Among the many changes in my daily life this year—working from home, wearing a mask in public, watching too much TV—my changing reading habits register deeply. For one thing, I read on a Kindle now, with the exception of the rare galley sent to me at home and the books I’ve made a point of purchasing from local independent bookstores or ordering on Bookshop.org. The Kindle was borrowed—OK, confiscated—from my boyfriend at the beginning of the pandemic, when I left dozens of advance reader copies behind at the office and accepted the reality that digital galleys would be a practical necessity for the foreseeable future. I can’t say that I love reading on my “new” Kindle—I’m still a sucker for physical books after all these years—but I’ll admit that it fulfills its purpose efficiently. And I do rather enjoy the instant gratification of going on NetGalley or Edelweiss and dispatching multiple books to my device in one fell swoop—a harmless form of bingeing that affords a little dopamine rush.
Another change in my reading habits has been a dramatic uptick in my nonfiction consumption. Sure, I’ve always read nonfiction—memoirs and narrative nonfiction in particular—but fiction was always my go-to for pleasure reading, especially in the summertime. This summer was different. Partly because of the requirements of my job and partly because of this exceptional moment in history, I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction, especially essays, trying to grapple with what we’re living through.
One of the books that has helped to illuminate the current situation for me was written by the author on the cover of our current issue, Laila Lalami. You probably know Lalami as the author of novels such as The Moor’s Account (2014) and The Other Americans (2019), both nominated for major literary prizes. Her new book, Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America (Pantheon, Sept. 22), is a collection of eight essays about those citizens that America includes or excludes from the full privileges of citizenship because of race, gender, religion, or national origin. Like some of the other nonfiction I’ve admired in recent months—including Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (Random House, Aug. 11) and Claudia Rankine’s Just Us: An American Conversation (Graywolf, Sept. 8)—Lalami’s book helped me to reframe my understanding of dynamics at work in American society. And because it is so lucidly written, I feel that I could hand Conditional Citizens to almost anyone I know; it would make a great book club pick.
Other essay collections that kept me company this summer: Zadie Smith’s Intimations (Penguin, July 28) is a slender volume containing six brief essays, all written since the pandemic struck, and they’re enthralling. I love Smith’s novels, but she has an extraordinary facility for essay-writing, as evidenced in her previous collections, Changing My Mind (2009) and Feel Free (2018). The new book offers a glimpse of Smith’s limber mind at work, observing with a novelist’s eye and attempting to make sense (good luck!) of life in lockdown. (Proceeds from the book benefit the Equal Justice Initiative and the Covid-19 Emergency Relief Fund for New York.) Helen Macdonald’s Vesper Flights (Grove Press, Aug. 25) serves up more captivating nature writing from the author of the memoir H Is for Hawk (2015)—except to call it “nature writing” is to diminish the glorious sense of human wonder that Macdonald brings to her subjects—birds’ nests, a favorite meadow from childhood—and prose that absolutely sings. These books make our narrowed world feel a little larger.
Tom Beer is the editor-in-chief.