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Ask a Book Critic: What to read when your attention span is shattered

Vox’s book critic recommends books to fit your very specific mood.

Ask a Book Critic Amanda Northrop/Vox
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Welcome to the latest installment of Vox’s Ask a Book Critic, in which I, Vox book critic Constance Grady, provide book recommendations to suit your very specific mood: either how you’re feeling right now, or how you’d like to be feeling instead.

Currently, I’m knee-deep in Robin McKinley’s Sunshine, one of my favorite old comfort reads. I mentioned last week that I grew up on McKinley, and Sunshine is one of her best books, about a coffeehouse baker who forms an unlikely alliance with a vampire. Right now, I’m finding particular resonance in protagonist Sunshine’s tendency to stress-bake her way through anything she does not want to think about. I don’t share Sunshine’s creativity in the kitchen, though, so I have been stress-baking chocolate chip cookies rather than the Death of Marat (a fluffy light pudding with raspberry and black currant filling). However, some beautiful soul on the internet appears to have pulled off a partial Julie/Julia Project with Sunshine’s baked goods, so maybe now is the time for me to learn?

But maybe you are sick of baking already and want to think about something else right now. I’m here for you. Tell me what you want to read, and I will find you a book.

The recommendation requests below, submitted to me via email and on Twitter, have been edited for length and clarity.

I have been trying and failing to pick up and get lost in a book ever since quarantine started. My attention span is shot right now, but everything I read either feels way too heavy or way too frivolous.

Lord, do I know this feeling exactly, and I have two strategies for getting through it. The first is to go back to a book that I fell in love with as a teenager that I have gotten lost in so many times before that my mind automatically allows me to do it again (see above). The second is to turn to really good, really rich short stories. Since you’re having trouble with books that feel too frivolous, I think the second route is the way to go.

Short stories don’t necessarily require less attention than novels do, but I find there’s less pressure in sitting down with a short story collection you know you can dip in and out of. You know you don’t have to retain any knowledge of the book’s characters or plot across multiple sittings, and you’re not expecting to. It lets your mind relax a little.

Your email mentions wanting to read something big and important, like Jude the Obscure or News of the World. Since you’re craving classics, I’d suggest Chekhov’s short stories. They’re some of the most technically perfect short stories ever written, and they contain plenty of thoughtful, important themes to linger over. Treat each story like a chocolate truffle and let yourself luxuriate in them.

Do you have anything on your shelves or up your sleeves for not only a grown woman living with her single mother because of coronavirus, but also dealing with her mother’s deteriorating mental state/dementia?

Oh goodness, that sounds very hard. You might try Anne Lamott’s first novel, Hard Laughter. She is most famous now for her books on spirituality and writing advice (Bird by Bird, etc.), but Hard Laughter is from when she was just starting out and her primary career was as a literary novelist. This particular literary novel is the book she wrote after her father was diagnosed with a brain tumor. In general, she’s very good at emotional honesty, so it might be the move for you.

I am an economics student and I would like to read a murder mystery solved by a handsome economist.

We here at Ask a Book Critic appreciate and respect the specificity of this request. Sadly I personally have not read any books featuring handsome crime-solving economists, and in fact the last book I read about an economist was Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss, which is very charming but features a protagonist who is 69 years old.

With that said, will I admit defeat in the face of my own limitations? Never! Instead I will do what any responsible journalist would do and outsource the answer to an expert. In this case, the expert is my dear friend Kirsten Carleton, a former literary agent who now works at the New York Society Library. Kirsten, who knows everything, recommends Michael Sears’s Edgar-nominated Black Fridays. It’s the first in a trilogy about the hard-boiled former day trader Jason Stafford, who uses his knowledge of financial crimes to solve murders. Take it away, Kirsten:

“Jason’s character is worth getting to know — a crooked Wall Street trader and convicted felon, but also a loving dad and a man in search of a second chance at a new career, a new life, and a revived sense of human decency. A former trader himself, Sears definitely knows his way around the world of finance, but he breaks it down in a way that laypeople can follow, while keeping the stakes rooted in the wider world.”

No challenge will go unanswered here at Ask a Book Critic, and that’s our guarantee.

If you’d like me to recommend a book for you, email me at with the subject line “Ask a Book Critic.” The more specific your mood, the better!

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