The one where I stop reading books

I read everything on my phone.

It’s been a slow progression to this point. A few years ago I only read physical books that I purchased—then I went through a Marie Kondo phase and got rid of them all. From there I bought a Kindle and purchased ebooks until I discovered the Libby app and started reading them for free. 

Now, my Kindle sits somewhere under my bed covered in the dust Marie Kondo thinks I should probably sweep away—though I admit it brings me joy the way the spider webs crawling up my mantle do. I watch them drift, paused in my reading for a moment, a metaphorical ribbon saving my place on my phone.

All of this is to say that despite my most fervent adoration of books and my complete devotion to writing them, I am something of a heathen when it comes to reading them. Unlike my peers, I do not have books so thoroughly strewn about my house that they act as night tables. What I do have is hundreds of books that have at one point or another passed through my phone, and a collection of my most treasured ones settled in small shrines about my home. 

Often, these books are so beautiful that I spent a fortune on them—as in the case of this bible which, as a former Mariology scholar, I believe is worth having for the masterful print job alone. It is also the most literal translation of the original texts (all mentions of “God” have been returned to their original “YHWH” and all mentions of “hell” have been returned to their original “Tartarus.” And one of my personal favorites, the mention of “one male” in 1 Samuel has been returned to its original “one who pisses against the wall”). 

I also have a weakness for anything printed by The Easton Press and The Franklin Library (which closed in 2000) and I am continuously scanning Etsy for my favorite versions of them—like my prized copies of Thomas More’s Utopia and The Analects of Confuscious, both bound in leather and embossed in gold. (I still long for an undervalued leatherbound edition of Frankenstein and have thus far staved off reading it in wait for that tome.)

And then of course there’s my love for the antique—as in the case of this treasured copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—and the artistic. Most recently I found myself reading Stardust on my phone only to become so ennamored by the magic of it all that I purchased Neil Gaiman’s complete paperback set illustrated by Henry Sene Yee and I’m very excited to spend the fall immersed in them.

So it is perhaps surprising that I do all my reading on my phone. Especially considering that so many of my bibliophilic peers find the printed page a more pleasurable place to read than the phone. I agree to some extent—there’s nothing like sitting on my blue velvet couch, leafing through a copy of Stardust while I drink a glass of amaro—but that is one percent of the time I am reading.

The other 99 percent of the time, I’m reading while riding the bus to work, or enjoying a leisurely lunch break, or laying in a lounge chair waiting for a swimming pool lane to open up. More often than not, I am traveling the world and don’t have space in my luggage for five to 10 hardcover books. I leave in a week to spend a month in Switzerland and I will not be bringing my Neil Gaiman paperback set with me—even though I will definitely read most of them on my phone while I’m away.

For me, what it comes down to is this: My two favorite things to do in the world are read and write, and I find it prohibitive to require a laptop and a physical book to be able to do either of those things. Instead, I have the tiniest purse ever that allows me to carry nothing but some cards and a phone—and because of that phone I can wander the world and always be able to write or read wherever I am.

Still, most people I know say they don’t enjoy reading on their phones, but I’d counter that’s because most people find their phones a very stressful place to be. I can’t even look at my husband’s phone because there is so much going on there—the notifications alone are endless! In my case, however, my Marie Kondo phase was a very thorough one and my phone was not exempt from it. 

Four years ago, or perhaps it was five, I permanently deleted all my social media accounts and removed nearly every app from my phone. When I launched this newsletter I created new ones—Twitter and Discord—but they remain off my phone and only for the scheduled portion of the day in which I am sitting at my computer and can give them my full attention. 

The apps that do remain on my phone have notifications turned off—even text messages. To this day, the only notifications I receive are texts from my husband and my boss (who have special tones set), phone calls, and meeting notifications. And the only thing to “do” on my phone is catch up on texts, read, or write. 

Within this minimalist phone setup, my most treasured and biggest splurge is the Superhuman app—which is a $30/month email app that, at first glance seems insanely frivolous, but is perhaps less so when you consider that my whole thing is writing and reading novels via email, and this app makes the whole email writing and reading experience a very zen thing to do. 

I have the app on my computer and on my phone, for my work email and for my personal email, and it allows me to separate emails from newsletters from comments on newsletters so much so that my email is organized into a rather idyllic state. As a result, I read newsletters exclusively via my Superhuman app—though I also have the Medium app and The New York Times app if I run out of articles to read.

One of my favorite things to read is serial novels—which is very lucky for me since I’m about to serialize my own novel in four weeks. The idea is simple: you subscribe to your favorite novels via Substack and new chapters are delivered to your email each week. I subscribe to several (recommendations below) and they all come to the “fiction newsletters” section of my Superhuman app.

When I tell my friends about my serial book obsession, they think they wouldn’t like getting books via email—but the experience is a lot like subscribing to a show on Hulu. I love opening my app to find “new episodes” waiting for me. And if I discover a new book in the middle, it’s the same process as starting a show that’s currently on season three—I start at the beginning and binge!

Reading books this way feels so much more accessible. It’s like watching a show vs. a movie. You can watch a show anytime because it’s only a 20- or 30-minute commitment. But a movie feels more involved—like you need to set aside a movie night. Serial novels are similar. A five- to 10-minute chapter feels like it can be read anytime, whereas a book requires cozying up by the fire with some big socks and a hardcover novel.

This is a mental thing—most people wind up watching enough 20- or 30-minute shows that they could have watched a movie. The same goes for book chapters. But the point is that when they are divided into smaller portions, the larger thing becomes more digestible. There is a natural stopping place and a natural starting place. It’s up to the reader whether they want to pause or keep going.

For the novels that don’t come with a serial option, I check them out from the Libby app and read them on my Kindle app. For a while, I wondered whether I should be buying my books so as to best support the author. The trouble is that I am a serial book discarder. If I stop liking the book three, five, or even 50 chapters into it, I stop reading and move on to the next one.

My compromise is to read all books for free via the Libby app, and then if I love one of them I purchase a hardback copy for my home (and subscribe to the author’s newsletter so I’m in the know about their next one). As a result of this reading process, my phone is a very peaceful place to read and my house remains uncluttered, yet filled with all the books I love.

Because I love reading this way, I’m very excited to write this way. My gothic novel Obscurity will debut in a couple weeks—the first four chapters will be delivered to your email in September, with the remaining chapters serializing for paid subscribers in October and onward. Then when it’s done, a beautiful hardcover edition (linen-bound and gold embossed!) will be printed for premium subscribers.

I know that reading on the internet is not for everyone—though I think one day it will be. But in the meantime, I’ve fallen in love with the process of it—and I can’t wait to be part of it.

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Next Sunday, I will be sharing the results of my “full send summer”—and it will be the last email I send before you start receiving chapters of my gothic novel!!!!

Thank you so much for reading,

Elle

P.S. Pop Quiz: Which supports an author more: Buying their book on Amazon? Buying their ebook on Kindle? Buying their book on Bookshop? Or checking out their book from the library? See the bottom of this newsletter for the answer.1

Substack fiction I am loving right now

I told you I have become obsessed with reading fiction on my phone. Here are my favorite fiction newsletters to follow:

If you are one of those deep thinkers who love philosophical complexity in your fictional characters (think Jean Valjean or Dorian Gray) but also find life positively absurd, you need to subscribe to the fiction Substack by Shifra Steinberg. Each story is about an older person, usually in a pastoral setting like Tuscany, with plenty of thoughts of legacy intertwined with the humor of it all. This story about a man who finally invents a machine that will transport him to parallel universes (or did he?) really had me. I also LOVED this one about an artist determined to become a famous artist after his death—with one small hiccup in his plan.

One of my favorite serials so far is Anamnesis by Michael Garamoni. The novelette, as he calls it, is surrealism at its most beautiful. Featuring a girl who awakens in the clasped hands of a stone titan, each chapter contains mesmerizing imagery with a sort of utopian fantasy vibe. I am absolutely in love with it. Start with the first chapter here.

I binged the Substack serial North by Northwest Cathay by Fei Kayser last weekend. Another piece of literary surrealism, this one takes place in a Far East world where swordsmen ride in on tigers, meer-maids hide the "Edelstone," and even the princess of Chang’an are in pursuit of it. Start with chapter one here.

Emily Sundberg writes amazing fiction stories, and I drink up each and every issue of her newsletter Feed Me. My favorite was about a yoga class that went wrong—with all the yoga devotees being interviewed Big Little Lies-style about what happened. Though I also really loved her story about a fictional post-pandemic dinner party that didn’t turn out so great.

Countdown to Obscurity: FOUR WEEKS

Obscurity is a piece of lush, atmospheric noir that reads like a wandering through apothecary shelves, each step revealing a vignette more dark and mercurial than the last.

Set amidst the wild palms of 1790s Louisiana, the widow Ste. Vincent appears in the wake of her husband’s death the most wealthy plantation owner in the South. But strange occurrences ensue in her wake and the town becomes obsessed with their superstitions about her. As they attempt to unravel the widow’s secrets, we find she knows something of their secrets as well and the philosophical underpinnings of their pasts all surface to haunt them all.

Obscurity debuts right here in four weeks and I CAN’T WAIT.

1

It’s a trick question. The best way to support an author is to support their Substack or Patreon account. In the absence of those things, purchasing the physical copy from Bookshop or Amazon is the next best thing to do. (Bookshop being my personal preference so that the extra dollars go to an independent book store rather than Jeff Bezos.)