheReads.com.

If you have questions about anything book related, CLICK HERE and submit your question, and then come back the last Thursday of the month to see my advice.

Hi Traci! I know you’re a huge fan of non-fiction and I am too. Sometimes I am scared I will get burned out from reading too much non-fiction in a row and want to change it up. Any advice for fiction that is worth the read?

Thank you, from a fellow non-fiction lover!

As a lover of nonfiction, first let me say, you will not get burned out from reading too much nonfiction. Life is too short to feel pressure to read anything, especially something you don’t love. That being said—I love this question. I love finding works of fiction that speak to me. I think my taste in fiction skews to things that could be nonfiction, of course (I am who I am). I will dabble in speculative fiction, but mostly, the more realistic the better. So romance is often tricky for me, as are thrillers; I’m just being asked to suspend my disbelief too much.

Since you didn’t share your personal tastes at all, I’m going to pretend that you read exactly like me and will love every novel I’ve ever loved. Here we go.

The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka

I just read this book in two sittings last week. I loved it so so, so so much. I’ll be shocked if it isn’t on every best-of list at the end of 2022.  The Swimmers is slight, and smart, and has a sense of humor, until it gets really sad. And it is evocative, something I appreciate in good fiction. If I’m taking the time to read a novel, I want to feel things. I have to say, going into this book with as little knowledge as possible is your best bet (like don’t even read the jacket). But here is what I will tell you: it is about a group of people who swim at a pool for exercise purposes. They know each other only in this very narrow context. Then the pool gets a crack, and their neuroses jump out. It moves from there, but I really don’t want you to know what is coming, trust me—it is best this way.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is a little of that realistic speculative fiction that I like. It’s not too much world-building (if you want speculative fiction with great world-building, check out Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower), it’s mostly just literary fiction wrapped up in a “what if” sort of story. Never Let Me Go is about three children who go to a boarding school, and something is off, but we the reader don’t exactly know what it is. This book made me feel lots of things. I’ve actually read it twice, and the second time I was still moved by the whole thing. We did an episode on The Stacks about this book back in 2019, and that conversation added even more to my feelings about the book.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

This one is historical fiction and Whitehead was inspired to write the book after reading about the reform schools of the Jim Crow South. So yes, this is fiction, but it feels like nonfiction, which I also love (when done well, and despise when done just ok or poorly). The way Whitehead writes this story, it is just incredible. The characters, the horrors, the bonds, the fear. All of it. The book won the Pulitzer Prize which came as no surprise to me. Easily one of the best novels I’ve ever read. And the ending is *chef’s kiss*.

Hi Traci,

What’s your advice for balancing being a new mom with being a reader? I’ve always been an avid reader, whether it’s a physical book or audiobook, but now I can barely find the time or the focus. Even in the car, my baby is currently preferring music or my own voice to the sound of an audiobook being read! 

Please help, Mommy Needs to Get Lit

I always struggle giving any advice to any parents, especially around reading, for two main reasons. One, I know taking care of small humans is incredibly difficult, and for me, I always get annoyed when someone shares their experience or advice as if raising kids is one size fits all. Two, reading is very much my job, so I find more time to read, because when it’s time for me to work that means I’m reading (or doing reading adjacent things). I recognize this isn’t most people’s reality, and I don’t want to setup unfair expectations. That being said, please take everything I say next with a grain of salt. Also, just on some general parenting advice: if it doesn’t work for the adults in charge, don’t do it. That has been the main pillar for all of my parenting choices, and it’s working for me. 

As far as reading, which is of course what you asked me about, my key has always been to squeeze in reading when I can. When The Mini Stacks were very small I started using my Kindle. I would use it to read while I pumped in the middle of the night, or breastfed the kids (using my nose to turn the page since both hands were full. I am glamour personified), or to read when I couldn’t sleep because I had some of the aforementioned parental anxiety, or while one of them slept on me (because newborns suck at sleep). I was constantly squeezing in extra time to read by using my Kindle.

I also had to make some serious time management choices. I do not watch as much TV now that I have kids as I used to. I never watched that much, but now I’m basically down to The Bachelor, Grey’s Anatomy, and sports. I know that list is very 2009, but again—I am who I am. Every once and a while I’ll binge a show, but reading is my main form of entertainment after The Minis go to bed. Maybe you love and need TV, so this won’t work, but do think about what hobbies you can cut back on to have a little more time to snuggle up with a book. In this same vein I started utilizing way more audiobooks so I could read while I went on walks, did laundry, made dinner, etc.

Give yourself permission to put books down that you don’t like. It’s ok. No one will tell the author or your book club or the police. You’re safe to say “this book is not for me right now.” Giving yourself this space means you’re not wasting time with a book you don’t like. Your time is super valuable right now; you’re keeping someone else alive. DNF’ing (did not finish) a book is just not that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things.

Do what you can with your child while they’re awake so you can do what you want when they are asleep. Things like laundry, grocery shopping, dishes, cooking, and the like can often be done with your child. Whether you strap them on (if they are tiny) or enlist their help (my kids love throwing things, so throwing clothes into the washing machine is a major highlight of their week). This way, when they do finally conk out, you can grab your book and do you!

Last thing: ask for help and use that time to read. I often will tell Mr. Stacks, I need a break, and quickly go into my room, close the door, put my phone on do not disturb, and read for a little bit. You are allowed to need alone time, and you should prioritize that time. Do not feel guilty for taking a break to read or relax instead of going to the store or getting in a workout. Asking for the help you need is exactly why you have a support system. In my case I am lucky to have friends and family who like being with my kids a lot, and will gladly come over and take my kids to the park so I can work/decompress (aka read). I know not everyone has this, but if you do, take advantage and read, guilt free.

As far as what to read, that is really up to your tastes. I would say 100% indulge in what you know you love. I also read books that were short and moved quickly, with lots of plot (like Such a Fun Age). I also read short stories (try The Secret Lives of Church Ladies) and essays (The Reckonings is one of my favorites of all time) because I could finish them quickly and easily. I’ll give you one specific recommendation, if you’ve never read Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed, I think you should read it now. It is a special book that I love to suggest to people at any major transition points in their lives, or any points of uncertainty. Becoming a parent is both of those things.

Congratulations on becoming a parent, I hope some of this helps. If not, throw it all out and do what feels best for you!

Be sure to ask for any and all bookish advice by clicking here. Then come back next month to see what Traci has to say.