What to Read Next (No. 143): The Big Read 2021 // interview with Jess Lahey

Though I’ve teased it a couple times, I’m excited to finally announce the details of what’s going to be a very fun 2021 endeavor.

I also got to ask best-selling writer, podcaster, and teacher Jess Lahey some questions about her reading.

Next week, I’ll be back with the usual book reviews!

Introducing the Big Read 2021: War and Peace

2021 is the first year of what I’m calling the Big Read: a year-long, online experimental book club. My hope is that it will be the first of many. The Big Read is a subscriber-only newsletter and community—for $5/month or $50/annually, you’ll get access to an exclusive weekly newsletter (and the archive in the years to come), expert interviews, community chat about the book, some accountability and skin in the game with your reading, and more goodies. You can get signed up here: thebigread.substack.com. (The first newsletter will go out November 1; if you sign up before then, you won’t be charged for 30 days.)

Our first book is Leo Tolstoy’s famous War and Peace. At over 1,300 pages, it’s one of the longer classics you’ll ever encounter, and yet surprisingly readable. It’s far easier than Moby Dick; easier, at times, than Les Miserables. The challenge is not in the reading or comprehending, but simply in getting through that many pages. That’s where the community/accountability aspect comes in.

I read it for the first time earlier this year, in the midst of the pandemic lockdowns, and knew I wanted to read it again as soon as I closed the back cover.

The beauty of Tolstoy, and this book, is in his relatable characters, his avoidance of easy black and white answers, and, most relevant to today, his wisdom regarding how to live in turbulent, earth-shattering times.

How do we relate to others, especially when they aren’t in the same social world as us? How do we view the tides of history while we’re living in them? Can war and peace really be separated and easily delineated? The questions are as big as they come. 

Though the reading will start in January, I’m going to be sending newsletters starting in November and December to talk about translations, introduce Leo Tolstoy, provide background reading (and watching) recommendations, and more.

Join me in 2021 as we read War and Peace. With 361 chapters, averaging just 4 pages per chapter, it’s perfectly suited to reading a chapter each day over the course of a year.

(If Tolstoy isn’t your jam, fear not, What to Read Next will continue to go out on Friday mornings, entirely free.)

A Few Bookish Questions With Jess Lahey

Jess Lahey’s first book, The Gift of Failure, is easily one of the best parenting books I’ve read. (She was a great podcast guest too.) Her next book, The Addiction Inoculation, comes out next year. In the meantime, she graciously answered a few questions for me about the books she loves and recommends. I’ve read a handful of what she mentions below, and added a bunch to my list. I think you will too.

1. Your work revolves around education and parenting. Do you have any indispensable books in that realm that you frequently return to or that have greatly shaped your own thinking? 

Oh, so many. My current library of books on education, child development, pedagogy, neurodevelopment and parenting numbers around 250-300 books but I think the ones that have shaped my thinking the most include:

Edward Deci, Why We Do What We Do: The Science of Self-Motivation
Carol Dweck, Mindset
Wendy Grolnick, The Psychology of Parental Control
Alfred Bandura, Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control
Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Emotions, Learning and the Brain

2. Your husband is an epidemiologist. With the great uncertainty of information about our current pandemic coming at us from all angles, are there books or articles you'd recommend that get his stamp of approval and help us understand what's going on?
Tim’s actually an infectious diseases doc and medical ethicist. [Jeremy’s note: My bad!] Knowing who to trust right now is really difficult, especially given federal governmental management of usually non-partisan resources, such as the CDC’s reporting on COVID-19. That said, we continue to listen to Dr. Tony Fauci, and Dr. Robert Redfield, the Director of the CDC, as well as the World Health Organization. These are reliable, fact-based, non-partisan sources of information on COVID-19 and other public health topics. 

3. Has 2020 changed your reading? (Either in how you read or what you read.) What do you read for an escape or for comfort? 

I’ve been re-reading a lot. I should say, I’ve been re-listening a lot. I tend to listen to my non-work reading because I’m not very good at sitting down and doing just one thing at a time, and also because I suffered a head injury a few years ago that somewhat limits my on-page or on-screen reading time. I’ve re-listened to books I’ve read before because they soothe my mind. This, by the way, is one reason kids tend to re-read favorites, even after their reading skills have improved. Reading old favorites offers pleasure, calm, and a sense of proficiency that’s important for kids’ sense of reading competence. I’ve been re-listening to Jane Austen, lots of David Sedaris, Lars Mytting’s Norwegian Wood, Russell Brand’s Recovery (since I can’t attend recovery meetings in person, this is a good substitute for me), Ted Chiang’s stories, and my friend and podcast co-host Sarina Bowen’s romance novels

4. What are you reading and enjoying right now? What's next on your list?

Right now I’m LOVING books about the natural world and there are some great ones out at the moment. I adored Lulu Miller’s Fish Don’t Exist [Jeremy’s note: check out my review and interview with Lulu], Patrick Svensson’s The Book of Eels, Rebecca Giggs’ Fathoms: The World in the Whale, Jonathan C. Slaught’s Owls of the Eastern Ice, and anything by Bernd Heinrich. My favorite is The Mind of the Raven, but I like to read Winter World or Summer World (both about how flora and fauna happen in these seasons) as the time of year dictates. It’s fall here in Vermont, so I’m dipping back into Winter World

5. Give me a book (or two) you find yourself gifting, recommending, and/or just talking a lot about.

I have given out about twenty copies of Catherine Newman’s How to Be a Person: 65 Hugely Useful, Super-Important Skills to Learn Before You’re Grown Up to parents of kids age 6-12 since it came out in May. I love this book. I’ve also been recommending Lacy Crawford’s memoir, Notes on a Silencing, Katie Hafner’s A Romance on Three Legs: Glen Gould’s Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano, and Maria Konnikova’s The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win

That’s it for this week — thank you for the time and inbox space and let me know what you’re reading!