THE READING ROOM: Michaela Anne on Reading and Empathy
Photo by Emilia Pare
Michaela Anne always has a book near, whether she’s at home or out on tour. A lifelong reader, she says that her reading informs her songwriting and that her new album grew out of at least two books — one that she’s read recently and another that she discovered via her grandfather’s memoir. Michaela Anne shares her thoughts about books and reading in this week’s column.
What books are on your nightstand now?
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. It’s an inspiring and fascinating book. Reading the book has me questioning everything, which I already do anyway. What is the meaning of our lives? Our world? Is this all made up? I am asking all these existential questions while I am reading it. I have to read it in small doses. Another book is Ask and It Is Given: Learning to Manifest Your Desires, by Esther Hicks. It’s all about the power of our thoughts and the power we have to control our lives. Also, There There, by Tommy Orange, which is a novel about indigenous people in the San Francisco Bay area. He presents this fascinating web of all these different characters that are all related. I also finished recently Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing; I loved that book. I felt like I was transported to another world. I do think context is everything, and I read the novel at a time when I was thinking about many of these subjects. The novel illustrates the dynamics of female friendship; so much of the novel is about a woman growing and developing lacking the support of a female community. Owens is also a biologist, and this is her first novel. Her descriptions of the ocean and marsh in North Carolina are so detailed and beautiful that I can see them as I read the book.
What books did you hide from your parents?
None! My parents were always reading, and they encouraged us to read. My parents were interesting people, and they encouraged exploration and questioning. My father was a nuclear submarine captain, and he was always reading books about science, health, and gut science. I knew way more than any other children about how my digestive system worked. (Laughs) My mom read a lot of novels and what is today called “chick lit.” I hate that term because it’s come to describe easy novels and nice stories, but my mom was reading novels that featured strong women and great stories.
What kind of reader were you as a child?
I loved books as a child. We moved all the time, and my brother and I were often alone. So, I read all the time. As a little girl, I read all the Ramona Quimby books. At a very young age, I was drawn to reading about the injustices of the world, especially after I read The Diary of Anne Frank. I was about 7 years old when I started reading about and becoming concerned about the Holocaust, civil rights, and slavery. My grandparents were social activists, and I was just very aware of suffering. I feel like I have been mainly focused on empathy. Empathy is the most important part for me. I’m drawn to try to see people for who they are in spite of the way we try to put people into boxes. My songwriting has been a means of expressing empathy.
How do you read? Print or electronic? When do you like to read?
I like print books. It feels disconnected when I can’t feel the book in my hands, or when I can’t mark the page where I stop. On tour, I like to listen to books on tape — and by “tape,” I mean on my phone (laughs) — and I’ve been listening to Jeff Tweedy’s memoir and Willie Nelson’s memoir. I like to read at night in bed, and I also like to read on my couch, and on long flights. Sometimes I’ll even go in the airport bookstore and buy a book to read on the flight, even though I have already brought two books to read in my bag.
What’s the last book that made you laugh?
Charles Bukowski’s Women made me laugh out loud, even though some parts are grotesque. Also, Tommy Orange’s There There made me laugh, but it also conjured anger because it deals with some highly unjust episodes in our history.
Do you finish books?
I mostly finish books, but sometimes I don’t. I have been picking up and putting down one book for a couple of years now, and I can’t figure why I keep getting stuck and not being able to move on: Love in the Time of Cholera. I know it’s supposed to be great, but for some reason I am not seeing that yet.
How do you find the next book to read? Reviews? Recommendations?
Mostly friends’ recommendations. I do follow a lot of book clubs. I am not super up on current books that are coming out, but I do look every now and then at the New York Times bestseller list.
What are five books you will never part with?
A book of poetry by James Kavanaugh, There Are Men Too Gentle to Live Among Wolves. The title poem from this book influenced my song “Desert Dove.” Also, my aunt found this title poem in my grandfather’s handwriting; he had copied it out. It was read at my wedding. My grandfather wrote a memoir, and he mentions meeting James Kavanaugh in this memoir. Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer; Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet; Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar; Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking; Ann Richards’ autobiography.
Have you ever bought a book for its cover?
When I was 14 or 15, I went to Shakespeare and Company in Paris, and I bought Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette. I couldn’t resist the black and white cover and this woman staring out at me.
What’s the best book you ever got as a present?
I got A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for Christmas one year; it’s always been one of my favorite books.
You’re having a dinner party. What three authors, living or dead, do you invite?
Barbara Kingsolver, Joan Didion, Sylvia Plath.
How does your reading inform your songwriting?
It influences it a lot. Anything I take in informs my writing. I am very drawn to feminist authors. I don’t like the idea that women’s stories are only for women. My reading directly influenced my new album. I bought a book called Soiled Doves: Prostitution in the Early West, by Anne Seagraves, in Telluride. I didn’t read it right away, but when I started reading it, the book inspired me to write the songs on this new album, Desert Dove.