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Books That Have Stayed With Me

By kileyturner
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tagged: fiction
I don't always remember books beyond whether I liked them, loved them, or wasn't taken by them ... but there are some that have resonated more deeply. Here are a few of them.
The World

The World

edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover
tagged : literary
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Why it's on the list ...
I could have read about Stuart, the main protagonist, forever. Stuart accidentally burns down his house, which turns out to be uninsured, and this sets off a roadtrip to meet up with his gravely ill friend, Mel. For me there is a parallel between Gaston's writing and that of Miriam Toews: such humour mixed with the most profound observations about life and what we're all doing here.
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Student of Weather
Why it's on the list ...
This is a study in how to create unforgettable characters. Norma Joyce is one of the great Canadian female protagonists.
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Practical Jean
Excerpt

Chapter 1
 
 
The sun was shining on the whole of Kotemee. Spangles trembled on the lake, shafts of gleam stabbed off the chrome of cars lining Main Street, and in Corkin Park the members of the Star-Lookout Lions, Kotemee’s Pee Wee League team, swung aluminum bats that scalded their tender, eleven-year-old hands. But for Jean Vale Horemarsh, there was no light in her life but the light of her fridge, and it showed her things she did not want to see.
 
A jar of strawberry jam, empty but for the grouting of candied berry at the bottom. A half tub of sour cream, its contents upholstered in a thick aquamarine mould. A pasta sauce and a soup, stalking fermentation in their plastic containers. A crumpled paper bag of wizened, weightless mushrooms. The jellified remains of cucumber and the pockmarked corpses of zucchini and bell pepper in the bottom crisper drawer.
 
In the kitchen of her sun-warmed house on Edgeworth Street, Jean bent to the task of removing each of these abominations. The jam jar was tossed into the recycling bin. The putrid liquids were dumped into the sink. The zucchini, cucumber, and mushrooms became compost. The mould-stiffened sour cream would not budge from its tub, so Jean scooped it out with her hand. Anything suspect – a bit of improperly wrapped steak, a bottle of cloudy dressing – was presumed tainted and excised without mercy from the innards of the fridge. It was three o’clock in the afternoon and Jean still wore the black jacquard dress she’d worn to her mother’s funeral. She had not found the will to take it off, although she had undone several of the buttons. So as she worked, erasing the evidence of time, destroying all signs of decay, her dress hung open slightly, exposing the skin of her back to the refrigerated air.
 
Watching her from a corner of the kitchen, Milt, Jean’s husband, confessed that he should have cleaned out the fridge weeks ago, while Jean was still at her mother’s. But it was a revolting chore, he said, and he kept putting it off; he didn’t know how she did it.
 
“I have a strong stomach,” said Jean.
 
It had been three full months since Jean and Milt had lived together. Marjorie had made it clear that in dying she required Jean’s full attention, which left Milt to mind himself at home. Now, as Jean bowed and stared into the cool, white recess, he came up behind her. He reached over her for a jar of peanut butter and, with only a slight hesitation, touched his fingers to the unbuttoned region of his wife’s back and began to draw them lightly downward.
 
“What a terrible, terrible idea,” she said.
 
“Sorry.” He retreated with the peanut butter and screwed open the lid. “I just thought, we haven’t . . . I think it was snowing the last time. But you’re right, bad timing.” He set the jar and lid on the counter and reached for a bag of bread. “If you’re hungry, I could make you some toast.”
 
Jean straightened at the fridge, summoned tolerance and forgiveness, and gave her husband a sad, sheepish look. She folded her arms around him and set her chin on his shoulder. It was more a lean than a hug. “Poor Milty,” she said. “Poor, poor Milty.”
 
“Milty’s all right.”
 
“You can squeeze my breast if you want.”
 
“What, now?”
 
“Nothing’s going to happen because of it. But you can do it if you like and then disappear into the bathroom or something.”
 
“Well, I don’t think that’s necessary.”
 
“Suit yourself.” She began to separate from him and before she did, he slipped a hand in and latched onto her left one, just holding it for a moment as she waited. “There,” she said finally, and patted his cheek as she left him.
 
“I could take it out right here,” he said from the kitchen.
 
“Don’t.”
 
He headed past her, toward the powder room in the hall. “It’s not like I haven’t.”
 
 
A few minutes later, slumped on the matching green velour living room chairs in a room invaded by the late-afternoon sun, they stared at Winter Leaves, which Milt had set on the coffee table in honour of Jean’s return. A clutch of hydrangea leaves ruined by frost it was meant to be.
 
“That looks nice there,” said Jean. “Thank you.”
 
“Thought you might like it.”
 
She pushed herself out of the soft cushions and leaned forward, squinting. “Is that a crack?”
 
“Just a small one. I glued it.”
 
“There’s another one.”
 
“Only two, though. Don’t keep looking.”
 
With a sigh Jean slumped back in her chair. “It is impossible for anything beautiful to last.”
 
“But you made something beautiful. That’s the point.”
 
Jean stared at Milt. “That is the point, isn’t it?”
 
“Absolutely.”
 
She nodded and let her chin rest on her chest. Never had she been so exhausted, and yet so relieved. The exhaustion and relief seeped through her muscles and bones, a bad and good feeling all at once. This must be the way athletes feel, Jean thought, after they’ve run a thousand miles and won the game. She let the sensation slip through her like one of those drugs that young people take and allowed her mind to drift backward to the funeral at First United Presbyterian. Everyone had been there: Jean’s brothers, handsome so-and-so’s in their dress uniforms; Andrew Jr.’s silent wife, Celeste, and their two grown children, Ross and Marlee, sparing four precious hours away from their busy young lives, thank you so much for your sacrifice; her own good friends, most of them anyway, full of sympathy and support; and a hundred Kotemee folk who’d known Marjorie Horemarsh as the best veterinarian they’d ever brought a sick spaniel to, and not as a mother who’d praised only marks and commendations and money and prizes and never beauty . . . never, ever beauty for its own sake, and not as a patient who moaned in pain seventeen hours a day and smelled like throw-up and needed to be bathed and fed and have her putrid bedsores swabbed and dressed . . .
 
“It was nice to see your friends there,” said Milt. “Louise looked good, I thought. Or –”
 
“Louise looked good, did she?”
 
“Well. So did Dorothy. We should have them all over some day.”
 
Jean stared at the ceiling and sighed. “What’s the point, Milt?”
 
“The house has been pretty quiet. You could play bridge, like you used to.”
 
“No, Milt, I’m not talking about that. I’m saying what’s the point of anything?”
 
“Oh.” Milt tossed his head back against the chair cushion as if to say, Wow, that’s a big one.
 
“Exactly,” said Jean. “You know, you think about a lot of things when you’re taking care of your dying mother.”
 
Milt leaned forward in his chair. “Do you want a drink?” He rose and steadied himself. His tie was askew, and the end of it rested against the mound of his belly, a little like a dying leaf against a pumpkin, Jean considered.
 
“I will have some white wine.” She lifted her voice to talk as Milt made his way to the kitchen. “You think about things, Milt,” she said. “You ask yourself questions.”
 
“What sort of questions? No white, I’m afraid. Red?”
 
“Fine. Big questions, like, what’s the point of anything?”
 
“Right.”
 
“You live, and then you die, Milt. And whatever you had is gone and it doesn’t matter any more. Nothing matters for ever and ever.”
 
“Wow,” said Milt on his way back with the glasses.
 
“So what is the point?”
 
He handed her the wine. “You want me to answer that?”
 
“I don’t think you can answer that. I don’t think anyone can.”
 
“I think the point is to live the best life possible, for as long as you’re able.”
 
Jean, still sunk into the cushions and drugged with exhaustion, sipped her wine and picked at the threads of ideas and formulations and fantasies that had occupied her mind for the last couple of months, while she’d fed her mother unsweetened Pablum, while she’d stared at her thick, unweeded garden, while she’d kneeled alone in the en suite bathroom, cleaning the dried spray of urine from the floor where her mother had slipped.
 
“Beauty is the point, I think.”
 
“There you go. You answered it yourself.”
 
“A moment of beauty, or joy, something exquisite and pure.” She made a face. “I hate this red wine. Did you open it a week ago?”
 
“About that.”
 
“I’m not drinking it.” She set it on the coffee table. “That’s it for bad wine.”
 
“Did you want me to drive and get some white?”
 
“Yes, but not now. Not while we’re talking.” For a while she stared at the coffee table, at the wine yawing in the glass, at Winter Leaves, without really seeing any of them. “More than once, Milt,” she said. “More than once, when I was feeding Mom in bed? And she would lay her head back and fall asleep? I thought about pinching her nose and her lips closed and just holding them like that. Holding them tight.”
 
“Until she died?”
 
“Until she died.”
 
“Wow,” said Milt. His eyes went wide as he shook his head. He looked, Jean thought, as though he were really taking it in.
 
“Because what is the difference?” She shifted to the edge of the cushion. “Whether you die now or die later, it’s the same thing, but one way has less suffering. They do it for animals. My own mother did it. I watched it happen.” Even now her mind filled with bright images, sudden whites and reds. In the very early days of her mother’s career, when she’d had few clients and couldn’t justify the cost of a clinic, Marjorie had used their kitchen table, spread with sheets of white plastic, to perform operations. She had allowed little Jean, who was the oldest of her children, to observe – this was real life, she said, no need to hide it – as she sliced open neighbourhood cats and dogs to pluck out their ovaries or spleens, or to reattach bloody tendons. Many times before she was seven Jean had watched her mother stick a hypodermic into the fur of some aged or diseased animal, watched her press the plunger and wait out the quiet seconds until its eyes closed. That was the simplest act of all, and the kindest, it now seemed to Jean.
 
“It’s called ‘mercy,’ Milt. That’s what it’s called. Don’t let a living thing suffer. I should have done it. I hate myself for not doing it.”
 
“Don’t hate yourself, Jean.”
 
Jean stared at Winter Leaves and lost herself in a scene that had come to her several times before, projected like a movie against the backs of her eyelids while she slumped in the chair in Marjorie’s darkened room, listening to her mother breathe. She saw her hand reaching down – in her imagination it was always morning, daylight filled the room, and everything was a pale pink – and squeezing her mother’s soft nostrils between thumb and forefinger, the way you might seal the mouth of an inflated balloon. With the other hand she held her lips closed, too. Then the image changed, and she was pressing down on her mother’s mouth; yes, that would work better. Squeezing her nostrils, and clamping down hard on her mouth. It wouldn’t have been difficult; her mother was weak, and Jean’s hands were muscled tools from years of working with clay. Marjorie’s eyes would open, she’d be terrified, staring up at her daughter, fighting for her life, not realizing Jean’s way was so much better. But it would only last a moment, that struggle, unlike the pain of her lingering disease. And afterward there’d be no recriminations, no feelings of betrayal, no abiding resentments. There’d be nothing, because that’s what death was.
 
“I should have killed my mother, Milt.” Jean felt the tears puddling in her eyes. “I should have killed her before she got so sick. Then she wouldn’t have had to suffer at all.”
 
He came to her and put his hand on her knee. “You were a good daughter to her, Jean. You took care of her.”
 
“Not like I should have.”
 
She reached into her sleeve for the tissue she’d tucked there and used it to dry her eyes. Though it was painful to believe that she had failed her mother by not taking her life, her conviction in that belief was, in an odd way, comforting. Certainty energized her. She took a deep breath and looked into Milt’s sad, grey eyes. Such a sweet man.
 
“If you wanted to screw me,” she said to Milt, “I’d be game.”
 
Milt looked down at his hand on her knee, and off to the powder room. “I don’t think I can now.”
 
She sighed. “That’s annoying.”
 
“I can try.”
 
“No, never mind.” She patted his hand. “I’d be just as happy with some white wine.”

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Why it's on the list ...
This book is a marvel, and it made me laugh more than almost any book I have read (despite it being about ageing, death, and murder!). Long live Jean Horemarsh.
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Alias Grace

Alias Grace

A Novel
edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback Paperback
More Info
Excerpt

1859.

I am sitting on the purple velvet settee in the Governor's parlour, the Governor's wife's parlour; it has always been the Governor's wife's parlour although it is not always the same wife, as they change them around according to the politics. I have my hands folded in my lap the proper way although I have no gloves. The gloves I would wish to have would be smooth and white, and would be without a wrinkle.

I am often in this parlour, clearing away the tea things and dusting the small tables and the long mirror with the frame of grapes and leaves around its and the pianoforte; and the tall clock that came from Europe, with the orange-gold sun and the silver moon, that go in and out according to the time of day and the week of the month. I like the clock best of anything in the parlour, although it measures time and I have too much of that on my hands already.

But I have never sat down on the settee before, as it is for the guests. Mrs. Alderman Parkinson said a lady must never sit in a chair a gentleman has just vacated, though she would not say why; but Mary Whitney said, Because, you silly goose, it's still warm from his bum; which was a coarse thing to say. So I cannot sit here without thinking of the ladylike bums that have sat on this very settee, all delicate and white, like wobbly softboiled eggs.

The visitors wear afternoon dresses with rows of buttons up their fronts, and stiff wire crinolines beneath. It's a wonder they can sit down at all, and when they walk, nothing touches their legs under the billowing skirts, except their shifts and stockings. They are like swans, drifting along on unseen feet; or else like the jellyfish in the waters of the rocky harbour near our house, when I was little, before I ever made the long sad journey across the ocean. They were bell-shaped and ruffled, gracefully waving and lovely under the sea; but if they washed up on the beach and dried out in the sun there was nothing left of them. And that is what the ladies are like: mostly water.

There were no wire crinolines when I was first brought here. They were horsehair then, as the wire ones were not thought of. I have looked at them hanging in the wardrobes, when I go in to tidy and empty the slops. They are like birdcages; but what is being caged in? Legs, the legs of ladies; legs penned in so they cannot get out and go rubbing up against the gentlemen's trousers. The Governor's wife never says legs, although the newspapers said legs when they were talking about Nancy, with her dead legs sticking out from under the washtub.

It isn't only the jellyfish ladies that come. On Tuesdays we have the Woman Question, and the emancipation of this or that, with reform-minded persons of both sexes; and on Thursdays the Spiritualist Circle, for tea and conversing with the dead, which is a comfort to the Governor's wife because of her departed infant son. But mainly it is the ladies. They sit sipping from the thin cups, and the Governor's wife rings a little china bell. She does not like being the Governor's wife, she would prefer the Governor to be the governor of something other than a prison. The Governor had good enough friends to get him made the Governor, but not for anything else.

So here she is, and she must make the most of her social position and accomplishments, and although an object of fear, like a spider, and of charity as well, I am also one of the accomplishments. I come into the room and curtsy and move about, mouth straight, head bent, and I pick up the cups or set them down, depending; and they stare without appearing to, out from under their bonnets.

The reason they want to see me is that I am a celebrated murderess. Or that is what has been written down. When I first saw it I was surprised because they say Celebrated Singer and Celebrated Poetess and Celebrated Spiritualist and Celebrated Actress, but what is there to celebrate about murder? All the same, Murderess is a strong word to have attached to you. It has a smell to it, that word—musky and oppressive, like dead flowers in a vase. Sometimes at night I whisper it over to myself. Murderess, Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt across the floor.

Murderer is merely brutal. It's like a hammer, or a lump of metal. I would rather be a murderess than a murderer, if those are the only choices.

Sometimes when I am dusting the mirror with the grapes I look at myself in it, although I know it is vanity. In the afternoon light of the parlour my skin is a pale mauve, like a faded bruise, and my teeth are greenish. I think of all the things that have been written about me—that I am an inhuman female demon, that I am an innocent victim of a blackguard forced against my will and in danger of my own life, that I was too ignorant to know how to act and that to hang me would be judicial murder, that I am fond of animals, that I am very handsome with a brilliant complexion, that I have blue eyes, that I have green eyes, that I have auburn and also brown hair, that I am tall and also not above the average height, that I am well and decently dressed, that I robbed a dead woman to appear so, that I am brisk and smart about my work, that I am of a sullen disposition with a quarrelsome temper, that I have the appearance of a person rather above my humble station, that I am a good girl with a pliable nature and no harm is told of me, that I am cunning and devious, that I am soft in the head and little better than an idiot. And I wonder, how can I be all of these different things at once?

It was my own lawyer, Mr. Kenneth MacKenzie, Esq., who told them I was next door to an idiot. I was angry with him over that, but he said it was by far my best chance and I should not appear to be too intelligent. He said he would plead my case to the utmost of his ability, because whatever the truth of the matter I was little more than a child at the time, and he supposed it came down to free will and whether or not one held with it. He was a kind gentleman although I could not make head nor tail of much of what he said, but it must have been good pleading. The newspapers wrote that he performed heroically against overwhelming odds. Though I don't know why they called it pleading, as he was not pleading but trying to make all of the witnesses appear immoral or malicious, or else mistaken.

I wonder if he ever believed a word I said.

When I have gone out of the room with the tray, the ladies look at the Governor's wife's scrapbook. Oh imagine, I feel quite faint, they say, and You let that woman walk around loose in your house, you must have nerves of iron, my own would never stand it. Oh well one must get used to such things in our situation, we are virtually prisoners ourselves you know, although one must feel pity for these poor benighted creatures, and after all she was trained as a servant, and it's as well to keep them employed, she is a wonderful seamstress, quite deft and accomplished, she is a great help in that way especially with the girls' frocks, she has an eye for trimmings, and under happier circumstances she could have made an excellent milliner's assistant.

Although naturally she can be here only during the day, I would not have her in the house at night. You are aware that she has spent time in the Lunatic Asylum in Toronto, seven or eight years ago it was, and although she appears to be perfectly recovered you never know when they may get carried away again, sometimes she talks to herself and sings out loud in a most peculiar manner. One cannot take chances, the keepers conduct her back in the evenings and lock her up properly, otherwise I wouldn't be able to sleep a wink. Oh I don't blame you, there is only so far one can go in Christian charity, a leopard cannot change its spots and no one could say you have not done your duty and shown a proper feeling.

The Governor's wife's scrapbook is kept on the round table with the silk shawl covering it, branches like vines intertwined, with flowers and red fruit and blue birds, it is really one large tree and if you stare at it long enough the vines begin to twist as if a wind is blowing them. It was sent from India by her eldest daughter who is married to a missionary, which is not a thing I would care to do myself. You would be sure to die early, if not from the rioting natives as at Cawnpore with horrid outrages committed on the persons of respectable gentlewomen, and a mercy they were all slaughtered and put out of their misery, for only think of the shame; then from the malaria, which turns you entirely yellow, and you expire in raving fits; in any case before you could turn around, there you would be, buried under a palm tree in a foreign clime. I have seen pictures of them in the book of Eastern engravings the Governor's wife takes out when she wishes to shed a tear.

On the same round table is the stack of Godey's Ladies' Books with the fashions that come up from the States, and also the Keepsake Albums of the two younger daughters. Miss Lydia tells me I am a romantic figure; but then the two of them are so young they hardly know what they are saying. Sometimes they pry and tease; they say, Grace, why don't you ever smile or laugh, we never see you smiling, and I say I suppose Miss I have gotten out of the way of it. My face won't bend in that direction any more. But if I laughed out loud I might not be able to stop; and also it would spoil their romantic notion of me. Romantic people are not supposed to laugh, I know that much from looking at the pictures.

The daughters put all kinds of things into their albums, little scraps of cloth from their dresses, little snippets of ribbon, pictures cut from magazines—the Ruins of Ancient Rome, the Picturesque Monasteries of the French Alps, Old London Bridge, Niagara Falls in summer and in winter, which is a thing I would like to see as all say it is very impressive, and portraits of Lady This and Lord That from England. And their friends write things in their graceful handwriting, To Dearest Lydia from your Eternal Friend, Clara Richards; To Dearest Marianne In Memory of Our Splendid Picnic on the Shores of Bluest Lake Ontario. And also poems:

As round about the sturdy Oak
Entwines the loving Ivy Vine,
My Faith so true, I pledge to You,
'Twill evermore be none but Thine, Your Faithful Laura.

Or else:

Although from you I far must roam,
Do not be broken hearted,
We two who in the Soul are One
Are never truly parted. Your Lucy.

This young lady was shortly afterwards drowned in the Lake when her ship went down in a gale, and nothing was ever found but her box with her initials done in silver nails; it was still locked, so although damp, nothing spilt out, and Miss Lydia was given a scarf out of it as a keepsake.

When I am dead and in my grave
And all my bones are rotten,
When this you see, remember me,
Lest I should be forgotten.

That one is signed, I will always be with you in Spirit, Your loving 'Nancy', Hannah Edmonds, and I must say the first time I saw that, it gave me a fright, although of course it was a different Nancy. Still, the rotten bones. They would be, by now. Her face was all black by the time they found her, there must have been a dreadful smell. It was so hot then, it was July, still she went off surprisingly soon, you'd think she would have kept longer in the dairy, it is usually cool down there. I am certainly glad I was not present, as it would have been very distressing.

I don't know why they are all so eager to be remembered. What good will it do them? There are some things that should be forgotten by everyone, and never spoken of again.

The Governor's wife's scrapbook is quite different. Of course she is a grown woman and not a young girl, so although she is just as fond of remembering, what she wants to remember is not violets or a picnic. No Dearest and Love and Beauty, no Eternal Friends, none of those things for her; what it has instead is all the famous criminals in it—the ones that have been hanged, or else brought here to be penitent, because this is a Penitentiary and you are supposed to repent while in it, and you will do better if you say you have done so, whether you have anything to repent of or not.

The Governor's wife cuts these crimes out of the newspapers and pastes them in; she will even write away for old newspapers with crimes that were done before her time. It is her collection, she is a lady and they are all collecting things these days, and so she must collect something, and she does this instead of pulling up ferns or pressing flowers, and in any case she likes to horrify her acquaintances.

So I have read what they put in about me. She showed the scrapbook to me herself, I suppose she wanted to see what I would do; but I've learnt how to keep my face still, I made my eyes wide and flat, like an owl's in torchlight, and I said I had repented in bitter tears, and was now a changed person, and would she wish me to remove the tea things now; but I've looked in there since, many times, when I've been in the parlour by myself.

A lot of it is lies. They said in the newspaper that I was illiterate, but I could read some even then. I was taught early by my mother, before she got too tired for it, and I did my sampler with leftover thread, A is for Apple, B is for Bee; and also Mary Whitney used to read with me, at Mrs. Alderman Parkinson's, when we were doing the mending; and I've learnt a lot more since being here, as they teach you on purpose. They want you to be able to read the Bible, and also tracts, as religion and thrashing are the only remedies for a depraved nature and our immortal souls must be considered. It is shocking how many crimes the Bible contains. The Governor's wife should cut them all out and paste them into her scrapbook.

They did say some true things. They said I had a good character; and that was so, because nobody had ever taken advantage of me, although they tried. But they called James McDermott my paramour. They wrote it down, right in the newspaper. I think it is disgusting to write such things down.

That is what really interests them—the gentlemen and the ladies both. They don't care if I killed anyone, I could have cut dozens of throats, it's only what they admire in a soldier, they'd scarcely blink. No: was I really a paramour, is their chief concern, and they don't even know themselves whether they want the answer to be no or yes.

I'm not looking at the scrapbook now, because they may come in at any moment. I sit with my rough hands folded, eyes down, staring at the flowers in the Turkey carpet. Or they are supposed to be flowers. They have petals the shape of the diamonds on a playing card; like the cards spread out on the table at Mr. Kinnear's, after the gentlemen had been playing the night before. Hard and angular. But red, a deep thick red. Thick strangled tongues.

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Why it's on the list ...
It's a masterpiece. Employing multiple POVs to get at the "truth"—including alleged murderer Grace's, the psychiatrist who interviews her in an effort to piece together her memory of the murder, letters, newspaper pieces, confessions, and more—Alias Grace is a complex mystery, and a page-turner.
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All My Puny Sorrows
Why it's on the list ...
There are points in my reading of this at which I realized I was holding my breath, often for different reasons, including being awed by the mastery of Toews' writing and then of course crying. There is a lot of crying involved in reading this book.
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How to Get Along With Women
Why it's on the list ...
This is a stunning debut collection of short stories; many of the stories examine our complicated feelings about power and sex. De Mariaffi's voice is tough and unsentimental and her prose is muscular.
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Hope Makes Love

Hope Makes Love

edition:Hardcover
also available: eBook
tagged : literary
More Info
Why it's on the list ...
I remain gobsmacked this wasn't on every award shortlist of 2015. It is stunning. You should read it.
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The Silent Wife
Why it's on the list ...
It's better, and more nuanced, than Gone Girl. A dry and thrilling she said/he said literary thriller.
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