Ana Kinsella takes a look at Amanda’s reading and explores what we read in times of stress says about our psyche
“I want to read a book,” says a newly single Amanda Woods (played by Cameron Diaz) with frustration early on in The Holiday. “Not a magazine, an actual book. For years I read these reviews, I buy the books, but I never read them.”
Sing it, sister. Who amongst us has not rolled into December with an armful of end-of-year lists, a stack of renowned bestsellers and the highest of hopes for holiday reading and relaxation? Soon, Amanda is on a transatlantic flight with a pile of reading material that should see her through her nasty break-up and into a new year of well-read bliss in the cosy Cotswolds cottage she is staying in.
And yet surprisingly, we don’t actually see Amanda doing much reading after this. She’s a little distracted, you see, with a charming neighbour (Jude Law) and a taste for festive drinking. This, too, is a familiar feeling – the books that go unread, the good intentions left to ferment in a sticky pool of spilled brandy. What does it say about us that our desires to lose ourselves in books often disappear in the sediment of daily life? And what do the books we choose say about who we really are?
Let’s take a look at Amanda’s reading and see what we read in times of stress says about our psyche.
Alice Munro – Runaway
Arguably the greatest short-story author of our time, Alice Munro’s Runaway is a masterclass in how to write a story that can grip and challenge in equal measure. Short stories have unique power to grab us by the shoulders and shake the crap out of us – see the huge viral reaction to Kristen Roupenian’s Cat Person in 2017. A book like this is also easy to dip in and out of, perfect for Amanda’s distractible state.
If you like this, read: The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel. The underrated Hempel is a genius of the form and her galling, emotional stories will linger on in the mind long after you’ve closed the book.
Jonathan Franzen – The Corrections
If Amanda is looking for a book that received a lot of attention, The Corrections is it. In the early 2000s, the red-and-black cover was ubiquitous on public transport and in popular culture, as a by-word for good taste, intelligence and dinner party debate. I imagine Amanda feels terrible that she doesn’t have an opinion on this novel, though if she doesn’t get to the ending, here’s one she can have for free: Franzen is an elitist snob for expressing distaste towards the power of Oprah’s Book Club.
If you like this, read: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. The barnstormer of a novel traces the lives of four friends from university as they grow up in New York, but it’s Jude’s sorry misery that we are most moved by. Relationships and work will seem like distant concerns by the end of this incredible book.
Bob Dylan – Chronicles
I am ashamed to admit that almost every man I have been romantically involved with has had a copy of Chronicles on their bookshelf. “He’s a genius,” they will inevitably explain to me, as if being female means I haven’t heard Blonde on Blonde. Suddenly single again, Amanda is aware she will eventually have to submerge herself back into the world of straight men and their strange proclivities. Reading Chronicles is perhaps her way of preparing herself for that fate. I do not envy her.
If you like this, read: Just Kids by Patti Smith. Smith’s memoir of rattling around 1970s New York making art and falling in love with Robert Mapplethorpe sheds light on what life and art are really for.
JK Rowling – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
It is, frankly, absurd to imagine a human in 2006 having not read a single Harry Potter novel. While Amanda is a little older than the target audience for JK Rowling’s books as they were originally published, the fact that she has put it on her reading list implies that she has some serious catching up to do. Or perhaps she is just being realistic, knowing that while the weightier tomes on her stack mightn’t ever get read, the fantasy book written for children who still believe in good and evil will.
If you like this, read: any other book. Please. There are so many.
Doris Kearns Goodwin – Team of Rivals
The kind of person who chooses a fat biography of Abraham Lincoln as holiday reading material has, I would venture, some issues of their own. A desire to be taken seriously, for one thing – as a film editor in Los Angeles, Amanda surely bumps up against the Hollywood boys club. Or an inability to switch off. This is the kind of book only an ambitious and restless high achiever would choose to read – see Lin-Manuel Miranda reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton on a Mexico beach holiday, giving way to the award-winning musical of the same name.
If you like this, read: American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld. An emotional fictionalised account of the life of Laura Bush (wife of George W), this book is spun so finely that it is difficult to put down.
Ian McEwan – Atonement
That’s more like it. For those of us who “don’t have time to read”, the kind of book we often favour is something like this: an immersive, silky historical novel full of character and compelling to the bitter end. Recovering from a break-up, Amanda is sure to weep reading McEwan’s novel, but also will be moved so utterly that her mind will be far from her own personal life.
If you like this, read: What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt. A story that dances between unhappy couples in New York and the downtown party scene that bears a strong resemblance to the 1990s Club Kids murders, this novel will make you love novels again.
Eckhart Tolle – The Power of Now
There’s much to be said in favour of pop philosophy. Like mindfulness, yoga and turmeric shots, anything that makes daily life a little more bearable is probably to be welcomed. The Power of Now became a global bestseller and a cultural touchstone – Paris Hilton brought her copy to prison when jailed for dangerous driving in 2007.
If you like this, read: Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed. This collection of advice columns from The Rumpus’s Dear Sugar offers compassionate new perspectives on age-old problems of love, life and loss.
Khaled Hosseini – The Kite Runner
Khaled Hosseini’s story of a boy growing up in Afghanistan while violence and instability rages around him became a runaway hit and sold over seven million copies in the US. This is the kind of book Amanda should be reading in her current state: a guaranteed banger that is sure to take her far away from her daily troubles and reignite her passion for reading. Pity, then, that she probably left it behind her when disembarking that flight to Heathrow.
If you like this, read: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Juxtaposing the lives of three characters against Nigeria’s Biafran war in the late 1960s, this novel topped end-of-year lists in 2006, becoming a word-of-mouth hit around the world.