Reading Lists are the New Mixtapes
When I was 16, my soon-to-be first boyfriend made a mix CD and hid it in an envelope in my parents’ front yard for me to find when I came home from school. Once inserted into the family Dell computer and loaded onto iTunes—this was back when iTunes still had an interface that my youthful brain could decipher—the first letter of each track name revealed themselves to be an acrostic poem of sorts: G-I-R-L-F-R-I-E-N-D. As in, will you be mine?
That was ten years ago. To this day, whenever I hear one of those songs, I can still remember the way I felt driving around in my silver Volvo S70 sedan with the Sharpie-emblazoned disc in the player. However, it recently struck me that, in the internet age, the care and intention with which we used to pick out songs for our friends, lovers, and intellectual crushes has been directed to something else: reading material.
While music-lovers may weep at the notion, I don’t think I’m alone in increasingly conferring my listening choices on algorithms, automated playlists, and channels curated by the BBC, NPR, and the like. Sometimes, my Spotify Discover Weekly playlist understands me so deeply that I contemplate whether I can, in fact, date an algorithm. But when it comes to what I read, the internet offers such a dizzying array of options and such overwhelming amounts of dross that the algorithmic offerings often end up feeling empty and predictable. Instead, I actively seek out the curated reading of human beings I admire—and see it as a privilege to do the same for others.
In a world of TinyLetter, aggregation sites, and daily digests, we’re lucky enough to be living in the golden age of reading lists. There’s Ann Friedman’s Friday link party of all the things on the internet your relevant friends will be talking about tomorrow. Foreign Policy Interrupted’s round-up of international news reported by women. LitHub’s daily email of quirky literary reads. Longform’s curated lists on everything from rich kids to sea creatures. And Quartz’ super-sharp morning briefings. The (reading) list goes on.
Indeed, I so enjoy the process of selecting and sending reading material to others that I’ve come to see it as kind of a hobby with a vague sense of duty attached. When someone kindly points out my knack for sharing thoughtful reads, I accept it not in a self-deprecating, “oh gee thanks I don’t put that much thought into it” kind of way, but more in an, “I spend most of my time reading so I’m really relieved you think that” sense of honor. When I’ve made a new friend or creative contact I hope to see again, I usually take time afterwards to send them a list of links that were pertinent to a conversation we had. Indeed, the quality of a dinner party or social gathering I attend these days can often be judged by the mental list of links I make to send when I get home.
In the annals of my Gmail account, I have pre-prepared reading lists for people who are entering journalism and want to know how to get started; those who have recently realized that patriarchy sucks and who want to know what feminist writers they should be reading regularly; and people who have decided it’s time to live out of a suitcase as a nomad, as I once did for two years. Each month, I spend what is probably too much time curating a list of links to send to a modest number of subscribers. I may write for a living, but from this particular activity I gain nothing—other than the hope that sharing words that gave me clarity or inspiration might do the same for someone else. That’s enough.
On a deeper level, I suppose my love of links is rooted in my belief that reading beyond daily headlines—especially things we wouldn’t come across or choose on our own—makes us better humans, more equipped to deal with the world around us in a way that’s slightly more informed and compassionate. Others agree. As marketeer-turned-unlikely-book guru Ryan Holiday (who has a popular monthly reading list book recommendations) said: “Whatever you’re working on right now, whatever problem you’re struggling with, is probably addressed in some book somewhere by someone a lot smarter than you. Save yourself the trouble of learning from trial and error–find that point. Benefit from that perspective.”
Or there’s the School of Life founder Alain de Botton and his idea of bibliotherapy, the notion that tailored reading “prescriptions” can help us cope with and face life’s problems in the same way that speaking to a therapist might.
Indeed, in a time when the echo chamber of social media makes us more vulnerable than ever to being duped into the perception that our own belief system is the most dominant, the most right—see: Trump, Brexit—it seems that a reading list made by a human being, perhaps one who we don’t 100% agree with, is a step in the right direction.
If nothing else, tailor-made reading lists can function in the way that mix-tapes once did: to define a memorable time in our life, the way we think about a particular life juncture, the way we feel about the extraordinary times we live in. The internet has changed a lot of things, but the singular and simple joy of reading something surprising and unexpected is one it thankfully has not yet touched.