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MIT student blogger Shuli J. '22

I am reading so many books! by Shuli J. '22, MEng '23

getting back to my bookworm roots

As a child, I was a hugely voracious reader. I spent the majority of my free time reading, and also a significant part of my non-free time (i.e., in class while my teachers were talking…) I started reading less around the time I started high school, when paying attention in class became more important and I found some fun extracurriculars to occupy my time. This trend continued at MIT (what, you mean MIT students aren’t famous for how much spare time they have and nothing to fill it with?)

Part of my problem is that although in life, I’m generally a pretty disciplined person, I have no self control when it comes to books specifically. If I have a half-hour left before bedtime one night after I finish my work, I can hang out on the internet for 30 (or, you know, maybe 45) minutes and then go to bed. But if I start a book, that book is getting finished, that night. Partly, this is because I’m lucky enough to be a really fast reader — most books take me just a few hours to read. But unfortunately, “just a few hours” is not short enough to start a book at 11.30 pm when you have class at 9 am :(

This summer, though, things are different. I’m working an internship01 I just graduated, but I'm coming back to do my master's, so I'm still interning and not full-time employed yet , and after I get off work at 5 or 5:30, eat some dinner, and commute home, I have a ton of time left over, and tbh not a lot02 I'm kinda lonely in NYC lol. Post on that coming soon... to fill it with. So I’ve been reading. A LOT. And I’m honestly loving it so much.

When I was a kid, my mom would drive me to the neighbourhood community centre every weekend for whatever class I was doing that season — gymnastics, archery, etc. — and after class we would stop by the public library in the building. I would wander down the shelves and pick up whatever caught my notice, take out a huge stack of books, and read them all week. As an adult, I still don’t quite have that kind of time, and although there are some public libraries near me, I often have something specific in mind I’m looking for. So I started using the Libby library app, which lets you connect your library card (or more than one!) and take out ebooks from your library’s digital collection.

In the community of voracious readers, I’m definitely a bit behind on discovering Libby. But now that I’m here, I LOVE it! It is so amazing to be able to have any book I want with just a few taps. If I’m hanging out with a friend and they recommend me a book, I can literally put it on hold03 If you don't know what this is, it's basically a waitlist for the book. They only have so many copies, and if they're all taken out, you can put it on hold and it will get to you when it's your turn on the waitlist. as they’re speaking to me — and if I happen to get lucky, maybe it’ll be available right then and I could literally start reading it on the way home from our hangout. It’s instant gratification, but, like, the good kind.

I’ve read somewhere around 50 books so far this summer. Some of them were not that good — when I can instantly take any book out, don’t have to carry around its physical weight, and can probably finish it in three hours, there’s not a huge sense of investment. So I’ve read some pretty random shit. But I like that I have enough spare time that it doesn’t feel like every book I read has to be amazing or else my time is wasted. Sometimes it can just be a way to pass a few hours visiting a different world, or seeing our world through someone else’s eyes.

Here’s the highlights of my summer reading so far:

 

Children’s Books

Yes, I still read children’s books. Why not? They’re good, and enjoying kids’ books doesn’t mean you can’t also enjoy books for adults.

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking: This is set in a classic medieval-with-the-edges-filed-off world where some people are wizards, but each wizard can only manipulate one kind of object. The protagonist is a baker’s apprentice who has bread magic. Of course, she’s pulled into some issues that are way above her pay grade… The premise is cute, but what I really liked about this was that it had Terry-Pratchett style philosophy weaved through it about community, heroism, and war, and that the plot, while solidly child-grade, went places I wasn’t expecting. It was fun and refreshing.

Fifty-four Things Wrong with Gwendolyn Rogers: This was the first book I ever took out from Libby, because after I downloaded the app I went to the “available now” section and it was the first thing listed that looked remotely interesting. I was stunned by how good it was.

A novel very much set in North America today, it’s written from the perspective of an elementary school girl with undiagnosed behavioral issues. The adults around her (her single mother, the overworked and undertrained early-twenties daycare workers, and her unsympathetic teachers) range from trying and failing to help her, to not trying at all. The plot stays realistic but ends on a lovely hopeful note. I loved this book because I felt like it so accurately reflected the complexities of life. You can put a lot of labels on the issues that this book addresses, like single parenting, neurodivergence, medication, and race, but at the end of the day, in the real world and in the book, these all blend into a complicated, difficult, and yet beautiful life. Reading from a young child’s perspective isn’t as grating as you might expect, although it occasionally wore a little thin for me.

 

YA slash Romance slash More things I’m not afraid to admit I read

Throne of Glass series: Although it somehow never crossed paths with me, I’m given to understand that this was one of The Big Series for middle schools girls of the past decade. The series is very definitely Young Adult capital Y capital A, but I’m really enjoying it. The characters fail to communicate, jump to conclusions, and act irrationally way too often, but they’re also a bunch of traumatized twenty year olds so I guess that’s reasonable.

The book has a similar arc to a lot of YA series — without too many spoilers, a cruel empire and some people who are special for various reasons working to overthrow it — but I think it does it better and more realistically, giving you real empathy into how complicated and difficult life can be inside such an empire. It also has truly excellent pacing: it doesn’t make you wait too long for reveals, and yet after each reveal there’s always more to go. By about the middle of the second book, I had a sense of where the arc of the series would lead, but each book feels like a natural followup rather than a rushed series of events or a drawn-out wait for the main event.

Fangirl: this one is kind of cheating because it’s been my favorite book and comfort reread for pretty much the entirety of the 9 years since it was released. It follows the first semester of college for Cath, a girl with anxiety who loves to write. Write fanfiction, that is, among other things. Her fandom of choice is a Harry Potter derivative that’s just different enough to evade copyright and stay interesting. But the real draw of the book is the way you can fall in love with every single character and see life so vividly through Cath’s eyes. The plot is neither predictable nor full of twists — it just is, because it’s life. My anxiety is pretty different from Cath’s and I have exactly two very abandoned04 If you can find my barely-started fifth grade HP/PJO crossover, I'll give you a cookie and also kill you fanfiction writing attempts, but reading this book always makes me feel seen and understood.

 

Science Fiction & Fantasy

Project Hail Mary: From the guy who wrote the Martian, it’s the Martian, but even better. If you don’t know the Martian, basically both of these books are “there is a dude in space trying to solve some scientific problems and he uses actual science knowledge to do so”. They’re gripping, human, and also super nerdy and cool. The science in this book is definitely a lot more speculative/made-up than the Martian, but it’s still a lot more detailed and realistic than most books of this type. I won’t spoil the reason that I think this book is so much better than the Martian. But I will say that the linguistics nerd part of me was extremely delighted.

The Murderbot Diaries: this is an action/thriller focused series about a rogue cyborg-esque being who is officially considered property and not a sentient person with rights, in a far-future world where corporations have almost all the power. It’s written in first person and the cyborg has a very particular voice which I found funny and enjoyable, if at times a little much. Although the themes of capitalism and sentience aren’t new to sci-fi, I liked the irreverent take on them. The level of action was a bit overwhelming for me at times, but I’m a lightweight, so I suspect it might be a big draw for some.

 

Things that someone might consider “real” books but all books are real books >:(

Never Let Me Go: I didn’t know what to make of this book, and I got the sense that the Goodreads reviews I skimmed afterwards didn’t either. So much of it is very mundane, like reading a middle schooler’s boarding school novel. I also enjoy those, so I actually liked that, but the Goodreads reviewers did not seem to. The central difference isn’t quite a plot twist: it unfolds slowly but out in the open, and you might find it easy to quickly figure out early on, although that won’t lessen the horror. This “twist” barely affects the plot of the novel, and yet it seeps through everything. I thought about this book every single day for the few weeks after I read it — I couldn’t tell you what I thought, but I certainly thought about it.

The Other Mothers: this is the true story of a lesbian couple trying to conceive a child. I went on a queer parenting kick a while back and read a lot of books that were about very interesting families and parenting journeys but not very well written. This one was the exception: at the same time as being an interesting and at times painful account of how difficult it can be to conceive, it’s also a beautiful love story and character study of the couple.

The Just City: This is quite a book. About a city out of time, full of many children and few adults, set up by the gods Athena and Apollo to test the theory of utopia that Plato lays out in his Republic. It’s stuffed incredibly full of Classical references, most of which went over my head despite my Classics concentration.05 At some schools down the road, cough cough, a concentration is a major. At MIT, though, it's 3-4 classes, so slightly smaller than a minor. Completing a humanities concentration is a graduation requirement. But more than that, it truly is a book about what it means to be alive and human. People describe books that way a lot, and often they’re depressing books about middle-aged men cheating on their wives. This book is about an entirely different facet of humanity, and one that is a lot more joyful, if also painful. It was a wild and delightful ride.

 

If you’ve read and liked any of these, or check them out based on my recommendation, let me know your thoughts! And if you think you have a good rec for me based on the above, I’d love to hear it :)

  1. I just graduated, but I'm coming back to do my master's, so I'm still interning and not full-time employed yet back to text
  2. I'm kinda lonely in NYC lol. Post on that coming soon... back to text
  3. If you don't know what this is, it's basically a waitlist for the book. They only have so many copies, and if they're all taken out, you can put it on hold and it will get to you when it's your turn on the waitlist. back to text
  4. If you can find my barely-started fifth grade HP/PJO crossover, I'll give you a cookie and also kill you back to text
  5. At some schools down the road, cough cough, a concentration is a major. At MIT, though, it's 3-4 classes, so slightly smaller than a minor. Completing a humanities concentration is a graduation requirement. back to text